AG Bell Celebrates 125 Years, Alexander Graham Bell and Innovation

The yellow Beaux-Arts building at 35th Street and Volta Place, built in 1893, has been opening up more to its neighbors — especially now, as AG Bell, also known as the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, celebrates 125 years of Bell’s laboratory in Georgetown.

One of America’s greatest inventors — yes, of the telephone — Alexander Graham Bell lived in Georgetown with his family. Here was and is a confluence of innovation, research and education.

At a Georgetown Business Association reception May 18, business leaders are meeting at the Volta Bureau to learn of the legacy of Bell and the ongoing work of AG Bell. Through advocacy, education, research and financial aid, the nonprofit continues Bell’s efforts by helping families, health care providers and education professionals understand childhood hearing loss and the importance of early diagnosis and intervention.

Bell founded the organization originally as the Volta Bureau in 1887 “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the deaf.” Indeed, it was the money from his Volta Award from France that helped start the laboratory. The first hands on the shovel at the main building’s groundbreaking ceremony were those of Helen Keller, a Bell protégé.

Bell’s mother and wife were deaf. His father, Alexander Melville Bell, was a professor and researcher in elocution and physiological phonetics who created Visible Speech, which helps the deaf learn to talk. It was Bell’s interest and work on hearing devices for the deaf that led him to invent and patent the telephone.

But Bell wasn’t the only groundbreaking inventor in Georgetown. The roots of IBM and the birthplace of the computer can be traced to 31st Street, next to the C&O Canal, where Herman Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine Company was located. That company merged with others to become International Business Machines — IBM.

In Georgetown, technology firms continue to thrive, with Palantir Technologies and EverFi headquartered here and the launch of forward-thinking initiatives like StartupHoyas at Georgetown University and the S&R Foundation’s Halcyon Incubator.
The D.C. government is midway through its second month-long technology initiative, innoMAYtion, which aims to provide resources to 500 disadvantaged small businesses. “Through innoMAYtion, we look to shine a light on the innovative ideas, policies, and programs that are improving our most underserved communities, tackling our city’s challenges, and giving every Washingtonian a fair shot,” said Mayor Muriel Bowser in a statement.

AG Bell’s 125th anniversary gala will be held Sept. 29 to celebrate Bell and his Georgetown nonprofit — appropriately enough at the National Geographic Society, of which he was president. One of the awardees at the gala will be Gilbert Grosvenor, who retired as chairman of the society in 2011. A committed advocate of innovation, Bell also served on the boards of such Washington institutions as the Smithsonian and the Cosmos Club.

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