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Alexander Graham Bell's design sketch of the telephone, ca. 1876.

[Detail] Alexander Graham Bell's design sketch of the telephone

Collection Overview

Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, 1862-1939, consists of correspondence, scientific notebooks, journals, blueprints, articles, and photographs. The papers document the invention of the telephone, the first telephone company, Bell's family life, interest in the education of the deaf, and aeronautical and other scientific research. The collection includes Bell's experimental notebook with the entry in which he spoke through the first telephone saying, "Mr. Watson -- Come here -- I want to see you." Bell's various roles as teacher, inventor, celebrity, and family man are covered extensively in his papers.

You may go directly to the collection, Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress, in American Memory.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
  • Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

There are currently no other resources for this collection

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection.

Search the descriptive information and/or full text of items in the collection using the keyword search, or by selecting from the Subject Index and Name Index.

You may also browse the Series Index, which groups items in the collection by Family Papers, General Correspondence, Subject File, and Laboratory Notebooks. For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.

History

The documents included in the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers span from 1862 to 1939, with the bulk of the papers being from the years 1865 to 1920. The central focus of the collection is on the Development of the Industrial United States (1876-1915) and the Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930). Working with documents in the collection, students have the opportunity to examine the impact of technological change and the indomitable spirit of one of the leading scientists and inventors of the era. The family correspondence provides insights into Bell's personality and perseverance, and into the social history of the time.

Bell: A Man of Broad Knowledge

Bell's journals and corespondence reveal his interest in an array of subjects. Although his paramount interest was in the sciences, Bell had a keen mind and sense of curiosity that prohibited him from focusing on only one subject. Have students browse the Subject Index to see the great array of topics about which Bell wrote. For example, in a letter to Miss Mabel Hubbard, Bell expressed his emotions, his poetic facility with language, and his love of nature.

Likewise, in a letter to his parents, Bell shows his concern over the intolerance of the general public regarding Charles Darwin's research, "I cannot understand the prejudice with which many people view an honest and hard-working investigator like Darwin."

Bell would often host discussions, inviting prominent individuals to present papers on a variety of topics. In his 1902 journal Bell wrote, "Last Wednesday, April 2, we had up for discussion the subject of the relation of capital and labor" and noted that 28 gentlemen and 4 ladies attended. He was so impressed by the paper presented by Mr. Friedman that he had it entered in its entirety as an appendix in his 1902 journal. The 1902 journal also includes topics as varied as Stonehenge and efforts to provide an early form of air-cooling for patrons attending the St. Louis World's Fair. Search Journal by Alexander Graham Bell 1901 to find the 1901 and 1902 journals.

  • How might Bell's interest in so many varied topics have influenced his study of science? How might his inventions have been influenced by his broad-based knowledge?
  • After reading Bell's thoughts, do you have the sense that he was open-minded? Was he on the "cutting edge" of modern thought?
  • Was Bell tolerant of other people's ideas and opinions?
  • What else can you infer about Bell based on his letters and journals?
  • How do the qualities and attitudes expressed in these writings relate to Bell's accomplishments and an inventor and scientist?

Assisting the Deaf: Visible Speech

Bell and his father, Alexander Melville Bell were innovators in the field of educating the deaf. Students can use the documents of Alexander Graham Bell Family Papersto learn about Visible Speech, a technique invented by Melville Bell. Search on visible speech to read the Bells' thoughts on this method of instruction and the evolving interest in and use of this technique.

Students will discover in the letters that Bell was not as totally committed to Visible Speech as was his father. In a letter to Gardiner Greene Hubbard, his future father-in-law, Bell confessed that he had some concerns with the system but explained that he felt the need to respect his father's life-long commitment to the system.

  • What were Bell's concerns with this method of instruction?
  • What alternative approaches and improvements did he suggest?
  • How might this critical thinking have helped Bell in his later accomplishments?

Students can research what techniques are used today in educating the deaf.

  • Is there still a need for visible speech?
  • Has this technique been out-moded?
  • How have advances in technology changed life for the deaf?
  • Students can continue their consideration of inventions by discussing what inventions they have seen come and go in their life time? What factors contribute to the replacement of one technology with another?

Helen Keller, a deaf and blind girl, met Bell at the age of six after her family sought Bell's advice regarding her education. He led them to Miss Annie Sullivan who taught Helen to communicate. Search on Helen Keller for Bell's correspondence with the student and her teacher. In his letter of May 2, 1888, Bell wrote to thank "My dear little Helen" for the letter she had written him. Bell expressed a great interest in Helen Keller's accomplishments.

  • How did Sullivan work with Helen Keller?
  • What did Keller express to Bell in her letters?
  • Later in life, what request did Keller make of Bell?

Communication Technology

Of his many inventions, Bell is primarily noted for his invention of the telephone. He began his experiments in an attempt to improve the telegraph that depended on using Morse code to communicate. Bell's knowledge of the nature of sound from his work with the deaf and his love and understanding of music convinced him that multiple messages could be sent simultaneously over the same telegraph line. Have students search on harmonic telegraph for information on his early experiments in improving the use of the telegraph.

In a letter to his parents, Bell writes of an offer to finance his work on a "multiple telegraph". Prominent Boston attorney Gardner Green Hubbard, his backer and future father-in-law, resented Western Union's monopoly and was willing to provide funds and connections to support Bell's research. Have students conduct outside research on Western Union to understand the role this company played in America at the time. In addition, students can use Bell's experience with financing his work to understand the importance of funding to invention and its influence on research.

  • How might the source of funding for a project influence what a researcher decides to study?
  • How might the funding source effect what results a researcher pursues?
  • What can be done to keep the research objective while accepting the funding?
  • Why might it be important to disclose funding sources with the results of research? What might citizens surmise from knowing who funded the project?

While Hubbard urged Bell to spend more time on the invention, Bell and Thomas Watson, a young electrician he had hired, had diverted their attention to the telephone. One can get a sense of the excitement and significance of the invention from a letter written on March 10, 1876, in which the 29-year-old Bell tells his father of the success of the telephone. He recorded a sketch of his invention along with the famous utterance to Mr. Watson in his 1876 notebook. Search on telephone to find these and other documents.

Bell's further experimentation to perfect the telephone is included in his Experimental Note Book, Volume VII. Search Journal by Alexander Graham Bell, November 25, 1887.

Bell did not feel that his work on the telephone had progressed to the stage where he could demonstrate it at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. However, Hubbard and his daughter insisted and Bell agreed to display the telephone. Students can research the significance of this exhibition and other World's Fairs in outside resources. They can look for the impact of these exhibits on visitors and society at large. What hopes were associated with these exhibits? What did they represent to society? Available online resources include:

With inventions comes the issue of patents. Search Elisha Gray for over 50 hits chronicling Bell's patent conflicts with Gray and Western Union over issues relating to the invention of the telephone. Students can use these papers to learn how inventions are protected and how one proves their right to patent an invention. Circulars, from December 20, 1878, to May 23, 1879 provides a synopsis of the patent disputes.

Having studied the thought and experimentation that went into the invention of the telephone, students can now begin an informed discussion of this invention's impact on society.

  • Start by thinking of ways in which the telephone is used in our daily lives. What other technology do we use that is dependent on the telephone?
  • Then have students consider how the phone changed society. What did it mean to have information travel so quickly among people? What disasters could be avoided? What opportunities were created? Can students imagine going one day without using the telephone or information received by phone?
  • Have students research the way the phone became integrated into society. What was the progression of adaptation of the phone into daily life from the introduction of the phone to modern usage? Who had access at first? Where were phone lines installed? In addition, students can search on Bell Telephone Company and American Telephone & Telegraph to learn of the early history of these companies.

Tetrahedral Construction and Aviation

Writing of Bell's many inventions, Mabel Hubbard Bell wrote in her notes of 1907, "Now of all these inventions I am especially interested just now in Mr. Bell's Tetrahedral Construction System. . . . ". Search Tetrahedral for additional references to Bell's experiments with kites and aviation.

Mrs. Bell recognized that her husband's work with tetrahedral construction had a wider application than merely to flight, ". . . it is also applicable to the construction of towers, bridges etc., of steel and iron and of various other structures of wood. I believe its possible use in these various other ways is very great, and well worthy of being developed to the benefit of the public and incidentally of course to the credit of Mr. Bell its inventor." She was so convinced of its impact on society that she put up her own money for its commercial use. Students can use the materials in the collection to study the many applications of this invention.

Search Journal by Alexander Graham Bell 1901 to find the 1901 and 1902 journals which deal primarily with aeronautical subjects.

  • What was the history of flight at the time of Bell's experimentation?
  • How was he improving upon previous work?
  • From reading Bell's notebooks, can students see where we use Bell's inventions today?

The Victorian Era: A Social History

The personal letters in Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers provide students with the opportunity to examine the personal beliefs and attitudes of Bell and members of his immediate family. From this information, students can also gain insight into aspects of the social history of the Victorian Era.

Students can browse the Family Papers series. They will find such items as the earliest record in this collection: a letter from Alexander Melville Bell to his son who has left home in Scotland to assist his grandfather in London. The letter instructs Aleck, a 15-year-old, on proper behavior and reveals the senior Bell's concern for his young son away from home for the first time. Letters, dated March 2, 1863 and March 2, 1864, pour out a father's love for his son as he celebrates his 16th and 17th birthdays away from home. In 1870, Bell received a letter informing him of his brother's death from tuberculosis. In this poignant letter, Alexander Melville Bell, urges his son to take care of himself.

  • How was young Bell expected to behave away from home? What social values are reflected in his fathers' instructions?
  • What responsibilities did Bell have to his family, especially after the death of his brother?
  • What topics did the family discuss? What were their major concerns? What did they celebrate?

Women's Rights

A year before his marriage, Bell wrote Mabel, "I never suspected that you were one of these people who think women have rights". A careful analysis of the letter reveals that he was attempting to stimulate a discussion on the topic rather than assert male supremacy. The letter did provoke Mabel's response. Search women's rights for the exchange of letters on the subject.

  • From the letters, can you determine what Bell's true views of women's rights were? Do his views reflect common thought on women's rights at that time?
  • What does Bell's town suggest about his attitude to women's rights and his relationship with his wife?
  • What sense do you have of the depth of the relationship between Bell and Mabel? Was this typical of most married couples of that era?
  • What other topics do they discuss? What other values of that time period do they reflect in their correspondence?

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Critical Thinking

The large quantity of documents in Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers are a valuable resource for the development of historical thinking skills. Through the study of these papers, students can track the development of Bell's inventions over time and can gain an understanding of what life was like at the time of Bell's work. By reading the papers in the collection with a critical eye, students can discern the point of view of the variety of authors of these papers. In considering Bell's work with deaf people, students can investigate culture and expectations of assisting another person. In addition, students can use the materials as a launching point into researching other inventors and comparing the lives, inventions, and influences of these people to those of Bell.

Chronological Thinking

By using the Time Line in this collection, students can follow the chronology of Alexander Graham Bell's inventions and key scientific discoveries. In addition, the special presentation Alexander Graham Bell as Inventor and Scientist will assist students in understanding Bell's many inventions.

Students can also create a timeline to understand the development of a single invention. For example, they can search on telephone and construct a time line highlighting Bell's work, from his first notes on the concept to his first success on March 10, 1876. The time line can be used to show the slow, diligent work that resulted in the development of the telephone. Encourage students to illustrate the time line using Bell's sketches and blueprints to reflect the evolution of the invention. Students can be directed to the special presentation The Telephone and the Multiple Telegraph as a point of embarkation.

Students also can examine Bell's journals in order to reconstruct the chronological development of experiments with flight. Search Journal by Alexander Graham Bell 1901 to find the 1901 and 1902 journals which deal primarily with aeronautical subjects. Through an analysis of these journals students can see the steady progression of his experiments with kites. Given the proper tools, could someone reconstruct his experiments from his journals?

Students can find a good chronology of Bell's work in aeronautics by examining the 1909 article written by Mabel Hubbard Bell. The article traces Bell's experiments from the tetrahedral man-carrying kite through the flight of the Silver-Dart, the first successful powered flight in Canada in 1909--six years after the Wright Brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

By searching on flying machine, students could be directed to the disposition given by Alexander Graham Bell in the 1914 patent case, The Aerial Experiment Association versus George Francis Myers (Interference case in the U. S. Patent Office N o 34455 regarding Flying Machines). In his disposition, Bell explains his long interest in heavier than air flight.

A Man-Carrying Kite

A: I found, upon increasing the dimensions of my compound tetrahedral structures, that the weight of the whole compound structure was not proportionally greater than the weight of the individual units of which they were composed. So I went on making larger and larger compound forms, until at last I constructed a kite known as the "Frost King", which successfully carried a man on the flying line. I then determined to build a still larger structure, put a man in the structure and propel it, if possible, by an engine. It was my intention to make it so large that it would fly as a kite carrying a man, an engine and all. Start the propeller while it was in the air, drive it against the wind, and when the towing line should become slack, drop the towing line and leave it to pursue its way through the air as a free flying machine, or aerodrome.

From The Aerial Experiment Association versus George Francis Myers, January 15, 1915.

Historical Comprehension

Reading Bell's journal entries and letters about particular inventions will aid students in gaining an historical comprehension of this time period. For example, students can search photophone to read why Bell thought this invention would aid society. On July 28, 1880 Bell was asked what he believed to be the future of the photophone. He responded:

"It is too soon to speak of that yet...but I look for its future in a practical use among navigators. For communication of ships at sea; for communication between a lighthouse and a ship, or between a ship that is being wrecked and the people on shore. I also look for it as a means of transmitting messages in times of war, when telegraph lines are down and the country is desolated, and where other electric forms would fall."

From Clippings, from August 31, 1880, to September 1, 1880

In the late 1800s,

  • What form of communication was commonly used to transmit information long distances? How quickly could people receive information? Did everyone have the means for receiving long-distance news in their home? How did Bell's inventions change the transmission of information over long distances?
  • How was information moved among armies during the American Civil War? How did this experience inspire Bell?
  • Were there disasters at sea that could have been aided by the use of the photophone?

Ask students to write an evaluation of the usefulness of the photophone, based on their investigation.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation

The collection offers students many opportunities to analyze documents to determine what it tells of the point of view and interests of its author. Have students browse the Family Papers and General Correspondence series and choose one person to study: Bell, his father, mother, wife or father-in-law. Students can then read the letters this person wrote to determine his or her point of view on various issues. By reading the letters in chronological order, students can note how the author's views changed and developed over time. What might have influenced these changes of perspective? Other people's opinions? Life experiences? What else?

In addition to the statements a person makes and the ideas he or she expresses, the language used can also be revealing. What kinds of words are being used in these documents? What do they suggest about the writer's background, interests, attitudes, and character?

Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making

A study of any number of the thousands of documents relating to Bell's work in the field of elocution discloses his sincere concern for improving education for persons with impaired hearing. Have students browse the Subject Index for papers related to educating the deaf. Analyze selected documents to discern reasons for his interest in this topic and circumstances that contributed to his work in speech therapy. Evaluate the impact he made on improving the quality of life for the deaf. Students could also investigate the degree to which Bell's exploratory work is still used in speech therapy.

From their analysis of Bell's education of deaf people, students can consider the issue of culture and assimilation. Deaf culture has distinct characteristics that make it differ from that of the hearing world. The differences may seem obvious at first, but there are subtleties, too, to the differences in these cultures. Why might a deaf person not wish to speak? Students can consider what it means to be part of a culture: What support do we gain from those within our culture? And what does it mean to be a culture living in the world of another? What does it mean to always feel and be identified as "different" from the mainstream culture?

This discussion may lead to a consideration of how people give and receive assistance. Hearing people might assume that all deaf people would want to speak and, therefore, the best thing a hearing person can do is teach a deaf person to speak. However, what challenges can arise when the giver and receiver make assumptions? What benefit is there in the giver and receiver discussing what they each hope to gain from their interaction and how best to achieve those goals?

Historical Research Capabilities

The Bell Family Papers provide a number of opportunities for research. Have students use documents in the collection to investigate Bell's experiments. Then have them conduct outside research on other scientists and inventors that were following similar pursuits.

For example, students could be directed to search on phonautograph to investigate Bell's interest and experimentation with "making speech visible," and compare and contrast Bell's research with that of Thomas Edison. To learn about Edison's life, students can browse the collection Inventing Entertainment: The Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies.

Similarly, direct students to search on aeroplane and compare Bell's pursuit of manned flight with that of the Wright Brothers, using the following questions.

Daisy trying to resuscitate drowned lamb, Letter from Alexander Graham Bell to Thomas Gleason, August 1882.

  • What was each man's family background? Where were they educated? Where did they live and perform their experiments? What do we know of their characters and personalities?
  • What were their interests? Who funded their research? What careers did they pursue?
  • How did their inventions influence society? What impact did they have on their professions and on an average American's daily life?

Alternatively, students can examine Bell's illustration of a proposed Vacuum Jacket and research the context in which Bell began work on the invention, following the death of his infant son, Edward, from a breathing difficulty. Search on Vacuum Jacket to learn of his experimentation.

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Arts & Humanities

Reading the documents in Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers provides students an excellent opportunity to study different writing styles. For example, Bell wrote many persuasive arguments that students can analyze to develop their own writing skills. In addition, Bell's journal entries document detailed, exact facts of his experimentation. Readers will also find many letters reflecting the Bell family's experience with the language art themes of love, family, and conflict. Students will enjoy reading the emotion and honesty with which the family corresponded - the intimate thoughts of the scientist and inventor.

Persuasive Writing

An examination of Bell's personal correspondence illustrates the skills he employed to relate his convictions in writing. Browse the Family Papersand General Correspondence series of letters to read Bell's writings to his parents, his wife, and associates. Ask students to identify as many different techniques as possible, with which Bell expressed himself. Also have them analyze the way in which he conveyed his feelings when he refused to write an introduction to a book written about Glenn H. Curtiss, a colleague in aviation.

My ideas in such matters may be a trifle old fashioned but I feel so keen an interest in your career as an experimenter, which has, I trust, only begun that I cannot refrain from urging you to very seriously consider the effect which such a book as that which you propose will have on your many friends. If you wrote a comprehensive book on the Aeroplane, the public would receive it appreciatively but this book outlined by Mr. Post is more of the nature of a biography and I fear will be misunderstood. The commercializing of ones own accomplishments may be all right financially but is a mistake socially.

I am too proud of you and interested in you to help you make such a mistake and this is my reason for declining to write an Introduction to Mr. Post's book.

From Letter from Alexander Graham Bell to Glenn H. Curtiss, undated.

  • How does Bell frame his argument against writing the introduction?
  • How is he careful not to insult Mr. Curtiss?
  • If you were Mr. Curtiss, would you still publish the book having read Bell's comments?
  • How might you respond to Bell's letter?

Emotional & Rational Appeal

In 1904, Bell wrote a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt regarding an episode in which an African American in his employ was denied basic human rights while in Canada. Search on Theodore Roosevelt to find this letter. Have students examine Bell's request that the State Department investigate the case and the documents he enclosed to further his appeal for redress.

Dear Sir:-

Allow me to direct your attention to the fact that Mr. Charles F. Thompson, a colored man in my employment, and his wife, both citizens of the United States, have suffered from exposure to a storm in consequence of exclusion from six of the public hotels of Sydney, Nova Scotia -- a town where there is no special accommodation for colored persons. They have been put to unnecessary expense on account of doctor's bill and carriage hire, and in addition have been insulted on account of their color.

From Letter from Alexander Graham Bell to Theodore Roosevelt, December 8, 1904.

  • What reasoning does Bell give for asking the State Department to get involved in this incident of discrimination?
  • Are Bell's arguments based on citation of laws? Common practice? Basic human dignity?
  • Does Bell appeal to the emotions of the readers? To their rational analysis of the situation?
  • How does Bell vouch for his employee? What evidence does Bell give of this man's character?
  • What is Bell's tone? How does it effect his request?

Editorial and Argument

Students can read the news clipping from the August 31, 1880 Evening Transcript on "Science vs. The Public Schools" by searching on Clippings, from August 31, 1880, to September 1, 1880. Have students write a reply to the article from their own perspective either supporting or rejecting the arguments presented in the article. Students can use the following questions to help them:

  • What are the main arguments in the article? Do you agree or disagree with them? Why? Explain your reasons in a written support or refutation of these arguments.
  • Are there additional supporting arguments for your case?
  • What authoritative sources can you cite to support your argument? Can you argue from personal experience?

Documentation

Students can learn the importance of accuracy in documentation from reading Bell's journals and through a short exercise involving cooking. Have students browse the Laboratory Notebooks series of the collection, particularly the Laboratory Notes, Volume 31, 1891-1893. Students should note the details of the documentation Bell made of his experiments.

Students can then practice accurately documenting facts by taking notes during a cooking demonstration. This may be as simple as observing a parent preparing a meal. Then, have students use their notes, rather than a recipe and directions from a book, to prepare the dish themselves. After cooking from their notes, students can discuss the importance of accurate documentation.

Language Arts Themes

Friendship and Love, Family, and Conflict and Resolution are among the themes in language arts curriculum represented in this collection. The correspondence regarding Bell's desire to marry Mabel Hubbard, one of his deaf students, provides an ideal opportunity to examine a combination of themes dealing with love, family, and conflict resolution. Students can search on Mabel to find these letters

On August 18, 1875, Bell sent a letter to his mother rebuking the family's failure to respond to his intent to marry Mabel. He refers to an earlier letter from his mother in which she warned her son to consider carefully his intentions to marry a "congenital deaf mute." Bell's mother's response on August 23 is a tactful reply; however, in a letter dated August 30, she lectures him on his harsh letter and writes of how he has troubled his father.

On August 29, Bell wrote to Mabel of his intent to return home and attempt to work matters out with his father. On the same day, Bell's father responded to his son's "unintelligible telegram" and reminds him of his responsibility to adhere to filial piety.

Students can continue reading this series of letters relating to Bell's desire to marry Mabel Hubbard by searching June 30, 1875 for a letter from Bell to Alexander Melville Bell and Eliza Symonds Bell and November 25, 1875 for his letter to Mabel Hubbard.

  • What specific issues does the family argue over? What complaints and objects are voiced?
  • How does the family resolve the issue of Bell's intent to marry Mabel?
  • How is love expressed? How are anger and frustration expressed?
  • Compare this correspondence of letters to a phone conversation. How would the communications be different? How would tone of voice influence people? For example, what if one person was yelling or crying? How might that effect the listener? How might the passage of time between letters have effected the conversation?

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