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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

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.