In The Invention of Miracles, Katie Booth details Alexander Graham Bell's attitudes to deafness

Alexander Graham Bell, whose name was once synonymous with the telephone. Picture: Getty Images
Alexander Graham Bell, whose name was once synonymous with the telephone. Picture: Getty Images
  • The Invention of Miracles: Language, power, and Alexander Graham Bell's quest to end deafness, by Katie Booth. Scribe, $35.

Alexander Graham Bell is remembered today as the man who invented the telephone, a fact that was so widely known that his name was synonymous with it for many years. This book tells in detail the steps and many missteps that led to that invention.

Bell's father was a leading authority on elocution and speech correction and developed a method for teaching the deaf to speak. Young Alec's first job was as a teacher of the deaf, first in his native Scotland, and later in America.

At that time in America, Western Union monopolised telegraphy, based on one message at a time on a telegraph line. Bell was convinced that multiple messages could be sent and ultimately that sound could replace the dots and dashes of the Morse system. This book catalogues in great detail the many attempts he made to develop the primitive device that on a day in March, 1874, carried the message, "Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you", when he was in one room and his message was received by his co-worker Thomas Watson in a distant room.

At the time, other inventors were working on the problem of sending sound over wires. This book describes in careful detail the many court cases that were necessary before Bell's priority could be established. The acts of dubious legality and sharp practice by lawyers on his behalf as well as breaches of protocol on the part of the patent office ultimately went to the Supreme Court, ending, the author writes, "without judicial decision, with the 1896 death of the last government attorney left on the case."

The other major topic covered in the book is the treatment, until relatively recent years, of people who are deaf. In Bell's day, it was agreed that sign language made the user appear less than human, on the level of the primates. Even Darwin had a view: "Signs were used by the deaf and dumb, and by savages," he wrote. The user of sign language belonged in the same category as the freaks of the Barnum circus.

Bell and his father had developed a method of teaching deaf students to speak, but it was a slow and tedious process and successful in only a small number of students. Meanwhile, the normal progress of those children in other school subjects was held back. Advocates of the method, the oralists, sought to devalue sign language and those who used it. In 1878, at a time when Bell was returning from his telephone experiments to work with the deaf, oralists had "begun to argue for the absolute abolishment of sign language in the classroom. Bell didn't practice this himself, but he didn't stand against it, either."

The dispute between oralists and manualists started as polite disagreement between Bell and other deaf teachers, each side admitting the good intentions of the other, but by the mid 1890s, the dispute had settled into strongly-held views. Most schools combined oralism and sign; about 15 per cent were pure oralist, while there was only a small handful of manualist schools.

At a conference in Flint, Michigan, the leading advocate of sign language education, Dr Gallaudet, warned of a threat to deaf education, describing Bell as a man with "peculiar views" and "a partisan spirit". Bell was in the room and to his annoyance, so were 100 deaf people whose votes would be likely to oppose oralism. That this would mean deaf people deciding what was best for themselves did not seem to bother him. His wife wrote to him, warning that while he was caring and gentle to deaf students, "their interest to you lies in their being deaf, not to their humanity".

Bell spent many years investigating heredity and its place in the study of deafness. He wrote and lectured on what he saw as the problem of deaf people marrying each other, seeing this as a way in which deafness would spread in society. Although he never advocated for a law forbidding marriage between deaf people, it was believed - and commonly stated in the press of the day - that he was in favour of such a law.

The author claims that though Bell had an unenthusiastic and short-lived association with eugenics, his work on behalf of oralism laid the germ of the idea that the deaf should be included among those whose reproductive rights should be taken from them. Meanwhile, his lectures continued to promote warnings of a deaf race.

This is a comprehensive biography of a great man. The author admires his work but does not hold back from strong criticism of his ideas on the deaf. There is annoying tendency to introduce names like Helen and Anne on the assumption that the reader understands these are Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan. And surprisingly, there is only a passing reference to implants and even less information on the future lives of Bell's two daughters.

This story Mixed legacy on sight and sound first appeared on The Canberra Times.