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The Invention of Miracles

Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell's Quest to End Deafness



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About The Book

Finalist for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography
Finalist for the Mark Lynton History Prize

“Meticulously researched, crackling with insights, and rich in novelistic detail” (Steve Silberman), this “provocative, sensitive, beautifully written biography” (Sylvia Nasar) tells the true—and troubling—story of Alexander Graham Bell’s quest to end deafness.

“Researched and written through the Deaf perspective, this marvelously engaging history will have us rethinking the invention of the telephone.” —Jaipreet Virdi, PhD, author of Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History

We think of Alexander Graham Bell as the inventor of the telephone, but that’s not how he saw his own career. As the son of a deaf woman and, later, husband to another, his goal in life from adolescence was to teach deaf students to speak. Even his tinkering sprang from his teaching work; the telephone had its origins as a speech reading machine.

The Invention of Miracles takes a “stirring” (The New York Times Book Review), “provocative” (The Boston Globe), “scrupulously researched” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) new look at an American icon, revealing the astonishing true genesis of the telephone and its connection to another, far more disturbing legacy of Bell’s: his efforts to suppress American Sign Language. Weaving together a dazzling tale of innovation with a moving love story, the book offers a heartbreaking account of how a champion can become an adversary and an enthralling depiction of the deaf community’s fight to reclaim a once-forbidden language.

Katie Booth has been researching this story for more than fifteen years, poring over Bell’s papers, Library of Congress archives, and the records of deaf schools around America. But she’s also lived with this story for her entire life. Witnessing the damaging impact of Bell’s legacy on her family would set her on a path that overturned everything she thought she knew about language, power, deafness, and the telephone.


Chapter 1 Chapter 1
Mere voice is common to the brutes as man;

Articulation marks the nobler race…

—Alexander Bell, grandfather of Alexander Graham Bell

In 1863, at age sixteen, Alexander Graham Bell first started work on his speaking machine. He planned to give the contraption a human form, and then to play this mechanical body like an organ, with keys that depressed the different portions of the tongue and lips, and a wind chest to exhale the full words they formed. Aleck imagined that his machine would have a human skull, eyes and a nose, and a wig for hair. But first he had to build its working parts, its insides. He acquired a human skull from the local apothecary and used it to create molds for the jaw, teeth, nasal cavity, and the roof of the mouth, and he got to work, trying to coax them to speak.

In general this was a strange way for a teenager to spend his time, but in the Bell house Aleck fit right in. His father, Alexander Melville, known to his family simply as “Melville,” was an elocutionist who was designing a universal phonetic alphabet, one that would be able to document any sound in any language. Melville spent much of his time poised in front of a mirror in his study, sounding a single syllable over and over again as he studied the shape of his mouth. He filled notebooks with drawings of tongue positions and assigned symbols to each sound, each tongue position and lip position, each style of breathing. Melville had grand dreams for this work, but first he had to perfect it.

Recently, Melville’s research had taken him from the Bells’ home in Edinburgh, Scotland, to London, with Aleck in tow. There, they visited an inventor named Charles Wheatstone. In Europe, Wheatstone was considered the father of the telegraph, which had entered the public imagination twenty years earlier. At Wheatstone’s home, Aleck encountered a machine that entranced him: a wooden box with a bellows at one end and a hole at each side. There was nothing humanlike about it; its appearance was not what Aleck himself would later aspire to, but it gripped him just the same. Wheatstone threaded both hands into the box and used his right elbow to press down on the bellows, giving the machine air. Whatever Wheatstone did inside the box, Aleck didn’t know; the mechanics were obscured by the box. Wheatstone operated the apparatus to utter a few sentences with its ducklike voice, and Aleck was delighted. As a parting gift, Wheatstone lent Melville the book by Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen that included the designs he’d used to build the machine. When they got back to Scotland, Melville challenged Aleck to build his own version of the machine with the help of his older brother, Melly. He wanted them to become a part of the family business, and he saw an opportunity now to stoke their interest.

Now, Aleck hunched over these parts with a coiled focus. He had a part of himself that could be free and loose, laughing loudly, doodling strange drawings in his notebooks, striking poses for his father’s camera—but he tended to push this part of him aside. When he worked, he only worked. His body was a study of contradiction: black chin-length hair virtually untamable, always falling out of place; eyes full of dark intensity; posture in tight Victorian control; hands clumsier than he wished. Now he willed them to build this most delicate and powerful thing, the interior of the human mouth.

Aleck and Melly pored over the pages of the book, which included full plates detailing the workings of the human voice. Aleck learned that control of voice within the mouth begins at the back, with the tender, tissuey sponge before the roof begins: the soft palate. The soft palate has the elasticity to sink, to kiss the back of the tongue, to block air from the mouth entirely, producing nasal sounds alone, as in the beginning of the sound ng. The soft palate, too, needs to be able to rise for the free flow of air, a long A Ahhhh. He made the palate from rubber and attached iron wire to the top, allowing him to lift the soft palate up or let it rest. Aleck knew that this precise control of physical elements was where speech was made.

Through high school, Aleck had been closer to his brother Edward, who was just one year younger, but now that he was finished with school, his work on the speaking machine would unite him and Melly in a single mission. In certain ways, Melly, who was two years older, was the opposite of Aleck. Where Aleck’s default was seriousness, Melly’s was playfulness and optimism. The Bells had a camera three decades before personal cameras would even begin to become common, and while other families of the 1850s and ’60s stood stoically still for their portraits, the Bells donned strange costumes—plaid pants, Turkish hats, suits five sizes too big—and they played. Melly and his father were kings of exaggerated expressions: faces crushed in anguish, eyes comically wide in surprise. In one double-exposed image, Melly appears as a ghost, a sheet thrown over his body, while the rest of the family cowers playfully in horror.

By contrast, Aleck’s young face was characterized by the vertical wrinkle between his eyebrows, by a look like he’s squinting forever against the sunlight, lost in thought. In one photo, he has Melly’s jaw yanked open, and is peering seriously into his brother’s mouth, as if to see how it works.

In all things, Aleck learned through real experiences—both those that were successful and those that were traumatizing. On his best days, he learned from his failures, but normally he learned through pure enthusiasm. He always preferred open skies to classrooms, fumbling his way through his formal education. He loved to climb Corstorphine Hill behind his Edinburgh home, and wrote poetry about birds and weather, collected stones and plants and bones.

At the encouragement of his father, he had learned to classify plants by the Linnaean system, looking each plant up in a guidebook and identifying them with a long Latin name. Aleck had never received good marks in Latin, though; it was one of those subjects that drove him away from school. Monandria, diandria, triandria. He loved the world but hated Latin. It ruined botany. Instead, he turned to the body.

When his father gave him the corpse of a suckling pig, Aleck called for a special meeting of the “Society for the Promotion of Fine Arts Among Boys,” a small club he’d started. Aleck invited the members up into the attic of 13 South Charlotte Street, which was Aleck’s domain, where he collected his bones and plants and river rocks, where he laid them out in a system he supposed was scientific. The crowning piece of his collection was a human skull, another gift from his father, which kept his horrified mother at bay.

In the attic, Aleck set up boards for the young officers to sit on, and a table on which he laid the pig’s body. He, the “anatomy professor,” stood behind it prepared for his first lecture before his first audience, but when he brought the knife down into the abdomen, the body groaned a gassy exhale, loud enough to sound like a last gasp of life.

Aleck stood at the table, the knife in his hand, shocked. A moment later, he led the tumbling escape from the attic and down the stairs. The other boys ran until they reached their respective homes. And Aleck—no matter what coaxing, what reassurances that the pig was not alive, that he did not kill the pig—Aleck wouldn’t return to the attic.

His father retrieved the corpse and disposed of it.

Despite such failures, Aleck still learned best through trials and seekings and problems, through mistakes and accidents, pounding questions that evaded every attempt at an answer, truths within truths that only experience could unearth, for better or worse.

The work on the speaking machine was coming along more haltingly than Aleck had expected. He and Melly were stuck and out of patience, but their father emphasized the importance of perseverance, of not turning away in the face of defeat. He reminded his sons of the resources at their disposal, directing them back to the book Wheatstone had lent them, to look into what it was that made voice.

As an elocutionist, Melville’s work was to correct the speech of others. It was the family business: Melville’s brother, David Bell, and father, Alexander Bell, were also famous elocutionists, engaged in the work of speech pathology. They worked with actors and preachers, immigrants and stutterers, to smooth out error and give power to the voice. George Bernard Shaw would draw inspiration from them for the character of Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, later remade as My Fair Lady. They helped spread the idea that not only could speech be corrected, people could also be transformed by it.

Melville saw the unique alphabet he was developing as an extension of his work as an elocutionist and also as a technological breakthrough that would be able to reach much further. Unlike alphabets before his, which largely drew their logic from the sounds of particular languages, Melville sought to shape his alphabet around any sounds that the voice was capable of making. By doing this, he believed, he could “convert the unlettered millions in all countries into readers,” and pave “linguistic highways between nations.”

It could allow for quick literacy in a language someone already knew, and though it couldn’t teach people the meanings of words or word order in different languages, it could greatly cut down on how much time it took for people to pronounce different words correctly, as well as to read and write those words. But even without knowledge of a given language, a universal alphabet was of particular use to the British Empire in the age of missionary trips: it allowed an English-speaking missionary to read the Bible in any language needed—they would not have to know the language, only how to pronounce the words, and the Bible’s teachings could reach the ears of anyone they sought to save. He understood his alphabet to be representative of something of the greatest importance: the human voice, which itself represented personhood.

The mid-nineteenth century was still ruled by the centuries-long notion that the very essence of being was embodied by speech. Voice was where language and thought met. This idea, often credited to Aristotle, had begun to meet with more biblical thinking, threading God’s reflection and intention through these ancient ideas. Melville’s own father wrote that “in no higher respect has man been created in the image of his Maker, than in his adaption for speech and the communication of his ideas. The Almighty fiat ‘Let there be light,’ was not more wonderful in its results, than the Creator’s endowing the clay, which he had taken from the ground, with the faculty of speech.”

Philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, in the late eighteenth century, argued that while all animals made sounds, it was humans who brought these sounds together into repeatable units—and in doing so, it was humans who learned to think. “The delicate organs of speech, therefore,” wrote Herder, “must be considered as the rudder of reason, and speech as the heavenly spark, that gradually kindles our thoughts and senses to a flame.” He believed that thought began with voice; our very humanity began with speech. To speak—and speak well—was to be able to think, to be human in the holiest, most complete form.

At the time, these beliefs were also held in their inverse: to be unable to speak was to be not quite human. Groups that did not speak, or did not speak well—immigrants, the developmentally disabled, the deaf, the poor—were often the groups who had the least access to rights. Their lack of voice had led many to deny their full humanity. In ancient Greece and Rome, infanticide of a deaf child was allowed; Jewish tradition granted deaf people neither the rights of adults nor the liability to adult punishment; Christianity often held that they could not be confirmed nor married. They were casually referred to as animals or savages.

Melville wasn’t using those words, and he didn’t believe in the extremes that those ideas represented. Instead, his goal was to use his alphabet to increase access to language and thus to increase access to one another. He was thinking of the many languages and cultures that were coming together under the British Empire—which within the past fifty years had slowly continued to spread to include countries as different as Yemen, Pakistan, Burma, Fiji, and Hong Kong. He was aware of the many conflicts stemming from a persistent inability to communicate. He wanted his alphabet to be a gift to the world, and though he could give lessons and lectures, he would charge nothing for the alphabet itself. He saw his alphabet as “one of the foremost Arts of Peace.” He hoped the British government would cover the cost of the special typeface that was needed so he could actualize this gift.

Melville called his alphabet Visible Speech, because it acted as an instructional guide on how to shape the mouth into different sounds. Each symbol was part of a code of where to put the tongue in the mouth, how to breathe, how open the lips should be. When he was finished, Melville hoped, his alphabet would have the malleability to be used by any language, allowing anyone to participate in the power granted by proper speech.

It was because of his alphabet that he had been curious about Wheatstone’s machine, though that machine echoed for him another he’d seen almost two decades earlier, in 1846: Joseph Faber’s “Euphonia.” Faber was an inventor who’d modeled his speaking machine after the human lungs, larynx, and mouth, placing his device within a fake torso and giving it the head of an automaton. But the effect of Euphonia’s voice, which Faber operated via keyboard, was so monotonous and hollow that one viewer said that it resembled less a human than a half human, “bound to speak slowly when tormented by the unseen power outside.” Faber’s invention became a mockery and faded away.

But for Melville, the importance of both machines was that they showed how the human voice was, in many respects, a machine. If the voice could be replicated, then it could be controlled. If it could be controlled, it could be documented with precision and taught with precision. It could fall into the larger movement to find a universal alphabet, a movement that had been around for over a century. All of this was central to the success of Visible Speech.

While Melville was working on stoking Aleck’s interest in speech, his mother, Eliza, exerted a gentler influence, training her son’s abilities in attention to sensory detail. She was a pianist who had begun to go deaf in late childhood, and her deafness had only increased with age. Now she rested the ivory mouthpiece of her hearing tube on the soundboard of their piano; she tilted her head to listen. To some extent, Eliza could still hear the instrument’s resonant notes, but more so, she could feel them.

Before Melville had started his efforts to recalibrate Aleck’s career path onto the family profession of elocution, Aleck had wanted to play piano. As a boy, his true love was not speech—not machines or alphabets—but music. When Eliza had taught him to play, he took to the piano full of attention and vigor. He trained his ear along the notes, the vibrations of those wires strung taut. He learned the modulations of sound, could feel and hear them in their tiniest differentiations, their dissonances and synchronicities. He could play by ear a tune he’d heard only twice.

Eliza was also an artist who sketched landscapes and ruins and rivers whenever the family went on vacation. She and Melville had met through a mutual friend, back when she was a miniature painter, painting the smallest features onto the tiniest beings. And this delicate ability was counterbalanced with strength. She was a “splendid walker,” Melville said, and would walk with him for fifteen miles a day, eight days straight.

Melville had fallen in love with her quickly. She was not considered a beauty, with her strong nose, prominent chin, and gaunt cheeks, and she was ten years older than Melville besides. But Melville didn’t see it that way—he thought she was thin and pretty and had “the sweetest expression I think I ever saw.” At first he was filled with pity for her deafness, but he couldn’t pity her once he knew her. She was well-read and widely informed. She learned the British Sign Language alphabet, but she used it only to communicate with her family. She didn’t have deaf friends. He found it “philosophical” the way she saw her hearing tube as a filter, “through which nothing passed that was not worth listening to!”

As they fell for each other, they rambled through the highlands of Scotland together, bringing whiskey wherever they went, including into temperance lodgings. One day, Melville saw so many fish in the water that he decided to buy a rod and gear and try his hand at catching some. But the clear water that allowed Melville to see the fish went both ways. The fish “could see through it all,” wrote Eliza, “and did not even require to go near his apparatus to discover the deceit.” Giving up, Melville went into the water himself, as Eliza watched on, sketching.

For Eliza, sketching was both a hobby and a mode of close attention. She believed that those with poor sight or poor hearing actually observed more than others—“only, in a different way.” Their thoughts were simply, she thought, “turned within,” and they were more likely to keep their observations to themselves. She believed something similar was true of children: “The youth makes many observations which escape the man, merely because the latter esteems them to be not worth his notice.” So Eliza taught Aleck to see with thoroughness and precision, to observe what others might ignore.

And Eliza herself was an important model. The way she lived her life flew in the face of ideas that the deaf were, at best, objects of charity, and at worst, weights on society. Instead, she taught him that a deaf person could think and observe with depth and clarity, and, too, that they could have voice. Eliza, though deaf, still spoke. She’d lost her hearing after an illness when she was eleven, long after she’d learned to speak, and so she simply continued speaking. She could rarely understand the speech of others without her hearing tube, but she could make her own voice heard. Socially this put her at a remove from congenitally deaf people, and those who lost their hearing before the age of four or so. It meant she’d had command of language and speech before her hearing began to fade. It also meant that she was able to impress upon people that she retained the ability to think in abstractions, at a time when the signing deaf were believed to only grasp the most concrete of ideas.

Being able to speak, to express language in this way, meant it was easier for Eliza to go through her days as a deaf woman. She knew almost nothing about the world of the deaf—nothing of sign language or deaf schools or deaf communities—and she slipped, with relative ease, into the world of the hearing.

Still, Aleck learned the British Sign Language alphabet to act as a makeshift interpreter when he and his mother were in public. This wasn’t the same as the grammatical system of British Sign Language, some version of which had been in use for centuries already and likely beginning to standardize in the eighteenth century. Instead, this was a sign-based alphabet that could be grafted onto English. Out of the line of sight of others—below a table, or off to the side—Aleck would spell out what his mother needed to understand. When Eliza needed it most, when she really needed to grasp what had happened, or what someone had said, she could always rely on Aleck.

In public they stuck with finger spelling, but at home, Aleck would bow down near his mother’s face, send his breath against her cheek. He had trained his voice to speak in a soft, deep resonance that her ears could still hear. The effort she put into these processes would have been unrelenting, but it must have seemed to Aleck then that all manner of things were possible, if only with enough patience, enough care. Eliza asked questions and, like no one else could, Aleck answered.

In the evenings, the home filled with Eliza’s playing. She could close her eyes, feel the vibrations of the music on her rib cage and in the floorboards, let the sounds give what they could. Melville had once remarked that she “played the Scottish melodies with such expression that you seemed to hear the words.” If Aleck could play the body with the precision that his mother played those notes, he could marry what his heart desired, to be a musician, with what his father increasingly wanted for him: a career in speech. And so Aleck began to listen for the music inside the human voice, in its perfections.

To learn about voice one must first become conscious of breathing. Before voice is anything else—before it beckons, declares, declaims, before it whispers or whimpers or cries or sings—voice is breath. The lungs fill with air, and then on the exhale the diaphragm pushes the air up and out from the lungs. Only then can a spoken word form.

Wheatstone’s speaking machine offered breath, an exhale as the operator’s elbow pushed down the handle of the bellows, breathing into the wind box; an inhale as a counterweight filled the bellows again with air.

Aleck had initially wanted his creation to be more human, to have a face and a nose, eyes and hair. But when these extra parts prevented Aleck and Melly from getting the basics right—the breath, the throat, the mouth—Melville talked them out of building a face. The brothers began focusing only on the mechanics. They considered Wheatstone’s bellow-based lungs, but ultimately they gave up on the idea. The simplest thing was for the lungs of the machine to be their own lungs; they’d create a machine that they could blow into like a trumpet.

That settled, Melly refocused on the larynx—the voice box—its vocal cords producing volume and pitch. He made and remade it, unsatisfied. Finally he landed on a tin tube with a lid on one end and a one-inch slit through the lid, and then a piece of rubber stretched over the lid. The rubber, too, had a slit in it, aligning with the slit in the tin. When Melly blew through the mouthpiece, it made a sound, but it still wasn’t right. He added another piece of rubber, staggered their slits, and produced something that he could imagine as voice. To Aleck it sounded like a toy horn, one they might blow boisterously to celebrate some holiday or another. He accepted it; he knew that the larynx wasn’t really where the voice was fine-tuned.

Voice is vibration, and that vibration is shaped in the mouth. The lowest hum vibrates in the cheeks, in the teeth. Aleck still needed to make the tongue, this most complicated part of speech mechanics. Its movements seemed infinite in comparison to the quiet lever of the jaw, or the soft palate’s rise and fall. He replicated the tongue with six adjacent cushioned planes of wood, each one able to move independently to create consonants and vowels. If he rigged them up to piano keys, he would be able to play this tongue: curl it to the teeth as for the letter L, flatten it to the bottom to sing a long A.

Eventually, Aleck and Melly created a noseless assemblage of parts functional enough to cry out a continuous vowel ah. Melly breathed into the machine—the air traveling through the larynx and over the tongue, against the cheeks, and releasing through the teeth as Aleck opened and closed its mouth. It created the simplest of words—mama! mama!—in a broken child’s cry, a wounded music box.

Instead of applying their machine to anything of practical humanitarian or scientific import, the boys used it to play tricks. They took it outside to the shared stairwell of their home, and as Aleck controlled the mouth, Melly blew into it as hard as he could, and the machine whined its echoic wail.

Soon enough their downstairs neighbors creaked in quiet concern around their apartments, opening their doors and asking each other what could be the matter with that baby. Aleck and Melly squatted in their doorframe, laughing soundlessly at the spectacle, giving the creature voice again and again.

The machine stopped short of all that Aleck imagined it could do. But it was a beginning. “Our triumph and happiness were complete,” he wrote, years later. Though his desire to create and control the human voice was the work that would lead him to the most troubling parts of his legacy, Aleck saw only possibility in his machine.

Melville’s influence on Aleck’s future was unmistakable, but it wasn’t always welcome. He encouraged his son mainly in the directions of which he approved—a collection of bones, a scientific study, a speaking machine. It had been harmless enough through Aleck’s boyhood, but now Aleck was sixteen, caught between looking like a boy and feeling like a man. He grew eager to escape his father’s control.

At first his flights were small, just long walks to the top of nearby Corstorphine Hill where he could see the sea. Looking out at that vastness, he felt like he could do more than he was allowed. He could do more than study Latin, more than learn the function of the larynx. His life could be something of his own design—not just something his father pieced together. He began to dream of escaping, taking off to Leith under the cover of night to steal away on a ship. But in the end he turned to more practical avenues for escape, combing the newspapers for jobs in distant cities and finally securing one as a teacher at Weston House Academy, in Elgin, Morayshire.

And so he began his career as a teacher of elocution and music. He was still just sixteen, with the countenance of a man several years older than himself. He earned ten pounds a year, plus board, and his supervisor taught him Greek and Latin, helping him prepare to enter university. In his off-hours, he escaped Elgin for Covesea, a nearby seaside town with hills and caves to explore. “I spent many happy hours lying among the heather on the Scottish hills, breathing in the scenery around me with a quiet delight.” He had his own money, his own time, his own plans.

His freedom made him see his own father anew. While Aleck had sometimes resisted his father’s high standards and need for control, he began to soften, seeing where his father’s expectations had helped him grow. Come spring, he composed a poem for Melville’s birthday: “Dear Guide! Nought can thy tender care repay: / Each seeming harsh reproof was, now I see, / An act of love: received—ungratefully, / Recalling conscience forces me to say.…” He closed it with “Each absence makes me prize my home the more: / Return shall find me—worthier than before.”

But the return wasn’t as smooth as he’d hoped, his relationship with his father not as transformed as he may have dreamed—instead, it grew more tense. While Aleck had matured in his view of his father, Melville still saw Aleck as a boy. That spring, Melville began to promote Visible Speech from a more central location, relocating to his father’s home in London. Aleck and Edward came along while Melly went to teach for a year at Weston House. It was here that Aleck was treated not as the teacher he’d become but as a schoolboy. He would not be asked to contribute to his father’s work, only to perform it. Melville knew that in order to sell the idea of his alphabet, he would have to demonstrate its effectiveness, and so he immediately gave Aleck the task of learning Visible Speech.

Melville’s script was both simple and complex. There were ten basic symbols and seemingly infinite permutations. Once a person learned the meanings of the different symbol components, they could write or read any sound—not just in language, but any sound at all. In the script, consonants took the form of horseshoes pointed up or down, left or right, depending on which part of the tongue their sound employed. The horseshoes were adorned with lines and hooks, adding new layers of complexity: use of nasality, compression of the throat. Vowels were vertical lines whose permutations of hooks and crossbars stood for the breath aperture or the shape of the lips. Glides, the sounds between consonants and vowels, had symbols. Trilling had a symbol, as did sucking. This mark signaled the direction you must blow your air, and this one indicated where your tongue should be when you do. Within five weeks, Aleck could read aloud a shutter, a wheeze, a growl, or a grunt. A year after he built his own contraption, Aleck was a speaking machine himself.

In the summer of 1864, the great phonetician, Alexander J. Ellis, traveled to the Bells’ temporary home in London to test this new alphabet. Round and happy, his rumpled clothes weighted by the miscellany in his twenty-eight specially tailored pockets, he sat with Melville and worked out the most difficult and obscure sounds he could think of. Part of his thinking was not only to learn the limits and possibilities of the alphabet but also to prevent Melville’s sons from guessing the words, or anticipating nuances of intonation. He came up with words in Latin, pronounced as the Estonians would, as the Italians would, as the Latins themselves theoretically would; the phrase how odd in any of the many accents of English; English mixed with Arabic sounds; mispronounced Spanish; and a few sounds that he made up on the spot. Melville translated them into Visible Speech.

Then he called Aleck and Edward in.

Aleck looked at the symbols, worked them out inside his mind, each word strange, often with an unexpected turn in the middle. Then he began to say them. Mostly he said them right. When he was wrong, Ellis told him so. Aleck reread the word, adjusted the inside of his mouth, and said it correctly. Or, a few times, insisted that he’d read what was written. Then Melville would examine the word and declare that he’d written what he’d heard. Then Aleck would be sent away again, Ellis would say the word again, Melville would write the word again, and Aleck, called back in, would pronounce it anew.

Even with these small errors, Ellis was taken aback by what felt like his own voice repeated back to him, over and over. Ellis, who had once made his own attempt at a universal alphabet, now praised Melville’s, and imagined that, since it allowed the reader to correctly pronounce another language with ease, it could soon become “a great social and political engine.”

To drum up interest and demand for the system, the Bells moved on to performing before small groups of potential funders. At the beginning of the performance, the boys would be sent out of earshot. Melville would encourage the audience to suggest any word, any sound. They offered the most impossible sounds they could think of: the sound of sawing wood, a Sanskrit cerebral T. One offered the sound of a long weary yawn, stretching out his arms as he did, his torso twisting. Melville translated it, and his boys returned. They studied the transcribed yawn and exhaled it, no understanding, no arms outstretched. A ghost of a yawn, one audience member described it. The audience howled in laughter to see it. But they were impressed.

Melville never revealed to his audiences what the various symbols meant and how to read them. He was still hoping to present the alphabet to the British government, or at least to raise funds to print books and spread the system that way. Secrecy would protect his investment and, potentially, his investors. So, like much in this age of medical theaters and the budding freak show, Melville’s exhibitions had an air of the mysterious and mystical. Science wasn’t yet separate from entertainment—experiments were often parlor tricks; science could simply be magic. By concealing the how, a breakthrough was a miracle. And from the first demonstration, this would be Aleck’s role: He would take to the stage. He would convince people of things they believed were impossible.

Of course it didn’t seem impossible to him. From his father he knew which parts of the mouth and throat controlled which sounds, how to read those sounds from an obscure alphabet, and how to give speech the power to shock, to astound. From watching his mother lean her ear toward the piano as she played, he understood how to listen very closely to the smallest shades of sound. From holding his mouth close to her ear and manipulating his own speech so that she could hear it, he began to believe that the transfer of information from his ears to her mind was a transfer of power, too. And from the way people respected her when she used her own voice, he understood how much power speech could contain and confer—not just before a captive audience, but in life.

About The Author

Courtesy of the Author

Katie Booth teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared in The BelieverCatapultMcSweeney’s, and Harper’s Magazine, and has been highlighted on Longreads and Longform; “The Sign for This” was a notable essay in the 2016 edition of Best American Essays. Booth received a number of prestigious fellowships to support the research for The Invention of Miracles, including from the Library of Congress and the Massachusetts Historical Society. She was raised in a mixed hearing and deaf family. This is her first book.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (April 6, 2021)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501167096

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Raves and Reviews

“As schoolchildren we learn that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. We don’t learn that this is among the least interesting things about him. It takes a book like Katie Booth’s The Invention of Miracles to teach us that. Provocative, personal, and exhaustively researched, Booth’s book is the rare biography that completely alters a famous person’s popular image… Booth has the courage and perspective to portray her subject’s deeply flawed humanity, giving the book its poetry and tragic resonance.”
The Boston Globe

“Meticulously researched, crackling with insights, and rich in novelistic detail, The Invention of Miracles is more than the revelatory biography of an inventor who transformed the world. By shining a bright light on society’s assumptions about disability, Booth’s book is a profound and lyrical meditation on what it means to be human.”
Steve Silberman, New York Times bestselling author of NeuroTribes

“Katie Booth’s brave and absorbing book is the story of a contradictory genius whose inventiveness outstripped his compassion… Booth’s style is highly poetic, even moving… [and] so scrupulously researched you feel like you’re walking alongside the inventor as he strides the Scottish moors or looking over his shoulder as he researches the qualities of different kinds of current in his Boston home.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“A provocative, sensitive, beautifully written biography of an American genius.”
— Sylvia Nasar, New York Times bestselling author of A Beautiful Mind

“Booth’s descriptions of Bell’s passionate courtship of his student Mabel Hubbard, who belonged to a much higher social class, are as stirring as a romance novel, and her narrative of his work on the telephone reads like a thriller… Her meticulous research and rigor are evident on every page.”
The New York Times Book Review

“A fascinating tale of great love, innovation, personal drama, and the unexpected consequences of good intentions.”
— Walter Isaacson, New York Times bestselling author of Steve Jobs

“Refreshingly candid. Booth does a masterful job weaving this powerful and compelling story about fear and obsessive fascination with difference.”
— Brian Greenwald, PhD, professor of history at Gallaudet University

“A powerful revisionist text, at once personal, historical, and insightful. As someone born deaf with hearing parents, I think I would have benefitted from being born into a world where ableist attitudes were rooted out and understood the way Booth demonstrates here.”
— Raymond Antrobus, author of The Perseverance

“Katie Booth vigorously revises the historical record… [and] reveals a rich history of heights and depths... 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.”

“Researched and written through the Deaf perspective, this marvelously engaging history will have us rethinking the invention of the telephone.”
— Jaipreet Virdi, PhD, author of Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History

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