Review of "Reluctant Genius"

Reluctant Genius

The Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of Alexander Graham Bell.

By Charlotte Gray. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. 448 pages, hardcover.

Did Alexander Graham Bell invent the telephone and change our world forever? Or does that honour more properly belong to Elisha Gray, an electrician, inventor and founder of the Western Electric Manufacturing Company who filed a caveat — an intention to file a patent — for a similar device with the U.S. Patent Office just two hours after Bell submitted his application for a “speaking telegraph?” Transforming that timing quibble into potentially more sinister intrigue, Gray’s design idea mysteriously appeared as a written addendum to Bell’s typed patent application. There were dark hints, even then, that Bell — an “intuitive” inventor — had an inside source who leaked Gray’s design to him.

Even if you don’t buy that conspiratorial view, there are those — including the Italian Academy of Sciences and many Italian-Americans — who argue we must unravel the evolution of telephony backward to determine its true paternity. In 1860, 16 years before Bell’s patent, Antonio Meucci, an Italian-born American inventor, demonstrated a crude telephonic device which, though never patented, was described in an article in a New York Italian-American newspaper. In 2002, the U.S. House of Representatives, mindful of the Italian-American lobby, passed a resolution arguing Meucci’s “work in the invention of the telephone should be acknowledged.” (Later that same year, Canada’s Parliament jumped into the fray with a counter resolution crediting the invention solely to Bell, a Scottish-born American citizen who summered and worked in Cape Breton for parts of 37 years and whose beloved Baddeck estate-museum is still a major tourist attraction.)

And that’s not even to consider the contributions of other would-be phonic papas like Johann Philipp Reis, the German inventor who demonstrated his version of a “telefon” the same year as Meucci, or Thomas Edison, Bell’s bitter American rival, whose work advanced telephonic technology.

We probably shouldn’t be surprised there is controversy — even grassy knoll-like conspiracy theories — about the origins of one of the nineteenth century’s most important and still-ubiquitous inventions. The telephone, as author Charlotte Gray rightly notes, “changed the world forever… It liberated the individual… was easy and safe to use, and, unlike the telegraph, anybody could use it. It had a profound impact on both personal relationships and the social fabric of society.”

Having said all of that, Charlotte Gray’s Reluctant Genius: The Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of Alexander Graham Bell isn’t a whodunit about credit for inventing the telephone. That debate, in fact, gets relatively short shrift in her fascinating new biography of the man most of us still associate with the telephone, but whose inventive passions embraced much else as well.

Reluctant Genius is, instead, a love story, a tale of the all-encompassing — and critically important — relationship between Bell, a brilliant, obsessive, compulsive, insecure, mercurial, magpie-minded and often hypochondriacal “reluctant genius,” and Mabel, his practical, protective, devoted deaf wife and steel-willed life’s partner. If not for her, Bell might never have become even the disputed father of the telephone.

That Gray chose to approach the story of Bell’s accomplishments from the perspective of his familial relationships shouldn’t surprise us. One of Canada’s most popular personal biographers, Gray’s previous books — Sisters in the Wilderness about pioneering sisters Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Trail, Flint and Feather about Native poet and performer Pauline Johnson, and even Mrs. King about the mother of our late, strange prime minister — all share a sharp focus on the personal lives of even public Canadian women in a way some more conventional historians still blithely dismiss as “private history.”

Gray makes no apologies. As she explained in an essay she wrote at the time of the publication of Sisters, “a good biography tells two stories: the life and the social and political context in which the life was lived… A biography engenders a thrilling intimacy between reader and subject. We peek behind the public achievements to touch the daily life of an exceptional individual… Do worldly achievements come at a price? Are hidden lives important or interesting? Are character flaws more interesting than strengths? What insight into my life can I gain by looking at someone else’s?”

Reluctant Genius is, by Gray’s criteria — by anyone’s — a very good biography. Set against the backdrop of the inventive, industrial, intellectual ferment of post-Civil War America, it tells the story of a society in transformation, and of Bell’s important if often conflicted and sometimes reluctant role in that revolution. It is also a compelling human story about two very different individuals who found strength in a personal relationship that helped make their — and our — public history possible.

Bell’s fascination with the human voice, which was at the root of his obsession with figuring out how to transmit sounds over wires, was bred in the bone. His grandfather, Alec, a shoemaker-turned-actor, was a teacher and “corrector of defective utterance.” His often over-bearing father, Melville — probably George Bernard Shaw’s model for Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion — was a self-taught elocution teacher and champion of Visible Speech, a series of symbols he created to represent sounds. His mother, Eliza, with whom he was extremely close, was deaf as the result of a childhood infection.

Young Alec spent much of his own childhood serving as a prop for his father’s public demonstrations of Visible Speech or responding to his frequent challenges to his sons to invent devices like a “speaking machine.”

After the deaths of his two brothers in early adulthood — they succumbed to tuberculosis in dank, sooty, nineteenth-century Edinburgh — Alec’s parents impetuously relocated what was left of their family to the bracingly restorative climate of Canada.

While the rest of the family settled in Brantford, Ontario, Alec moved to Boston where he landed a series of jobs teaching deaf children. Which is how he met Mabel Hubbard, the attractive Brahmin daughter of a Boston patent lawyer and entrepreneur, who’d lost her hearing to scarlet fever when she was only five.

At the time they met, Alec was 25, Mabel 15. She initially “did not think him exactly a gentleman;” his primary interest in her was the income he earned tutoring her, which enabled him to devote more time to his increasingly obsessive fascination with harnessing the telegraph to carry the human voice.

He wasn’t alone. Bell was well aware others were trying to accomplish similar things, and the competition “unnerved” the already neurotic, insomniac young man, driving him stay up all night fiddling with his wires and instruments. One of his landladies became so worried about Bell’s lack of sleep — and its impact on his health — “she got into the habit of cutting a few inches off each of his candles, forcing him to go to bed earlier.”

In the fall of 1874, the Hubbards invited their daughter’s tutor to what became a pivotal tea party during which Bell and Gardiner Hubbard accidentally discovered their mutual interest in the possibilities of telegraphy.
Hubbard wanted to challenge the near-monopoly of the Western Union Corporation, and was desperately looking for an inventor to come up with a way to transmit multiple messages over telegraph wires. The two formed a partnership that helped underwrite Bell’s research.

Far from liberating Alec, however, Hubbard’s interest only complicated his life. He spent his days teaching the deaf and his nights on his inventions, all the while fending off his own father, who wondered what this telegraph nonsense had to do with Visible Speech, and his mother, who wanted to redirect her son’s energies back to his true vocation, improving the lot of the deaf. To complicate those complications, Alec “began to see Mabel, now seventeen, in a role other than that of an eager pupil.” He became as obsessive in his pursuit of her as he was in his telegraphic inventions, much to the chagrin of Mabel’s parents who had hoped for a better match for their daughter.

They eventually relented, agreeing to allow the scattered Scotsman to pursue their daughter’s hand if he could demonstrate he could support her properly. That, of course, meant completing work on the telegraph for Mabel’s father. But Bell, as he often did, got sidetracked, infuriating his future father-in-law and threatening to scuttle the marriage.

Mabel, who had by then also realized “I loved him better than anyone but Mamma,” gently steered her fiancé back to the invention he was supposed to be working on and, later, smoothed the waters when her father, without telling Alec, filed an application on his behalf for a patent on the speaking telegraph.

That controversial patent changed everything. For starters, it sparked an explosion of commercial interest in Bell’s invention that cleared the way for Alec and Mabel to marry.

To protect the fledgling Bell Telephone Company and prevent Western Union from continuing to pursue its own telephone ambitions, Gardiner Hubbard filed a patent infringement lawsuit in 1878. But by then, Alec — chagrined by insinuations he’d poached the work of Gray and others — declared himself “sick of the telephone.” He would, he told Mabel, return to his real love, teaching the deaf, and “waste no more time and money on the telephone… Let others endure the worry, the anxiety and the expense.” But without Alec’s testimony, it was clear Hubbard’s suit wouldn’t succeed. Again, it was Mabel’s “quietly willing him to join her father in the fight to save their company” that melted Bell’s resolve.

Thanks to Bell’s authoritative, methodical testimony outlining the events leading up to the patent submission — and, perhaps even more important, the damning disclosure of an 1877 letter from Elisha Gray, in which he congratulated Bell for inventing the telephone and confessed he didn’t think his mere description of the idea “should be dignified with the name invention” — Western Union quickly settled, paving the way for the success of the Bell company, which suddenly had a monopoly on what was already “a wildly popular invention.”

Although it is clear Gray believes Bell deserves credit for the telephone’s invention, she does not allow herself to get sidetracked by the debate — then or now — over it. Instead, she uses it as a way to highlight Alec’s own ambivalence to what he had wrought.

At 33, Alexander Graham Bell was rich and world famous, all thanks to the telephone. But his own interest in it never revived; he left it to others, including Edison, to refine his invention.

Instead, he filled his notebooks with new ideas for switchboards (an idea he didn’t bother to patent because “it would turn all of those poor girls out of their jobs”), phonographs, an underwater distress signal, an apparatus for transferring brain waves between individuals, another for transmitting speech using light waves instead of wires, hydrofoils and, oh yes, ideas for manned flight. After the Bells decided to establish a summer home in Cape Breton, Bell began to breed sheep to study genetics. He dabbled in the then-popular science of eugenics. When an assassin’s bullet lodged dangerously near U.S President James Garfield’s spine in the summer 1881, Alec threw himself into an obsessive if ultimately unsuccessful three-month effort to develop a metal detector to help doctors locate the bullet.

“Bell’s gift as an inventor,” writes Gray, “was creative leaps of the imagination rather than… rigorous research.”

Mabel’s gift to Bell, on the other hand, was to provide the cocoon of stability in which “the genius of his mind was allowed to flower and the potential for instability in his temperament was never allowed to explode. Their union would provide him with a rich, well-rounded family life, a safe haven in which he could reach for his dreams.”

Gray, who had access to an incredible array of primary sources, including stacks of “vivid, intimate, colourful, poignant” letters between Alec and Mabel, makes a compelling case for this connection between Mabel’s facilitation and Alec’s accomplishment.

How true is it? That’s harder to say. As Gray herself has noted, “biographers presumptuously impose a recognizable plot line on the messy, incoherent details of a life.” And the Bells’ story is very much in keeping with Gray’s own past perspectives as a biographer. But it rings true.

In an era when too many biographers feel comfortable making up dialogue or even, in the case of Edmund Morris’s controversial biography of Ronald Reagan, creating pivotal characters out of the whole cloth of imagination, Charlotte Gray is very much a traditionalist who plants herself “firmly on the ‘fact’ side of the border” between fiction and non-fiction. “I don’t invent. But I take known facts, and imagine.”

In the case of Bell’s intriguing relationship with the young Helen Keller, for example, Gray describes Mabel’s ambivalence to it, which is clear from her own writing, but is careful not to go too far down the path of assumption so far as Alec’s unspoken feelings are concerned. In the end, she surmises only that Alec’s fascination with Keller was “probably a mix of paternal affection and an undercurrent of sexual attraction that he himself would not have recognized (let alone acknowledged).” Such restraint adds to the reader’s comfort level with the credibility of the overall story.

Gray also does an excellent job of assembling just the right telling details. How better to illustrate Bell’s neuroses, for instance, than to recount the moment when “he privately assuaged his own unspoken fears about his firstborn child[‘s hearing]. A few days after his daughter’s birth, he stole into Mabel’s room, and standing behind the canopied bed, he blew a loud blast on the trumpet. He later told a friend that ‘Mabel never moved, but the little one flung out its arms and legs and shrieked in terror.’”

At one level, Reluctant Genius fits clearly within Gray’s usual biographical parameters, but it also represents, in a number of ways, an important departure. Its ostensible subject is a man, and one who is already far better known than the subjects of her previous biographies. Perhaps even more important from a marketing perspective, Bell, despite his Canadian connections, is an American whose story is much more likely to resonate with American book buyers than the Strickland sisters or Pauline Johnson. Which would be a good thing. Charlotte Gray — and this moving, human story — both deserve a wider audience.


Stephen Kimber, the Maclean Hunter Professor of Journalism at
the University of King’s College, is the author of five nonfiction books. His first novel, Reparations, was published in 2006 by HarperCollins.

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