Alexander Graham Bell for Kids: His Life and Inventions, with 21 Activities

Alexander Graham Bell for Kids: His Life and Inventions, with 21 Activities

by Mary Kay Carson


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Alexander Graham Bell invented not only the telephone, but also early versions of the phonograph, the metal detector, airplanes, and hydrofoil boats. This Scottish immigrant was also a pioneering speech teacher and a champion of educating those with hearing impairments, work he felt was his most important contribution to society. Bell worked with famous Americans such as Helen Keller and aviators Glenn Curtiss and Samuel P. Langley, and his inventions competed directly with those of Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers.
     This unique biography includes a time line, a list of online resources, and 21 engaging hands-on activities to better appreciate Bell's remarkable accomplishments. Kids will:

          Construct a Pie Tin Telegraph and a Pizza Box Phonograph
          "See" and "feel" sound by building simple devices
          Communicate using American Sign Language
          Send secret messages using Morse code
          Investigate the properties of ailerons on a paper airplane
          Build and fly a tetrahedral kite
          And more!

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780912777139
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 06/01/2018
Series: Chicago Review Press For Kids Series
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 463,743
Product dimensions: 10.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.30(d)
Age Range: 9 - 12 Years

About the Author

Mary Kay Carson has authored more than 50 science and history books for children, including Exploring the Solar System, Weather Projects for Young Scientists, and The Underground Railroad for Kids. She was presented with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics 2011 Children's Literature Award for The Wright Brothers for Kids.

Read an Excerpt


Warm, sunny days are not something to waste in rainy, chilly Scotland. One late-summer day in the early 1850s, a young family was enjoying the fine weather in the countryside. After they ate their picnic lunch, the boys ran off to play. The middle boy was named Alexander and called Aleck. He was very young, perhaps three or four years old. But Aleck was already a fearless explorer.

A nearby wheat field swayed and shimmered. It caught Aleck's attention, and he set off to investigate. Once inside the forest of wheat stalks taller than himself, Aleck began to wander and wonder. Does growing wheat make a noise? The boy sat and listened hard for sounds of growing wheat, without any luck. Then he realized he didn't know how to get back to his family. The wheat was too tall to see over. Feeling lost and alone, and likely tired, little Aleck cried himself to sleep. "I was awakened by my father's voice," he later recalled. He sprinted in joy toward the sound of his father calling his name.

This was Alexander Graham Bell's earliest memory. But back then, he was simply Alexander Bell. He was born on March 3, 1847, in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was given no middle name but was named Alexander for his father and grandfather (with whom he shared a birthday). And the older men had more in common than just their names — grandfather Alexander and father Alexander were both expert communicators.

Family Traditions

As A young man, Grandfather Alexander Bell had been an actor. His training included elocution, the study of how to speak correctly — an important skill for an actor. In Grandfather Bell's case, it became his passion. He used his voice training to teach students with speech problems such as stuttering.

In 1833, after Grandfather Bell and his wife divorced, he moved from Edinburgh, Scotland, to London with his 14-year-old son, Alexander Melville Bell (called Melville). In England, Melville went from assisting his father in his speech-tutoring business to being a talented speech teacher himself. But on a trip back to Edinburgh, 24-four-year-old Melville met the love of his life. Her name was Eliza Symonds, an Englishwoman living in Scotland with her widowed mother. Eliza was 34 years old and nearly deaf. Melville found her enchanting. He later wrote of their first meeting that Eliza had "the sweetest expression I think I ever saw. ... She was so cheerful under her affliction that sympathy soon turned to admiration."

Though nearly completely deaf since childhood, Eliza spoke and communicated well. She used a funnel-shaped device, called an ear tube, to help her hear. She could also read lips some, recognizing the words people spoke by watching the shape of their mouths. She poured her energy into exploring the world through books, art, and music. She was also a talented portrait painter and pianist.

Melville was in love, and he and Eliza soon married. They settled in Edinburgh and had three sons: first Melville James (called Melly), then Aleck, and lastly Edward Charles (called Ted). Melville taught at the University of Edinburgh, published books on speech, and began working on something he called Visible Speech. It would become a universal alphabet of all the sounds a human voice can make.

Sound Beginnings

Eliza was a talented woman in many fields, from painting to music. And from the time her sons were old enough to read and write, she added another occupation to her list: teacher. Eliza homeschooled Aleck and her other boys. She also taught them to play the piano. Aleck took to the instrument with a passion and quickly learned to read music and also play by ear. Eliza saw a special talent in her middle son and hired a famous pianist to become his instructor. The pianist believed that Aleck was good enough to become a professional musician. Music filled the boy's head day and night. Melodies ringing in his ears kept him awake at night and left him with headaches in the morning. His mother called it "musical fever."

Aleck grew out of his interest in becoming a professional musician. But he enjoyed playing piano his whole life — often late into the night. He later wrote, "My early passion for music had a good deal to do in preparing me for the scientific study of sound." It made him an expert listener with an ear that was sensitive to small differences in the tones and loudness of sounds. Studying, playing, and enjoying music also added to the special bond between Aleck and his pianist mother.

Eliza listened to herself or others play the piano with her ear tube or ear trumpet. She'd set its wide mouthpiece on the piano's soundboard, where the strings were located. Then the narrow end of the ear tube went in her ear. This focused and carried the sound into her ear, like a funnel. When someone wanted to speak to Eliza, he or she would shout into the mouthpiece. But Aleck had his own, quieter way of communicating with his mother. He learned that if he spoke to her in a low voice very close to her forehead, she could "hear" what he said. He reasoned that she was actually feeling the vibrations of his speech, not hearing sounds. For Aleck, this was quite a breakthrough.

Eliza also taught all her sons a finger spelling alphabet that used a speaker's hand positions placed on a listener's open palm. When Aleck spelled out whole conversations to his mother, she didn't need to use her ear tube. She could understand the words by feeling them spelled into her hand while also watching him speak.

An Inventive Youth

Edinburgh was a modern industrial city during Aleck's youth. Steamships and trains sped passengers from place to place. Telegraph wires carried important messages, and factories and mills churned out newfangled goods. A number of inventions came out of Edinburgh, including the iron steamship and the pedal bicycle. It was an exciting time of new inventions — from photography to indoor toilets — that changed people's everyday lives. Thinkers, writers, and scientists of all kinds lived in Edinburgh, and many were frequent visitors and welcome guests in the Bell home. The Bells were among those who believed that education and new technologies made life better for everyone.

Life in the Bell household was fairly formal. The boys were expected to dress nicely and behave themselves indoors. But the Bells owned a country cottage in nearby Trinity, where the boys could hike the hills in old clothes and get as dirty as they liked. Aleck spent his free time at the country home collecting plants, studying animals, and riding an old-fashioned giant bicycle-like contraption called a velocipede. "Milton Cottage at Trinity was my real home in childhood," he wrote, looking back on those years.

Aleck liked his alone time. "In boyhood ... I have spent many happy hours lying among the heather on the Scottish hills — breathing in the scenery around me with a quiet delight that is even now pleasant for me to remember," he later wrote. But Aleck spent time with friends, too. He'd met his friend Ben Herdman when Ben came to have his stutter corrected by Aleck's father, Melville. Ben's father owned an old mill, where the two friends spent hours exploring and playing among the stacked bags of flour and ancient grinding machinery.

One day, Aleck and Ben kept getting into mischief at the mill. Mr. Herdman got irritated with the troublemaking pair; he finally called them into his office and told them to find something useful to do. Aleck asked him what they might do that would be useful. After thinking a moment, the miller picked up a handful of harvested grain still covered in thick husks. "If only you could take the husks off this wheat, you would be doing something useful indeed," Mr. Herdman suggested.

The boys took up the challenge. First they tried scraping off the wheat husks with a stiff brush used to clean nails. It worked, but it took a long time by hand. They needed to make the work go faster. Aleck remembered seeing a big vat, or tub, in the mill that had rotating paddles in it. He figured that if they lined the wall of the vat with stiff brushes, the paddles would push the grain against them and clean off their husks. "It was a proud day for us when we boys marched into Mr. Herdman's office, presented him with our sample of cleaned wheat, and suggested paddling wheat" in an old vat, he later said.

The miller put the boys' idea into action — and it worked. Aleck's first invention was a success! Alexander Graham Bell wrote many years later, "Mr. Herdman's injunction to do something useful was my first incentive to invention, and the method of cleaning wheat the first fruit."

A Careless Student

Aleck felt a bit invisible sandwiched between an older and a younger brother. He decided a middle name would make him more distinct and boost his individuality. There were a lot of Alexanders in his family, after all. Aleck took the middle name Graham, after Alexander Graham, a family friend. He later explained that "Alexander Bell was not nearly substantial enough to suit me. So I chose the surname of one of my father's former pupils, who had come to board at our house, Alexander Graham. It had a fine strong sound to it." The family embraced his new middle name, toasting him with it on his 11th birthday. But everyone continued to call him Aleck.

Aleck started Royal High School that year along with his younger brother, Ted. Their older brother, Melly, already went there. Melly was the best student of the brothers. Aleck was a smart kid, but he wasn't a great student. He was careless with math, hated learning Latin and Greek, and didn't even bother taking science classes. "I passed through ... Royal High School ... and graduated, but by no means with honors, when I was about fourteen years of age," he later wrote of his less-than-spectacular school days.

Melville Bell was not impressed with his middle son's poor efforts and lack of focus. He thought Aleck needed to grow up and get serious about his future. And when a letter from Grandfather Bell suggested that Aleck come stay with him in London, Melville decided that this was the push his son needed. In the fall of 1862, 15-year-old Aleck left Edinburgh on a train bound for England.

Becoming a Young Teacher

The first thing that Grandfather Bell did when his 15-year-old grandson arrived was call for a tailor. London in 1862 was the bustling, sophisticated capital of the British Empire, after all. Grandfather Bell took it upon himself to transform his grandson into an educated upper-class Londoner, starting with the boy's appearance. One of London's best tailors soon had the teenager outfitted like a proper young gentleman. Whenever Alexander left his grandfather's Harrington Square home, he was dressed in a dark, well-tailored suit, with a tie, a top hat, gloves, and a fashionable cane.

Perhaps it was just as well that Alexander didn't have any friends his age in London. He couldn't really hike and explore dressed up in his fancy new clothes. And there were no country hills in London anyway. Grandfather Bell kept Alexander too busy to miss his brothers and friends back in Scotland much. Alexander was quickly put to work reading the plays of Shakespeare and other serious literature. He also studied speech with his grandfather, learning how to precisely pronounce each word he spoke. Alexander also sat in on many of his grandfather's sessions with his students, learning how to help those with speech problems.

Grandfather Bell was himself the son of a poor shoemaker, but his education helped him become a well-respected speech teacher. He believed that schooling could help everyone live better lives — even the poor and criminals. Solving poverty and crime with education was a radical idea in those days. Back then, a person's social class was pretty much set at birth. A banker's daughter didn't become a maid. A street cleaner's son wouldn't go to medical school. These were facts of life in 19th-century England. Alexander soaked up more than books and lessons during his year in London; he absorbed his grandfather's ideas about the world, too.

Grandfather Bell's impressive knowledge of all sorts of subjects made Alexander realize how little he himself knew. Spending time with the elder Bell motivated the young man to become a better person, to educate himself. Grandfather Bell allowed Alexander free use of his library and its books. Among those the teenager read were science books about sound. The once lazy student even began thinking about college.

When a year was up and Melville came to take his son back to Edinburgh, he found that Alexander looked, spoke, and thought like an educated young gentleman. "This year with my grandfather converted me from an ignorant and careless boy into a rather studious youth," Alexander Graham Bell admitted. "From this time forth," he later wrote, "my [friends] were men rather than boys, and I came to be looked upon as older than I really was."


Before Returning to Scotland, Melville went to visit a famous London scientist and took Alexander with him. Charles Wheatstone was a physicist who had reconstructed and improved a speaking machine originally designed by Wolfgang von Kempelen. Melville had heard about Wheatstone's speaking machine and wanted to see it for himself.

When the Bells arrived at the scientist's home, Wheatstone showed them a wooden box. On one side of the box was an accordionlike bag called a bellows, which acted like a pair of lungs. The other side of the box had levers and a leather tube that led to a vibrating reed. The reed made the box's voice, just like on saxophones and clarinets. When a stream of air hits a reed, it vibrates and creates sound.

Wheatstone pushed on the bellows, sending air though the vibrating reed while squeezing the leather tube and working the levers. Out came words! The speaking machine's words sounded mechanical and crude, but Melville was impressed by what he heard.

A year in London had made Alexander into a better student. It had also matured him into a young man. He had tasted independence living in his grandfather's home — and liked it. Melville had sent his son an allowance every month, and Grandfather Bell had let Alexander spend it however he wanted. But back at home in Edinburgh, the allowance ended. Alexander felt "treated as a boy again, after I considered myself a man." Older brother Melly, too, grumbled about living under their father's rule. Perhaps to distract his sons from revolt, Melville challenged them to build a better speaking machine, one with a more humanlike voice.

"My brother ... and I attacked the problem together, and divided up the work," Alexander later recalled. "[Melly] undertook to make the lungs and throat of the apparatus while I made the tongue and mouth." Alexander used a real human skull as a model. He made the jaw and teeth out of hard rubber. Then he cleverly created a movable tongue and palate (roof of the mouth) out of small wooden slats covered in rubber that could be worked by levers. Alexander already knew that word pronunciation depended on how the tongue, lips, and mouth were shaped. Melly made the throat from a tin tube and the sound-producing voice box, or larynx, out of two sheets of rubber that met at an angle. After a lot of trial and error, Melly and Alexander put their halves together. Their speaking machine was ready to talk.

The boys took their contraption out to the common stairway in the house they shared with upstairs neighbors. Melly gave the machine lungs by blowing through the tin tube throat while Alexander maneuvered the lips, palate, and tongue. Out came a high, whiny voice! After a little practice, they got it to say "mamma" like a baby. "'Mamma, Mamma' came forth with heartrending effect," Alexander remembered. The upstairs neighbor came out to investigate, thinking she'd heard a crying baby. "This, of course, was just what we wanted. We quietly slipped into our house, and closed the door, leaving our neighbors to pursue their fruitless quest for the baby. Our triumph and happiness were complete."

Besides being fun, Alexander and Melly's speaking machine taught them a lot about how the human voice works. "The making of this talking-machine certainly marked an important point in my career," Alexander wrote in his 60s. "It made me familiar with the functions of the vocal cords, and started me along the path that led to the telephone."


Excerpted from "Alexander Graham Bell for Kids"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Mary Kay Carson.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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