Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell, Alexander and Mabel Bell Legacy Foundation

Alexander Graham Bell is best known as the inventor of the telephone -- the first to transmit the human voice by means of an electric current -- but there was much more to this extraordinary man than his breakthrough in communications technology.

Born on March 3, 1847, in Edinburgh, Scotland, “Alec” Bell (as he was known to his family) was fascinated by sound from a young age, descending from two generations of what today would be called speech pathologists. His grandfather Alexander Bell was an actor, photography enthusiast and elocution professor who may have been the model for Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion by playwright George Bernard Shaw. Alexander Melville Bell, Alec’s father, was an expert on the mechanics of speech who was a voice coach for those with speaking disabilities. Alec’s mother was an accomplished painter as well as pianist, despite her profound deafness; her son inherited his love of music from her, and he could play anything he heard by ear and distinguish variations of pitch and tone.

The middle of the Bells’ three sons, young Alexander invented a “speaking machine” when he was still in his teens. The machine’s imitation of a wailing baby crying “Mama” was so life-like that the Bells’ Edinburgh neighbor complained. The “speaking machine” was only one of several creations: while still a youth, on a challenge from a mill operator, Alexander developed a machine that removed the husks from grain. He was encouraged by his father to study and experiment with anything electrical, including telegraph technology. These illustrated the kind of learning he relished: hands-on discovery.


Mabel Gardiner Hubbard Bell

Mabel Gardiner Hubbard Bell, Wife of Alexander Graham Bell, Alexander and Mabel Bell Legacy Foundation

Alexander Graham Bell’s wife, Mabel Gardiner Hubbard Bell, was crucial to his success. Thanks to her wisdom and companionship, this gifted but eccentric man was able to concentrate on his inventions while Mabel took care of the practical details of their life together and created a stable and happy family home for their two daughters.

Born in Massachusetts, on November 25, 1867, Mabel Hubbard was the second of four daughters in a well-to-do Bostonian family. She lost her hearing after a bout of scarlet fever when she was five years old, but thanks to her parents’ determination and her own spirit, she learned to lip read in several languages and remained an active participant in the speaking world. She attended schools in the United States and Europe before becoming a private pupil of Alexander Graham Bell’s in Boston, when she was 15. Mabel also inspired her father to found the first oral school for the deaf in the United States, the Clarke School for the Deaf, now the Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech.

Mabel Hubbard Bell’s major contribution to her husband’s endeavors was to form and manage an aviation company, the Aerial Experiment Association, based in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, where the Bells had a summer home. It was on the Bras D’Or Lake, near this small village, that in 1907 Mr. and Mrs. Bell and his assistants launched the Silver Dart, a sturdy little biplane that made the first manned flight in the British Empire.

However, Mrs. Bell is remembered in this remote Cape Breton village as far more than her husband’s helpmate. Mabel Hubbard Bell was a tireless advocate, encouraging women to educate themselves and effect changes in various areas of society, including health, home industries, women’s suffrage, children’s labor and children’s education. Mabel’s lasting contributions include the founding of Canada’s first and longest continuing women’s club, the first chapter of the Canadian Home and School Parent-Teacher Federation, the first Canadian Montessori School and the Baddeck Public Library. She died only five months after her husband, on January 3, 1923, and like him is buried on a hill overlooking the Bras D’Or Lake.