The Romantic Shenanigans of Alexander Graham BellS

The ostensible topic of Seth Shulman's new book, The Telephone Gambit, is how Alexander Graham Bell cheated his way into owning the phone patent. Apparently Bell copied research from his chief rival for the lucrative patent, Elisha Gray. This revelation isn't particularly stunning in our era of patent litigation and IP wackiness, and that's why it's lucky that this new revelation about Bell is almost beside the point. What really stands out in The Telephone Gambit is Shulman's portrait of Bell the futurist, a guy ahead of his time both technologically and entrepreneurially, but also (touchingly) in a freethinking romantic way too. One of the little-known facts about the years leading up to Bell's controversial patent is how distracted he was by an overwhelming crush on one of his female students, Mabel Hubbard.

Gardiner Hubbard, her telegraph magnate father, had hired the young inventor to teach his deaf daughter Mabel how to speak. Bell was known at the time for pioneering a new method for teaching the deaf to enunciate. In fact, it was Bell's early interest in teaching speech that led him into the telephone field.

Bell became so distracted by his love for Mabel that he could barely work. Finally, he told Mabel's parents he would confess his love to their daughter no matter what they had to say about it. This was pretty bold, especially for the era — and considering that Hubbard was also funding Bell's work on the telephone. Mabel, for her part, was independent-minded, and took Bell's ardor in stride. She suggested they get to know each other better before making any decisions. After their marriage, both agitated for female suffrage.

The weirdest part of all this was that Papa Hubbard may have inadvertently inspired the lusty Bell to cheat on his patent applications. He threatened Bell that he would refuse to let him marry his daughter unless he applied himself to inventing the telephone.

I love the idea that the telephone was invented on the power of lust, since it later formed the backbone of the internet — which, as we all know, was invented for porn. Details about Bell's personal life, and how it affected his great inventions, are just part of the fun in Shulman's intriguing account of a late-nineteenth century futurist. We also learn about his oddball flying projects, as well as his progressive plans for educating disabled people whom many at the time considered too "damaged" to be useful. He may have been a cheater, but Bell was a damn interesting guy who would probably have been right at home in the early twenty-first century too.

The Telephone Gambit [W.W. Norton]