Like many Canadians, Alexander Graham Bell moved to the United States to get his big break, but always longed to return to the beauty and peace of Canada. Both Alexander’s mom and wife had serious hearing impairments, a challenge that directly aided Alexander in his development of the first workable telephone. It was while Alexander served as a teacher of the hearing-impaired that he began to really understand the fundamental principles of communication and speech.
One of Bell’s most famous pupils was Helen Keller who came to him as a child unable to see, hear or speak. Helen Keller later said of Bell that he dedicated his life to the penetration of that ‘inhuman silence that separates and estranges.’ Dedicating her autobiography to Bell, she said: ‘You have always shown a father’s joy in my success and a father’s tenderness when things have not gone right.’
Like many millions of Canadians, Alexander Graham Bell was not born in Canada. Rather his family fled to Canada after the tuberculosis deaths of their two other sons in Edinburgh, Scotland. They naively believed that the pure air of Canada would save the life of Alexander who was also afflicted with tuberculosis. While Alexander did live until age 75, he was never that well and often suffered from severe headaches. But Alexander never let his problems hold him back from being creative.
Alexander had a pioneering mind and great vision. He defined an inventor as someone “who looks around upon the world and is not contented with things as they are. He wants to improve whatever he sees; he wants to benefit the world; he is haunted by an idea.” “We should not keep going forever”, said Alexander, “on the public road, going only where others have gone. We should leave the beaten track occasionally and enter the woods. Every time you do that, you will be certain to find something that you have never seen before.”
While Alexander became famous from his invention of the first workable telephone, his inventive genius reached much farther. He was the first in North America to show how x-rays could be used to treat cancers inside the body. He invented a probe that discovered where bullets were lodged inside people.
Through creative experimenting with kites, he built the first successful airplane in the British Empire. His Canadian airplane flew almost a kilometre at 64 kilometres per hour on February 23rd, 1909 at Beinn Bhreagh, Cape Breton. Alexander’s hydrofoil built in 1915 reached speeds of 70 mph (112 kph).
After the death of his son from weak lungs, Alexander invented the first respirator. To assist shipwrecked sailors, he created a machine that turned the moisture in air into drinking water. His endless inventions also included the first practical phonograph, the first flat-disk record, an iceberg-locating device, a water purifier that removed salt from seawater, an air conditioner, and an audiometer to test people’s hearing.
But it was Bell’s invention of the telephone that caused the greatest controversy. Some wrote Bell off as a mad scientist who was challenging the laws of nature. Others tried to argue that telephones were somehow of the devil and against the bible. There were widespread fears that telephones would spread disease and even insanity over the telephone wires. During an 18-year period, Bell faced and won over 600 lawsuits challenging his telephone patent.
The first business use of the telephone began in 1877. By 1888, there were over 150,000 users in North America. The cost of having a phone installed in 1888 was $10, the equivalent of a whole year’s wage for a servant. As of 2010, there are literally hundred of millions who might find it hard to imagine life without a phone.
When Bell’s body was buried in 1922 on top of a Cape Breton Island mountain, every telephone in North America observed a minute’s silence. Thomas Edison, a rival and friend, said at that time: ‘My late friend Alexander Graham Bell, whose world-famed invention annihilated time and space, and brought the human family in closer touch.’
The word ‘telephone’ means ‘sound over a long distance’. Bell brought good news to many through a physical device. May God use each of us as pioneers to bring the sound of good news throughout the world.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada
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