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Alexander Graham Bell: Electrical Transmission of Articulate Speech, 1912

All in the Family

Alexander Graham's grandfather, Alexander Bell*, had a penchant for play acting. While he never made it as a famous actor, the bit parts he secured in Edinburgh theatricals taught him how to control his breathing and project his voice. With a commanding stage presence and a booming voice, he decided to set up shop as a teacher of elocution. The break-up of his marriage to Elizabeth Bell brought Alexander Bell to London, with his two sons in tow. Melville and David followed in their father's footsteps, aiding him in his attempts at teaching elocution and taking up the practice themselves. Melville's study of elocution brought him back to Edinburgh, where he met Eliza Gray Symonds. Eliza's deafness rallied his sympathy, and her cheerful comportment soon earned his admiration. Eliza was a painter of miniatures and an accomplished pianist, and a little less than a year after they met, she and Melville were married.

Eliza taught her three sons, Melville ("Melly"), Alexander Graham ("Aleck") and Edward ("Ted"), the conventional subjects of reading and arithmetic as well as drawing, painting, and piano playing. The boys communicated with her using English two-handed sign language, and speaking into her clumsy ear trumpet. Aleck was the only one who contrived a method of successfully communicating with his mother, leaning in close to her forehead and speaking in a low, well-modulated voice. Throughout their lives Aleck and Melly would often partner to work on scientific inventions. Ted sadly did not take part in his brothers' scientific experiments; he died of tuberculosis at age eighteen.

*Interesting to Note: In 1847, Alexander Bell wrote a play entitled The Bride, celebrating the value of good manners. The play passed through the hands of his son, David, on its way to David's son Chichester and ultimately to Chichester's closest friend, George Bernard Shaw. Bell's play was the inspiration for Shaw's success, Pygmalion, which would later be adapted by Rogers and Hammerstein into the beloved musical, My Fair Lady. The preface to Shaw's play credits the Bell family, and the setting for Professor Higgins' laboratory is the very street where Alexander Bell worked as an instructor of speech.