N4L 159: "Reluctant Genius" by Charlotte Gray


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By Janet Perry, Janet Perry: blogger, and Nonfiction book lover. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.


Much-decorated professor and accomplished author, Charlotte Gray chronicles Reluctant Genius: Alexander Graham Bell and the Passion for Invention. Bell originally hailed from Scotland, emigrated to Canada for better health, and eventually settled in Boston, Massachusetts (USA) where he acted virtually solo while inventing what we know as the modern telephone. Although Bell felt miserable having to keep careful notes, his writings proved essential to his landmark patent, which ultimately made him the winner of the tight race to transmit human voices over wire. Says Gray, “His imaginative breakthrough is…what makes Alexander Graham Bell the quintessential inventor of the nineteenth century—the era when an untrained individual working alone could dream up such a crucial scientific advance.”


  • Alexander Graham Bell – the father of modern communications and inventor of the telephone
  • Melville Bell – Alexander’s father who taught him the physics and nuances of sound; inventor of “Visible Speech” to help the hearing-impaired assimilate into the hearing world; plagued by a degree of jealousy towards his son-in-law while also insisting Bell complete and submit his patent application
  • Mabel Hubbard – student-turned-wife of Bell ten years his younger; went deaf at age five from scarlet fever
  • Gertrude Mercer McCurdy – Alexander’s mother-in-law, a deaf woman, who insisted her daughter Mabel pursue rigorous intellectual achievements
  • Gardiner Greene Hubbard – Bell’s father-in-law and business partner; instrumental in getting Bell to file a timely patent
  • Samuel F.B. Morse – invented the Morse Code, an invention that catapulted the speed of communications
  • Elisha Gray –rival inventor who first congratulated Bell then later disputed the win
  • Thomas Edison – Bell’s contemporary and competitor; enjoyed the process of invention more than the inventions themselves
  • Helen Keller – deaf and dumb genius; contemporary of Bell who often invited Bell to her own stage appearances
  • Thomas Watson – Bell’s 22-year-old assistant of the famous “Watson, come here” moment


  • “Electricity seemed to them like an invisible power, and if they could harness it, they could go to the moon.”
  • “European ‘oralists’ appealed to the notion of speech as God’s special gift to mankind, which it was cruel to withhold from deaf children. Since the Renaissance, the human voice had been regarded as an image of the divine soul, and language as the source of civilization.”
  • “[Bell] never accepted the argument that sign language was ‘natural,’ and he continued to insist that most deaf children were better off if they remained in the speaking world.”
  • “Today, we can understand the technological revolution of Bell’s day only if we compare it with the impact that microprocessors have had on our own lives.”

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