In this lesson, students will learn about Alexander Graham Bell’s work as a scientist and a humanitarian. After watching a biographical video, they will examine sketches Bell drew of his early telephone and read a kind letter written by Bell to his close friend Helen Keller. The lesson culminates with students creating their own Bell-inspired invention.
20 - 40 minutes
- Transcontinental – from one side of a continent to the other
- Elocution – the skill of effective public speaking
- Champion – an advocate and strong supporter
- Precursor – something that comes before someone else
Helen Keller - Born in 1880 and blind and deaf by the age of two, Helen Keller became an internationally known writer, educator, activist, and spokesperson for people with disabilities. She met the already-famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell when she was seven, and they maintained a close friendship until his death several decades later. Having grown up with a deaf mother, Bell had a personal interest in helping the deaf to communicate. Keller became the first deaf and blind person to graduate from Radcliffe College, now part of Harvard University, with her tuition paid for with a trust fund established by Bell.
For more information on Helen Keller:
- Helen Keller | The Gilded Age (1870-1910) | U.S. History, PBS LearningMedia
- Helen Keller, Need To Know, PBS
Background on Alexander Graham Bell | Scientist, Inventor, and Teacher
Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on March 3, 1847. Before becoming an inventor, Bell had a keen interest in helping the deaf. His father and grandfather were expert elocutionists; his mother, a pianist, began to lose her hearing when Bell was around 12 years old. While studying for his college degree, he assisted his father teaching at a school for the deaf in London. However, before he finished college, both of his brothers died of tuberculosis, and the family moved to Canada in hopes of finding a healthier environment.
In April 1870, Bell moved to Boston to train teachers to teach deaf students how to speak at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes. Successful, he repeated the program for teachers at two other schools for the deaf. In October 1872, Bell opened his own school in Boston and worked as a private tutor for deaf students. He tutored Helen Keller, becoming her lifelong friend and champion.
Late at night, after teaching, Bell worked to invent a harmonic telegraph--a tool that could send multiple messages at once over a single wire. In autumn 1873, he left teaching to solely pursue experiments and inventions. While struggling with the harmonic telegraph, Bell contemplated sending the sound of the human voice, instead of text, over the wire. In 1874, he hired an electrical designer, Thomas Watson, to help him with his sound transmitting experiments.
After about a year of further experimentation, Bell applied for a patent to protect his idea of sending vocal sounds electrically through wires. The patent, number 174,465, was issued to Bell on March 7, 1876. Three days later, Bell called over the wire to his assistant, “Mr. Watson, come here; I want you.” Watson clearly heard the entire sentence. The telephone was born.
In June 1877, Bell created the Bell Telephone Company; within a decade, more than 150,000 people in the United States owned phones. Just days after he established the Bell Telephone Company, he married one of his former deaf students, Mabel Hubbard. They split their time between Washington, DC, and Nova Scotia, Canada.
Continuing his passion for voice transmissions, in 1880, Bell invented the photophone--an instrument that transmitted speech on a beam of light. Bell considered the photophone an even greater achievement than the telephone; indeed, it proved to be a precursor to modern-day fiber-optic communication systems.
In many ways, Bell was ahead of his time. In the 1890s, he experimented with airplanes, helping to create the first powered flying machine in Canada -- the Silver Dart. At his Nova Scotia boatyard, he worked with boat designers to build HD-4, a hydrofoil, that in 1919 took the World Marine Speed Record and held it for two decades. In 1881, when President James Garfield was shot, he even helped to invent an early metal detector to try to find the bullet in his body.
In 1887, Bell founded the Volta Bureau. Helen Keller, Bell’s former student, led the groundbreaking ceremony. The Bureau’s mission was to increase and spread knowledge about the deaf. Now called the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, it has become a world-renowned center of education, research, and advocacy for the deaf community.
Bell died on Aug. 2, 1922, at his home Nova Scotia. At the end of his funeral, all the phones in North America went silent for a minute in honor of his life.
- Ask students: An invention is defined as a new device, method, or process developed from study and experimentation. What are some recent inventions that have improved quality of life for you and your family?
- Introduce Alexander Graham Bell:
Alexander Graham Bell, best known as the inventor of the telephone, was also the inventor of other useful items and worked hard to improve life for all, especially people with disabilities.
Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)
Distribute the Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.
Discussion questions after viewing:
1. Why do you think Alexander Graham Bell was so interested in helping deaf people communicate?
2. What were Bell’s significant inventions other than the telephone?
3. Bell once said, “When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.” What do you think he meant by that? Can you think of an example of a time this statement has applied to your life?
Examining Primary Sources
Visual Primary Source Activity (10 minutes)
Project or make copies of the image to the right. These sketches of an early version of the telephone were drawn by Alexander Graham Bell (who uses his initials on the inscription at the top of the sketch) for his cousin, Frances M. Symonds. At the bottom, Bell has written, “As far as I can remember these are the first drawings of my telephone--or ‘instrument for the transmission of vocal utterances by telegraph.’” The drawing shows how a telephone works by having sound waves vibrate a membrane, which, in turn, reproduces the sound using a system of electromagnetic signals. The sketch was in the possession of Australia-based members of the Bell family until 1976 when it was brought to the United States and donated to the Library of Congress for an exhibit recognizing the hundredth anniversary of Bell’s invention of the telephone.
- By closely examining these sketches, what can you learn about how early telephones worked? Are there any similarities between Bell’s telephone and a current day cell phone? For a clear, brief explanation of how Bell’s telephone worked and how this early invention evolved into modern mobile phones, see How Phones Work.
- Bell was able to do a fairly good job of drawing the figures in these sketches. Do you think that being able to draw an invention was an essential part of being an inventor during the time Bell was working? Is it still important today?
- These drawings were displayed by the Library of Congress in 1976 as part of an exhibit honoring the one hundredth anniversary of Bell’s invention of the telephone. What other items or documents may have been used in the exhibit?
Written Primary Source Activity (10 minutes)
This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.
Alexander Graham Bell developed inventions to help solve problems and to make life better for people. Think of a problem faced by individuals or groups in current American society. What would be an invention that could solve this problem and improve quality of life? Develop a sketch and/or model of something you could develop to follow in Bell’s footsteps. Indicate what problem the invention would solve and what groups or individuals it would help.