As disability theorists such as Douglas Baynton, Jonathan Rée, Lennard J. Davis, Jennifer Esmail, and Jan Branson and Don Miller explain, in both America and England in the mid-nineteenth century, attitudes toward sign language shifted: whereas in the first half of the nineteenth century, “finger speech,” as signing was sometimes called, was largely approved of as a means for deaf-mutes to be included in the Christian community, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the public began to treat deaf signers as menacing outsiders who needed to be assimilated into the larger speaking community. Oralists, those educators against signing, rejected signing as a primitive language, one that demeaned its users to the level of brutes (Rée 83). Oralist reformers thus fought for the removal of sign language from the curriculum of deaf schools and looked to emergent sound and writing technologies to help the pre-lingual deaf learn to speak English—and to speak it “properly.”
In teaching the deaf to speak English, oralists sought a way to “soften” the “distasteful, loud, or harsh voices of deaf speakers” (Esmail 174). Bell’s father, Melville Bell, attempted to do so in the 1860s by developing a phonetic system of writing termed “Visible Speech.” Such a “universal alphabetics,” as he called it, was supposed to teach those with pre-lingual deafness how to properly enunciate English words by visually representing the shapes of sounds. Unfortunately for Bell, the system proved largely unsuccessful because deaf students could not hear themselves speak and therefore could not accurately reproduce sounds (Esmail 184).
As a consequence of the inability of Visible Speech to narrow the divide between spoken language and its graphic representation, Alexander Graham Bell, a teacher of deaf children and an ardent oralist who fought for the eradication of sign language, determined to create a device that would serve as a feedback mechanism by visually representing the sounds that his deaf students were making, thus enabling them to check themselves against the tracings of “correct” speech sounds. With the assistance of Clarence J. Blake, an American ear specialist, Bell attempted to modify and repurpose Leon Scott’s 1857 invention, the phonautograph, a mechanism that used the principles of resonance to transcribe speech sounds (Sterne 31–36). Whereas Scott’s tool featured a membrane-like “diaphragm,” Bell and Blake’s 1874 “ear phonautograph” employed an actual human ear taken from a corpse to transduce sound waves into writing (Sterne 35, 31; Esmail 185). The deaf students’ vocal emissions, funneled through a metal mouthpiece, would vibrate the dead man’s ear, which would, in turn, activate a stylus to make tracings of the voice’s “shapes” onto smoked glass (Sterne 31). With the ear phonautograph, sound is thus experienced as disembodied—as alien to the speaker—and “heard” through the amputated organ of the corpse. As Esmail notes, “[T]he sound that is the source of these visual traces is wholly absent from both their ‘speaking’ and their visual ‘listening’” (Esmail 186). This prosthetic hearing device cleared the way for the invention of other sound technologies that treat sound as dislocated from the body in order to mechanically reproduce it. In fact, as Bell indicates in the lecture excerpted below, the telephone owes its realization to the ear phonautograph.
 See Douglas Baynton, “‘A Silent Exile on This Earth’: The Metaphorical Construction of Deafness in the Nineteenth Century,” The Disability Studies Reader, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2010); Jonathan Rée, I See a Voice: Deafness, Language and the Senses—A Philosophical History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999); Lennard J. Davis, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body (London: Verso, 1995); Jennifer Esmail, Reading Victorian Deafness: Signs and Sounds in Victorian Literature and Culture (Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 2013); and Jan Branson and Don Miller, Damned for Their Difference: The Cultural Construction of Deaf People as Disabled, A Sociological History (Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet UP, 2002).