Form and Content
In the first chapter of Out of Silence into Sound: The Life of Alexander Graham Bell, Roger Burlingame reaches for the imagination of his intended audience by describing a “mystery” in Andover, Maine: the construction of a huge antenna that would communicate with the satellite Telstar, launched on July 10, 1962. After the narrative flashes back a century to the American Civil War, it shifts to Edinburgh, Scotland, introducing three generations of talented Bells. Burlingame then records Alexander Graham Bell’s birth in Edinburgh, his education and early work in London, and the family’s move to Canada in 1870 to save Bell’s life when he contracted tuberculosis.
As the narrative progresses through Bell’s move to Boston and his experiments with electricity and electromagnetism, it broadens to include discourses on Ameri-can social conditions, industry, economics, and politics. Well-illustrated, the book includes more than thirty black-and-white sketches and photographs, beginning with an imposing frontispiece of the stately, bearded inventor and including such diverse subjects as a model of Telstar, a replica of Bell’s attic laboratory, the first Bell telephone, a self-portrait of Mabel Hubbard, and Bell watching the flight of one of his huge, multicelled kites near his retirement home in Nova Scotia. Interwoven with American history are accounts of Bell’s frequent successful battles with patent pirates and of the phenomenal growth of the American Bell Telephone Company, later American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T).
As has been true for many inventions, Bell’s telephone was at first considered merely an amusing gadget. Burlingame notes that the automobile was once thought of as “the rich man’s toy”; similarly, the earliest moving pictures, phonograph records, and airplanes were exhibited first as mere entertainment. In fact, Burlingame points out gleefully, Western Union turned down its chance to buy the Bell patents for one hundred thousand dollars, dismissing Bell’s invention as “an electrical toy” and later losing a David-and-Goliath court battle with the tiny Bell Company when it tried to imitate the Bell patents.
While portraying Bell’s genius and determination, Burlingame admits his hero’s major weakness: With little aptitude for business, Bell often made costly mistakes. When a financial backer recruited Theodore Newton Vail, a genius of another sort, as general manager of the Bell Company, Vail’s business acumen enabled the Bell System to spread throughout the...
(The entire section is 590 words.)