Aleck’s mother, Eliza Bell, had meanwhile added still another dimension to her son’s widening world. Though her hearing was severely impaired, she was a good pianist, achieving feedback by fastening her ear tube to her ear and resting the mouthpiece on the soundboard.
The bond between mother and son was strong. More than his two brothers, Aleck as a child had a knack for bypassing the ear tube and communicating in a low voice close to her forehead. He too showed pianistic talent and studied for a time with a leading pianist, dreaming of glory as a virtuoso. Then his teacher died, and the dream too.
Science also captured the boy’s imagination. He collected botanical specimens until the drudgery of memorizing nomenclature dulled his fervor. Zoology engaged him for a while. He had no heart to kill for science, but when chance or nature supplied dead specimens, he explored their insides. And he tried his hand at technology. The father of a playmate owned an old gristmill on a nearby stream, a fascinating place for the two boys to play. One day, wearying of their cavorting, the miller challenged them to do something useful, such as taking the husks off the grain. Aleck set about experimenting and came up with a fast workable device involving rotating paddles in a brush-lined cylinder. That, he wrote many years later, “was my first incentive to invention.”
Thus early, Aleck Bell whirled around happily on a carousel of hobbyhorses — phonetics, physiology, pianos, deafness, invention, elocution, the flight of birds, and the intoxicating panorama of the wide world. Yet, for all their seeming incongruity, hindsight reveals a prophetic convergence, a concealed focus: the art, science, and technology of communication.
A hint of what lay ahead came with a project the elder Bell urged on Aleck and his older brother, Melville, in 1863. At 16 Aleck was just back from a year with his paternal grandfather, who taught speech in London. The old man had polished Aleck’s elocution, held him to serious reading and study, instilled in him ideals of social and political democracy, and converted him, as Aleck later wrote, “from a boy somewhat prematurely into a man.” Cut off from friends of his own age, however, Aleck had come home graver and more withdrawn than before, resentful of now being “treated as a boy again.” So his father challenged him and Melville to collaborate in making a “speaking machine,” a device for mechanical production of vocal sounds, one such as Aleck and his father had lately seen in London.