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Reluctant Genius: The Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of Alexander Graham Bell

Reviewed: July 17, 2008
By: Charlotte Gray
Publisher: Harper Collins
467 pages, $22.95

I wonder what Alexander Graham Bell would have thought of the recent takeover of Bell Canada by the Ontario Teachers’ Federation Pension Fund. Bell was passionate about education, especially education of the deaf, so perhaps he would have been pleased.

I also wonder what he would have thought of cell phones, but perhaps he would not have cared about them at all. Bell got royally sick of anything having to do with the telephone after the years of litigation he went through to prevent other people from stealing his thunder. He was happy to live well off the income, but more than happy to have moved on to other things.

The other things included patents that assisted Edison (his rival) in the production of the early phonograph, and tetrahedral structures that eventually made Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes possible, as well as structures like the roof of the Roger’s Centre stadium in Toronto. His early research led to the exploitation of fibre optic data transmission capabilities once the proper materials could be constructed to make use of his theories. Hydrofoil water craft around the world owe much to his experiments on the Bras d’Or Lakes of Cape Breton.

But for much of his life he was “Mr. Telephone” to the world and it appears that he became as tired of that as Arthur Conan Doyle became of Sherlock Holmes.

The telephone wasn’t developed in a vacuum. Lots of other people were working in the area. It had been seen as possible since the first telegraph lines were strung. Gray’s book makes it clear that there were other minds better versed in science and other hands more apt to the construction of the device, but none of these people understood speech and sound the way that Alec Bell did.

The study of speech and the teaching of the deaf to use something called “visible speech” was the overriding passion of Bells father, Melville, and he passed much of his knowledge of how the human voice makes sound to his sons.

Alec was the last of those sons to survive, and it was the death of the others from tuberculosis that drove the family from Scotland to England and then to Canada. A couple of years later Alec, a young man in search of prospects for his teaching career, moved to Boston, and he would enjoy a trans-boundary existence for the rest of his life, flitting back to southern Ontario regularly as long as his parents still lived there. When he became rich and famous his American home was in Washington, but his spiritual home came to be the little town of Baddeck, Cape Breton, where he surrounded himself with a group of young scientists and dabbled in everything from aeroplanes to breeding experiments with sheep.

Something I had never known before was the fact that Bell was very much involved with Helen Keller, and it was he who directed the Keller family to Boston’s Perkins Institution, where they found the tutor, Annie Sullivan, who helped Helen make her great breakthrough in communicating with the world.

One thing that this book makes abundantly clear is that Bell’s marriage to Mabel Hubbard was the best thing that could have happened to him. Mabel organized the life of an intolerably disorganized dreamer, and it was her father who saw the commercial benefit to be gained from the telephone. The Bell fortune would never have been amassed, and Alec would never have been free to putter as he did, without the influence of his in-laws.

On the other hand, if it hadn’t been for the years of struggle over patents and the endless attacks on his telephone work, perhaps Bell would have taken more of his ideas into commercial production, Much of the time he was content to think up an idea and develop a prototype, but once he’d gotten that far, he moved on to something else.

Charlotte Gray has given us a sympathetic but honest portrait of a great man and of his support system. This is not one of those biographies that looks to dig up dirt on its subject, but it does not ignore the man’s flaws either. Instead it puts all things in a context which helps them make sense. It is both a fine bit of history and a fine bit of story telling.

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