Alexander Graham Bell is best known as the brilliant inventor of the telephone. The “speaking telegraph” was a game changer for the mid-19th century and indelibly altered the way humans communicate. Yet there was a darker side to Bell, obscured by the glow of his genius. In The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness, Katie Booth vigorously revises the historical record.
Booth’s research journey is also personal. The book opens as her grandmother is dying, isolated and ignored by hospital staff because she is deaf. Booth seethes with outrage at the doctors’ indifference to her grandmother’s needs and comes to blame Bell for shaping such discriminatory behavior toward deaf people.
Bell’s wife and mother were deaf, though not congenitally. They inspired what Booth calls his “quest to end deafness,” an honest intention that would go badly awry. Determined to bring deaf people into the speaking and hearing world, Bell followed his father’s techniques as an elocutionist. He met his future wife, Mabel, when she was a child, and as her teacher, he insisted she learn to speak. The schools Bell began and the teachers he trained were opposed to the use of sign language and instead supported “oralism,” the use of speech alone, even for children who were born deaf and had never heard a word. Students caught using sign language got their hands 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, as a way to communicate and as a tool to bring the Deaf community together, opposed his methods. Bell denied the existence of a Deaf culture and saw deafness as a defect that needed to be erased, by speech or, later, by eugenics.
Booth reveals a rich history of heights and depths in The Invention of Miracles, including the questionable patent process that secured Bell’s name in history, the evolution and empowerment of the Deaf community, and Bell’s endearing marriage, which survived his own misguided intentions.