It seems somehow appropriate that Edwin S. Grosvenor, the great-grandson of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, is venturing out onto the Internet to make a living. With a Bethesda-based start-up called LeaderLearning, Grosvenor is seeking to create what he calls “the virtual business school.” (Patenting must be in Grosvenor’s blood: On his business cards, both the company name and the description are denoted “TM.”)
“It’s an online business-education and bookselling system,” Grosvenor explains, rattling off a series of Fortune 500 companies that have already bought into the idea. “It’s a content provider designed for corporate intranets. The website contains 1.5 million words of business advice from all the gurus. Users can read portions of the books, then order them from us. It’s kind of like an Amazon.com that specializes in business books.”
For the moment, though, Grosvenor is making a living in a way that would be far more understandable to citizens of the pre-Bell global village: writing a book. A scion of the ultraconnected Washington Grosvenor clan, he has co-authored (along with documentarian Morgan Wesson) the classy (and pricey$45) Alexander Graham Bell: The Life and Times of the Man Who Invented the Telephone, an illustrated biography of Bell that turned into a surprise Christmas hit. “The first run has already sold out, so the publisher put a freeze on orders,” he says. “Good Morning America even called it one of their favorite books of year.”
At first glance, Bell seems an unlikely character to attract attention in this celebritized age. He was no Thomas Edison, whom one contemporary famously described as having “a vacuum where his conscience ought to be.” “The strongest drink Bell ever had was diluted raspberry vinegar,” Grosvenor notes. Skeletons? He was lovingly devoted to his wife Mabel. About the kinkiest thing Grosvenor could come up with was Bell’s abortive attempt to design a machine that would transfer thoughts directly from one person’s head to another’s.
But who needs dirt? Simply put, Bell kicks butt in the invention category. Everybody remembers that he invented the telephone. Many will also recall that he created the first practical phonograph. But what about the respirator? The metal detector? The audiometer (which measures hearing ability)? And, in his spare time, Bell created what was then the world’s fastest ship, the hydrofoil, built the first publicly flown airplanes, designed a now-common tetrahedral building structure, sketched out a prototype of the helicopter, and theorized about wireless and fiber-optic communications.
Bell, in retrospect, also earns lots of enlightened-person points. He was a longtime teacher of the deaf and an early supporter of women’s suffrage and civil rights, he helped introduce Montessori education to America, and he worried about the “greenhouse effect” (a term he coined). Moreover, Bell chose to forgo big profits from his later inventions (not including the telephone), donating much of the wealth he derived from them to programs for the deaf. “He had the quaint notion that you should be only as rich as you neededand he got what he needed,” Grosvenor says.
Grosvenor, 46, grew up in the 1890s house that Bell lived in, located not far from the Metro stop in Bethesda that bears the family name.
Yet one can imagine Grosvenor’s family connections being intimidating. “Yeah, I mean, it’s a lot to live up to,” he says. “You always wonder. No matter what you do and how hard you work and how good you are, you always wonder whether what you’ve done has been because of what you were given, or what you achieved. People always say, ‘Gee, you must have done the book all from secret family archives.’ No, some of it came from there, but most of it is in the public domain. I looked at a quarter-million photos, and no one has comprehensively looked at themever.” Louis Jacobson