Volta Laboratory & Bureau – Washington, D.C. - Atlas Obscura
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United States

Volta Laboratory & Bureau

Helen Keller once broke ground on this historic center for the study of technologies to benefit the hearing impaired. 

On November 11, 1894 the New York Times, in reporting on construction on what was to eventually become the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, described Bell’s ambitious laboratory and research center as “Named for one Electrician and Secured through the Efforts of Another.”

Bell’s construction project was to be paid for by (and named in appreciation of) the “Volta Prize,” established by Napoleon in 1801 in honor of the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta, and awarded to Bell in 1880 for the invention of the telephone. Bell used his 50,000 franc prize (about $250,000 in today’s dollars) to found the Volta Laboratory Association, intending for the group to work as a sound research center.

Using money earned from the sale of the Association’s gramophone patents, Bell also established The Volta Bureau, which was to be Bell’s arm for research and technological advancements for the hearing impaired.

The two organizations worked together on developing new technologies, and the Bureau flourished, requiring the construction of their own headquarters. When ground was broken for the neo-classical building, which still stands in the Georgetown section of Washington, DC, the first spade of earth was dug by Bell’s 13-year-old prodigy, Helen Keller. Just years later in 1908, The Volta Association merged with The Volta Bureau.

Since 1956 the two groups have been collectively known as the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf. While the name has changed the historically protected building that Helen Keller broke ground on has not. It is open to the public, but you have to call for an appointment to get inside.

Even without an appointment, the building itself is worth a visit should you find yourself wandering up the hill from chaotic M Street, looking for a little shade and quiet. If you do step inside, you’ll see writings and notations by Bell, photographs, original recordings, and other artifacts of his work and inventions.

Know Before You Go

In Georgetown, Northwest Washington, DC, located at the corner of 35th Street NW and Volta Place NW - 3 blocks west of Wisconsin Avenue.