Alexander Graham Bell Makes a Human Skull Appear to Scream
Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. Alexander was the middle son of Alexander Melville Bell and Eliza Grace Symonds. His mother was a portrait painter and accomplished musician. She was hard of hearing, but with the help of an ear tube, which was a cone-shaped tube with the smaller end held in her ear, she could hear some sounds. Alexander’s father was a well known teacher and author of textbooks on correct speech, as well as the inventor of “visible speech” (a code of symbols that indicated the position and action of the throat, tongue and lips in uttering various sounds), which helped hearing-impaired people speak.
Alexander, as well as others in his family, was very interested in learning about the human ability to hear and speak. He and his brothers made a model of the human skull that when attached to a bellows (a device whose sides are squeezed to pump out air) could scream “Ma Ma”.
Alexander also taught his dog to growl steadily while he manipulated the dog’s mouth and throat. As he did this, the dog seemed to say, ” Ow ah oo, ga?ma?ma”, meaning, “How are you grandmother?”
By 1870, both of Alexander’s brothers had died of tuberculous (a lung disease), so his parents moved to Brantford Ontario, Cananda to a healthier climate. In 1871, Alexander moved to Boston to pursue his goal to help the deaf by opening a school for teacher’s of the deaf. This school later became part of the Boston University where he became a professor of vocal physiology (study of how the body produces sound) and elocution (art of speaking clearly). Being interested in how the human body makes and receives sounds, he experimented with a real human ear he got from the medical school at Boston University. He attached a stalk of hay to the bones of the middle ear and then observed the hay when sound was directed into the ear. The sound caused the hay to move. This experiment led to his inventing a device called a phonautograph. When a person spoke into the phonautograph, a stretched skin vibrated causing a rod to move which traced out a pattern on a piece of smoked glass. Bell’s students could “see” their voice. Today sounds can be seen on different electronic instruments, such as the oscilloscope.
Mr. Watson come here, I want to see you!
Bell had been experimenting with sound most of his life and while the telephone is what he is most known for, it was a telegraph that could carry more than one message at the same time that he was trying to invent. Working and thinking of this idea and remembering how singing into a piano caused the strings to vibrate gave him an idea on how to transmit and receive speech over electric wires. He had the idea but needed someone with more electrical knowledge so in 1875 he hired Thomas Watson who worked in an electrical shop. On March 10, 1876, Bell accidentally spilled acid on his clothes and shouted, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” Watson heard this now famous sentence in another room through the speaker of what is now called a telephone. Telephone is from the Greek word tele for “far off” and phone for “sound.” By July 1876, the Bell Telephone Company was in business. Within ten years there were over 150,000 telephones in the United States.
The year following his invention of the telephone, Bell married Mabel Hubbard, a deaf student in his class whom he had taught to speak. With income from his telephone invention, Bell was able to spend his life on other inventions and in working for the deaf.
He met six-year-old Helen Keller in 1887. Helen was both deaf and blind. Bell directed Helen’s parents to a school where they met Annie Sullivan, the teacher who taught Helen how to communicate with other people. Helen and Bell remained friends throughout his life and worked together to help people with disabilities. In order to communicate with Helen, Bell learned sign language (a language in which hand gestures are used to stand for different words of speech and also to represent the letters of the alphabet) and Braille (a system of writing for blind people, using raised dots for letters that one “reads” by feeling these with the fingertips). Helen could “hear” by feeling a person’s lips, as well as by feeling someone’s hand signals with her hands. She could “speak” by signing, but by the age of 10 she had also learned to speak out loud.