Alexander Graham Bell is best known as a brilliant inventor of the telephone. The “Talking Telegraph” was a game changer for the mid-19th century and indelibly changed the way people communicate. But Bell had a darker side, masked by the glow of his genius. In The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power and Alexander Graham Bell’s efforts to end deafness, Katie Booth vigorously reworks the historical record.
Booth’s research trip is also personal. The book opens when her grandmother dies, isolated and ignored by the hospital staff because she is deaf. Booth was outraged by the doctors ‘ indifference to his grandmother’s needs and condemned Bell of having developed such discriminatory behaviour towards the deaf.
Bell’s wife and mother were deaf, but not congenital. They inspired what Booth calls his ” search for the end of deafness,” an honest intention that would go wrong. Determined to bring deaf people into the world of speech and hearing, Bell followed his father’s techniques as an Elocutionist.
He met his future wife Mabel when she was a child, and like her teacher, he insisted that she learn to speak. The schools Bell started and the teachers he trained were opposed to the use of sign language and instead supported “Oralism,” the use of language alone, even for children who were born deaf and had never heard a word before. Students who were caught with sign language were slapped.
Bolstered by the power of his fame as an inventor, Bell was heralded as a Champion of people who were deaf. But those who believed in the power of sign language to communicate and bring the deaf community together objected to its methods. Bell denied the existence of a deaf culture and saw deafness as a defect that had to be erased by speech or after by Eugenics.
Booth reveals a rich history of ups and downs in The invention of miracles, including the dubious patent procedure that secured Bell’s name in history, the development and strengthening of the deaf community, and Bell’s endearing marriage that survived his own mistaken intentions.