FAQ: Myths and Rumors about Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell is considered to be one of the most important scientists and inventors the world has ever known. Upon his death in 1922, The New York Times wrote that “the little instrument he patented less than fifty years ago, scorned then as a joke, was when he died the basis for 13,000,000 telephones used in every civilized country in the world.” The patent for the telephone he invented has been called “the most valuable patent ever issued” by the U.S. Patent Office.

Long before he gained celebrity as an inventor, Bell was a noted elocutionist and teacher of the deaf. As the son of a deaf mother and the husband of a deaf wife, Bell’s lifelong dedication to the hard of hearing formed the basis for much of his original research into the telephone.

Later in life, Bell took an interest in a number of fields, including the emerging science of heredity and genetics, which was a popular area of study at the time. He also was a proponent of human rights, social justice and universal suffrage.

Much has been speculated and written about Bell’s interest in heredity and its connection to his early work with the deaf. Drawing from Bell’s own writings and comprehensive academic research using primary sources, the FAQ that follows is an attempt to address a growing body of rumors, disinformation and false narratives that have unfairly tainted the inventor’s life and work.

Part of the mission of the Alexander and Mabel Bell Legacy Foundation is to promote and defend the historical accuracy of the inventor’s work while ensuring the true historical record of his life and times.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Did Bell Help the Deaf and Hard of Hearing?

How Did Bell Help the Deaf and Hard of Hearing?

Although he is best known as the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell actually devoted much more of this life to helping people who were deaf or hard of hearing, especially children. Bell’s mother Eliza lost most of her hearing in the 1860s when Alec was a boy. He learned to speak close to her forehead so she could…

What Was Bell’s Relationship to Helen Keller?

What Was Bell’s Relationship to Helen Keller?

In 1887, a newspaper editor in Alabama, Arthur Keller, was told he should put his deaf and blind daughter Helen, a “wild little creature” of six, into an asylum, as so often happened with deaf children in that era. Instead, Keller took his daughter to Washington to seek Bell’s help. Helen Keller with Alexander Graham Bell. Source: Bell family archives…

What Devices Did Bell Invent to Help the Deaf?

​In 1879, Bell invented the audiometer to measure the amount of a person’s hearing loss. It was the first device designed to measure different levels of sound, and is the reason that sound is now measured in “decibels.” Bell long dreamed of an electronic way to help the deaf to hear, a vision that has now become real with cochlear…

Was Bell Against Signing?

​No. He taught signing as a young teacher of the deaf, and sometimes signed with students including Helen Keller and with his wife Mabel, who was deaf. Bell’s last words in August 1922 were signed to Mabel. It’s important to remember that signing In Bell’s lifetime was not the sophisticated system that ASL is today. There were different methods of…

How Are Signing and the Oral Method Different?

In his lifetime of work with the deaf, Bell hoped they could be as integrated as possible with the hearing world and emphasized speech therapy and lip reading for the deaf over signing. This became known as the “Oral Method,” as opposed to the Manual Method, which relied largely on signing. Bell was not dogmatic about this and emphasized focusing…

Did Bell Discourage the Use of Sign Language?

No. Long before Bell was an inventor, he was a noted teacher of the deaf. Bell taught sign language as a young teacher of the deaf, and sometimes signed with his mother and later with his wife Mabel, who were both deaf. However, in Bell’s lifetime signing was not the sophisticated and complete language that American Sign Language is today. In…

Did Alexander Graham Bell Want to Restrict the Rights of Deaf People to Marry?

No. In an 1891 speech about heredity to a group of deaf students at what is now Gallaudet University in Washington, DC titled, Marriage, An Address To The Deaf, Bell was quick to note that “You yourselves are a part of a great world of hearing and speaking people. You are not a race distinct and apart, and you must fulfill the duties…

Would Bell be an advocate of the deaf today?

Yes. During his lifetime, Bell was a fierce and vocal advocate for the deaf and hard of hearing. As the son and husband of a deaf person and a teacher of people who are deaf or hard of hearing, Bell spent his entire life exploring the endless potential of hearing-impaired individuals. Bell would likely be delighted with the wide recognition…

Was Bell a Proponent of Eugenics and the Practice of Human Engineering?

​No. Bell was not a proponent of human engineering. Bell had an interest in the burgeoning science of genetics and heredity stemming from the work of Charles Darwin, whose groundbreaking research was published in 1859. In November 1883, Bell presented a paper at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the…

Did Others at the Time Oppose Marriage of the Deaf?

​Yes. Even the simplest mechanics of genetics were misunderstood at the turn of the 19th Century. Most scientists believed that traits such as deafness were hereditary and that the chances of children being born deaf were increased if their parents were both deaf. The incidence of deafness was also more common then, before antibiotics were available. In 2015, Professor William Ennis of the…