10 Controversial Facts People Don't Know About Alexander Graham Bell
American schoolchildren know Alexander Graham Bell as the inventor of the telephone. By the time they've reached adulthood, they might've also learned that Bell was a teacher of the deaf and a very close friend of Helen Keller. That’s about the extent of most people’s education on the famous American inventor, which is enough to paint him as a mostly silent and wholly admirable American hero. But, was Bell really an all-around good guy?
In reality, the man lived a long, controversial life that casts more than a little doubt on his legitimacy. Bell would say he was an “idea man,” a term that functionally translates to “person who dreams up impossible ideas, then hires people who can make it happen before taking credit for their innovation because he signed the employment paperwork.”
History has produced several dark Alexander Graham Bell stories that make him look less like the American titan briefly featured in history books and more like a pompous thief and genocidal theorist. If the thought of besmirching Bell's reputation makes you shake your first at the liberal agenda, or, if you're just curious about more balanced pictures of historical figures, you best keep on reading.
There’s Some Debate Over His Having Invented The TelephonePhoto: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Let’s start with Bell’s most famous invention, the telephone, the patent for which the inventor spent most of his life defending. In his day, he was actually sued 550 times by fellow inventors who claimed he - at least in part - stole their technology. Of course, the most compelling case comes from rival Elisha Gray.
In 2007, a book titled The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell's Secret presented proof that Bell’s patent design for the telephone changed drastically after a 12-day trip to Washington in which Bell hoped to resolve some patent questions about his work. Before the trip, Bell was headed down the wrong path. After the trip, he came up with the right idea, a design “hastily written in the margin of his patent.”
What’s more, Bell was famously reluctant to test out his phone in front of Gray.
But how did Bell get away with it, you ask? Because AG Bell was focused on transmitting voices with his contraption. Gray wanted to be able to send multiple telegraph messages at once. Supposedly, Bell saw the aural value in Gray’s design and lifted it for his voice transmitter.
He Tried To Outlaw The Use Of Sign LanguagePhoto: Popular Science Monthly / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Bell's parents influenced his devotion to the education of deaf people. His mother, Eliza Grace, was almost completely deaf, though that didn’t stop her from becoming an accomplished concert pianist. Bell’s father, Alexander Melville Bell, was known as a phonetician who studied sound and written speech. Both Bell’s father and grandfather were accomplished teachers of voice and elocution.
So, when Bell was old enough, he set out to help the deaf. His passion was so notable that Helen Keller, whom he met as a child, would later write that she “loved him at once.” It was Bell who set Keller up with her most famous companion, Annie Sullivan.
So, that’s all well and good; his heart was in the right place and all. Unfortunately, Bell’s method of preparing the deaf for the world at large was incredibly misguided. He wanted to outlaw the use of sign language, instead requiring deaf children to learn to read lips and speak. Bell’s belief was that "oralism," as it was known, was the only way for a deaf person to fully integrate into proper society.
He Tried To Close Schools For The DeafPhoto: Gilbert H. Grosvenor - Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
One of Mr. Bell’s sticking points was the increasing number of marriages among deaf people. So, Bell set to work eliminating what he called, “the formation of a deaf variety of the human race.” Yep, that's right: Bell was your garden variety eugenicist.
It seemed Bell’s goal was to force deaf people to mingle with the common (read "hearing") man. He began to actively campaign against deaf isolation, proposing that residential schools dedicated to the instruction of the deaf be shut down (so they’d stop meeting each other so easily), that deaf teachers should stop being hired (in order to force deaf students out of their shell), and that sign language be actively discouraged in the instruction of the deaf.
Though his family history might have impacted his method and fueled his fervor, his logic about how to best "help" stemmed from a much darker place.
He Was President Of The Eugenics Fan ClubPhoto: Moffett Studio - Library and Archives Canada / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
First off, a quick explanation of eugenics for those who like to steer clear of philosophies that favor social engineering. Eugenics is the study of good breeding; it was developed around 1883 in the hope of guiding the human race through selective breeding of only the best and brightest (and tossing everyone else in the trash can). One famous example of people who came to rather enjoy eugenics: the Nazis.
Okay, so back to Bell. No, he wasn’t a fascist - he died in 1922, a full decade before Hitler was even a headline in the papers. That being said, he was part of something called the American Breeder’s Association, which was founded in 1903. In 1914, the organization made an arguably tactful name change to the American Genetics Association. Bell was no passive member, either. He contributed to an article titled “How to Improve the Race.” In 1921, he was the honorary president for the 2nd International Eugenics Congress.
His Inventions Didn't Work In Moments Of CrisisPhoto: Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
On the morning of July 2, 1881, President James Garfield was cut down by an assassin’s bullet. The Republican president - who had been inaugurated only a few months earlier - was headed out on a vacation with his two sons. He entered the Baltimore and Potomac train station that morning in high spirits. Then, Charles Guiteau, a man with a long reputation for insanity and who had previously been turned down for a consulship to Paris by Garfield himself, fired two shots at the President.
The first grazed Garfield’s arm. The second lodged deep in his torso. Once doctors were done sticking their unwashed hands into his festering wounds in unsuccessful attempts to dig the bullet out, they admitted defeat.
That’s about the time Bell rolled in with his “induction balance” device, a metal detector with a hit-and-miss reputation. Rushing to the presidential mansion, Bell set up his device. The results it produced were “uncertain and indefinite.” He was unable to find the second bullet on two separate occasions.
Bell later claimed that his machine was confused because the President’s mattress had steel springs. So he whipped up another iteration of the device to inspect the President. Unfortunately, Garfield died of an infection before Bell got the chance.
He Tried To Beat the Wright Brothers At Flight And Failed, Even Though He Stole Some Of Their IdeasPhoto: Griffith Brewer - Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
In 1907, four years after the Wright Brothers’ triumph at Kitty Hawk, Alexander Graham Bell organized the Aerial Experimental Association, because Bell wasn’t convinced of the Wright Brothers’ skill. Bell favored a plane that used the tetrahedral cell structure, which the inventor believed would produce a more stable and practical solution.
Between 1907 and 1914, the AEA introduced four new designs that were supposedly more stable than the Wright Brothers’ contribution. They were dubbed the Red Wing, White Wing, June Bug and Silver Dart. None were successful, and at least one, the June Bug, contained designs covered in the Wright Brothers’ patent, a fact supported by the US Circuit Court of Appeals in 1914.
In an effort to undermine the Court ruling, Bell and his collaborator, Glenn Curtiss, resurrected the failed design of one Dr. Samuel P. Langley, whose Aerodrome had crashed into the Potomac twice. The last attempt came in 1903, a mere nine days before the Wright Brothers’ successful flight.
Using $2,000 of Smithsonian funds, the AEA reconstructed Langley’s Aerodrome in an attempt to prove it could have flown before the Wright Brothers’ plane. The reconstructed Aerodrome hopped off the ground briefly before being shuttered completely in the wake of the Wright Brothers’ popular design.