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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

Helen Keller's life changed forever when she met this inventor

By Paul Niemann

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[January 29, 2009]  During my college years, I worked in sales for the Southwestern Co. of Nashville, Tenn. The company would assign us to work in a different part of the country each summer, calling on families in their homes.

During the summer of 1987, I was calling on families in the northern Alabama town of Tuscumbia when I came upon a very old house. As I approached from the side, it was obvious that the house must have been at least 100 years old; in fact, it looked so out of place that I asked one of the neighbors if anyone still lived in "that old house."

Many of the old homesteads in the Deep South have a name. This one was known as Ivy Green, and it was famous because the girl who lived there was Helen Keller. You can tour the Keller home and even see the water pump in the backyard where Helen said her first word.

There are two things that Tuscumbia, Ala., is known for. Besides being home to Helen Keller, the other one -- and I'm not making this up -- is being the location of the world's only coon dog cemetery. Since you already know most of the story about Helen Keller, let's talk for a minute about the coon dog cemetery.


This part of the story comes from firsthand knowledge. When I drove out to the coon dog cemetery one day, I saw tombstones and memorials such as, "To my beloved dog, Butch." As you drive in at the main entrance to the cemetery (actually, there's only one entrance), you will see a statue of a coon dog with its front paws placed against a tree in which a raccoon is hiding.

Now, back to our story.

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Nursing Homes

Helen Keller was born as a healthy baby in 1880, but at 19 months she contracted an illness that left her blind and deaf. In 1887, the Kellers' doctor referred them to a Scottish immigrant who taught speech to the deaf in Boston. He was also a pretty successful inventor; in fact, he invented a product in 1876 that is still widely used today. By the way, this man's wife, the former Mabel Hubbard, was deaf, too.

It was the inventor's father-in-law who delivered the patent application to the U.S. patent office. He arrived a mere two hours before another inventor arrived to take out a patent on a different version of the exact same product. The first inventor (the one who would later meet with Helen Keller) actually used some of the second inventor's technology in his patent application, but hardly anyone has ever heard of the second inventor. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the first inventor.

When the Keller family contacted the man, he recommended that Helen meet with Anne Sullivan, the lady who would become Helen Keller's teacher. Ms. Sullivan was partially blind herself.

Who was the inventor who introduced Helen Keller to Anne Sullivan and whose invention in 1876 is still widely used today?

Alexander Graham Bell.

But you knew that all along, didn't you?


Paul Niemann's column is syndicated to more than 70 newspapers, and he is the author of the "Invention Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2009

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