The life of Alexander Graham Bell Last of four parts

A voice from far away

Thomas B. Costain October 8 1960

The life of Alexander Graham Bell Last of four parts

A voice from far away

Thomas B. Costain October 8 1960

The life of Alexander Graham Bell Last of four parts


A voice from far away

The failure of Bell's first long-distance tests sent him home to Brantford in a gloomy state. Then, in a burst of energy, he ran lines to two nearby communities, relayed singers' voices over them, and proved beyond doubt that the telephone was more than a toy

Thomas B. Costain

IT WAS Alexander Graham Bell’s custom to return to the family home near Brantford, Ont., for several months each year. Usually he arrived from Boston ill and exhausted from the strenuous combination of conducting classes in speech for the deaf and experimenting on improvements in telegraphy. He would devote part of the summer and autumn to recuperating—and at the same time work furiously on what he had come to consider his “Brantford invention,” the telephone.

In 1876, perhaps the most eventful year of his life, he came home in July. That was later than usual but there had been many things to cause delay: the nerve-racking days which preceded the application for a patent on the telephone, and the grim moments of waiting until it was granted; the exhibit of the embryo tele-

phone at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, where the apparatus won a prize; the unceasing probe in the hope of improving the instrument.

On July 7, 9, and 22, attempts were made to use the telephone in circuits from Boston to New York and Boston to Rye Beach, N.Y. All three attempts — the first long-distance tests of the telephone — were failures.

So it was in no exultant mood that Bell came home to Brantford. The victory at Philadelphia, and the enthusiasm which grew out of the excited reception of the invention by two of the award judges, Emperor Pedro II of Brazil and Sir William Thomson, a noted British scientist, had begun to dim. What happened between his arrival in Brantford in the last week of July and the first of the three historic

tests, which occurred on August 3, has not been put on record, unfortunately, in detail. There are a few hints. Graham Bell decided, apparently, to do some preliminary testing at home. He went to a friend, Thomas Cowherd, a Brantford tinsmith who had helped him contrive equipment for earlier experiments. Cowherd had just completed the latest model of a telephone on minute instructions from the inventor, a rather extraordinary piece of equipment with three mouthpieces, by means of which three people would be able to listen in or speak at the same time. It was decided between them that stovepipe wire would serve for the experiments but that a very large supply would be needed. Cowherd drove out to Tutelo Heights almost immediately with a wagonload.

Graham Bell proceeded to set up the instru-

merits of transmission in the house, attached to seemingly endless yards of stovepipe wire. With the unconcern of a true scientist, who loses sight of everything in the pursuit of his objective, he decided to take up the slack between point and point by winding the wire around the newel post at the foot of the stairs. Either his mother was unaware of what he was about or was the most patient of parents; at any rate, there was no protest when he proceeded to gouge spirals out of the wood in which he could wind and rewind the wire before carrying the line out through one of the windows.

There were daily tests from that time on. with guests present during the evenings. The doors of the barn were kept closed to shut out all sounds from the house and light was supplied by lanterns suspended from the rafters. Most of the space remained in darkness, however. -The receiver was set up on a tool bench and connected withthe wires through a window in the gable. The tall young inventor preferred to remain at the receiving end, where he could check the results, giving each guest a chance to listen at intervals to the songs and recitals.

The results obtained during these days of experimentation must have been encouraging. At any rate, Graham Bell decided on a bold course. He would try again to achieve a satisfactory transmission of the human voice over long-distance wires. For his first attempt since the not too successful efforts between Boston and New York, Bell decided to use a telegraph wire from the Brantford telegraph office to the store of Wallis Ellis.

MLOunt Pleasant, a pleasant and prosperous village founded before Brantford existed, lies

two miles beyond the point where the road to the Bell homestead turns off the highway. In the general store, surrounded by an overflow audience of Mount Pleasant s men. women and children. Bell stood in front of the receiver on the evening of August 3. It was quite apparent that he was in a highly nervous state. Would the voices come through? The test would be a crucial one.

At the stipulated time Bell raised the receiver to his ear. The onlookers fell into a complete silence and every eye in the store was fixed on him. He listened intently.

Graham Bell s story is that he heard a voice begin on Hamlet's soliloquy, the magnificent lines used so often throughout the telephone saga; with the words "To be or not to be . . .” a look of intense relief took possession of the inventor's face.

The thought ran through his mind. “It is to be.”

The program from the city continued for some time, to give all of those present in the store a chance to hear with their own ears. There were recitations from members of the Bell family. A song was sung by William Whitaker, a tinsmith from West Brantford who had a clear baritone voice. A contralto soloist from one of the city churches. Mary Nolan, also took part.

The people of Mount Pleasant are still inclined to think they have been somewhat overlooked in all the speeches which have been made and in the stories which have poured forth from newspaper presses. “It was here,” they say, “that the first really successful test was made. Why all this talk about Brantford and Paris and Boston and this neglect of Mount

Pleasant?” They have a point. A commemorative plaque will be placed in 1961 near the site where the first successful one-way test was conducted over a real telegraph wire.

The second test was to be conducted between the Bell homestead and Brantford on the evening of August 4, before a score of prominent men of the city.

William Brooks is the only survivor who can speak with first-hand knowledge of what happened on the morning of that eventful day. He was working with his father on their farm, the land closest to the Bell property.

Along came young Beil, Brooks recalled recently, carrying a coil of wire. He said there was to be a test of the telephone that evening and he wanted to run a line out to the Mount Pleasant Road. Could he string it along their fences?

“That was quite a problem,” Brooks went on. "It was his idea to string the wire right across our gateway, which would make it impossible to get in or out with our loads. Father wanted to oblige, because the two families had become very friendly. He thought it over and then told Mr. Bell he would have to wait until we could get our loads through. He promised we would all pitch in then and help him with the wire.”

This earnest party worked for long hours under a broiling sun at the task of getting the line up. It was probably the hottest day of the year. A neighbor watched the perspiring band from the shade of a leafy maple tree. After enjoying the spectacle of other men working so hard, he returned home and had the following comment to make: “Silliest piece of tomfoolery ever was.

Graham Bell at home:

He breakfasted on porridge and always drank through a glass tube “to put the liquid into my mouth and not my mouth into the liquid”

WHAT KIND OF PERSON was Alexander Graham Bell? He seems to have been the most modest of men as well as the possessor of blithe spirits. When things pleased him he was very likely, even in his advanced years, to indulge in a furious Indian war dance or a Highland fling. Financial rewards seemed to him so little important that he gave his father a three-quarter interest in the telephone company set up in Canada and saw to it that all who had helped him were suitably rewarded. He put into his wife's hands the control of his financial affairs. On one occasion, when the inevitable litigation over the validity of his patents had come up for a final hearing in the courts, he happened to be in Canada. He threw up his hands and declared that he was prepared to let the patents go and devote the rest of his life to the teaching of underdeveloped children rather than become involved in more legal entanglements. It required a great deal of pressure to make him change his mind. All his life he seems to have yearned for the work he understood best, the teaching of the deaf and dumb. When Sandy (as his wife preferred to call him) brought his bride, Mabel

Hubbard, to Brantford soon after their marriage in 1877. he had not changed a whit. He was still modest, cheerful, filled with high spirits. One of the neighbors, Rebecca Wye, told of a reception held for the newlyweds. "We’ll have a little dance,” said Bell. He escorted his wife, who seemed to the neighbors most pretty and stylish, to the centre of the floor while Miss Wye went to the piano to play a waltz. For the benefit of his wife, he raised a finger in the air and marked the time. Although the bride could hear nothing, she kept step perfectly. Bell explained this later to Miss Wye. “She can feel the musical vibrations through the soles of her feet,” he whispered. The neighbors on Tutelo Heights told of one incident with the greatest delight. "Aleck's mother,” they said, "came out to greet them and broke an oatcake over her daughter-in-law’s head. We found out later it was an old Scottish custom. It meant the bride would never go hungry in her husband’s home.” It seems to have been effective. Bell’s daughters, Mrs. Gilbert Grosvenor and Mrs. David Fairchild, say the true Scot in their father came out at breakfast. He always had his porridge served in the approved Scot-

tish style, the hot oatmeal in one bowl and chilled cream in the other. He would take a spoonful of the oatmeal and dip it in the cream.

Graham Bell was in no sense a gourmet; in fact, he paid little attention to food. But he was particular about how it was served. He liked to eat off clear white plates and even went to the extent of having a service made in France with no more design than a fine gold band and his AGB monogram. At home he always drank liquids through a glass tube, because he wanted "to put the liquid into my mouth and not my mouth into the liquid.” And. being law-abiding in the strictest sense, he allowed nothing of a spirituous nature on the table during the years that prohibition was in force.

It was his invariable rule to seat himself opposite his wife, who had been deaf from childhood, so he could indicate by lip movements the course that the conversation was taking. Thus, she was never left out and could enter into the talk at will. The two daughters learned to assist their mother in the same way.

He disliked gossip. He could not abide criticism of anyone, even those who richly deserved what might be said of them. If members of the fam-

ily expressed an unfavorable opinion, he would sit still for a moment or two. Then he would fold his napkin. If this danger signal were disregarded, he would push his chair back from the table. "That,” Mrs. Fairchild attests, “always stopped us.”

Perhaps the favorite family anecdote is of the time when their kindly but somewhat absent-minded parent went to a reception at the White House. He had been out for a drive with Mrs. Bell and, on returning to the house to get into formal attire, he noticed nothing but the swallow-tailed evening coat laid out on the bed. He donned his overcoat downstairs before Mrs. Bell joined him and. as she preceded him in the line, she did not have a chance to notice him until they returned to the home of-a relative, Mrs. Kennan, for tea. With the touch of the actor that was inherent in all the Bells, he came stalking through the portières with a dramatic flourish of his arms, wearing his glossy evening coat over a pair of striped morning trousers.

Mrs. Kennan heard one White House doorman say to another, in open-mouthed amazement, “You see dat?” To which the other replied, “Oh, he Telephone Bell. He can dress any whichever way he please.”


Continued from page 33

The official at the telegraph company read Bell’s letter, grunted, and tossed it in the wastebasket

That young Aleck Bell is clean daft.”

In the Bell home that evening the guests had dined well. Many toasts had been given and speeches delivered before the signal was given that all was ready at the other end, the offices of the telegraph company on the south side of Colborne Street, about four miles distant. Here the talent selected to demonstrate their powers over the air were gathered. The guests at the Heights repaired to the front porch, where they found the threepronged receiver ready for use. The first pair heard a firm and resonant voice declaim Hamlet’s Advice to the Players. The second pair heard the clear and high soprano voice of Lily Bell, Graham’s cousin. The third listened to a fine rendition of I Need Thee Every Hour.

Each guest had at least one long turn at the receiver. The program continued to come over the miles of telegraph and the flimsy stovepipe wires with good volume and clarity.

It was late before the company dispersed, departing with the churning of buggy wheels. In his bedroom Alexander Melville Bell wrote in his diary the cryptic lines: “Gentlemen’s supper. 23 guests. Telephone to Brantford. A line was run along the fence for the occasion.”

The third test was crucial. The first two had been made over limited distances and with makeshift materials. Now the instrument must be tried for longer distance over regulation telegraph wires

with batteries of sufficient power; the same conditions which had prevailed when Bell attempted to speak between Boston and New York. He decided to have the test between Brantford and Paris, a distance just under eight miles.

The inventor wrote to the headquarters of the Dominion Telegraph Company on Front Street, Toronto, asking to rent a line for one hour between the two points on the evening of August 10.

It so happened that the telegraph companies in Canada had been pestered by crackpots with all manner of wild schemes and impossible improvements. The official who received the letter grunted as he read it and consigned it to his wastebasket. But an assistant in the office chanced to see what had become of the letter. This was Lewis B. McFarlane, a name destined to become one of first importance in the history of telephony in Canada. Some faint echoes of what was happening in Brantford had already reached his ears.

McFarlane either persuaded his superior to reverse the decision or took it on himself to act on his own authority. A letter was written to Alexander Graham Bell granting permission for the use of the line between the two points for the hour requested.

The reply was a last-minute reprieve for the inventor. There was barely enough time to get his materials together and to make all the necessary arrange-

A visit to Brantford 30 years afterward

From sound, Bell turned to flight and other fields

merits. His father, fearing that the permission would not be received, had made plans to be out of town that night and so could not be included in the program.

The hand of fate had intervened with no more than a few hours to spare. The intervention was fateful for young McFarlane. too. Years later he would become president of the Bell Telephone Company of Canada.

Alexander Graham Bell drove to Paris late in the afternoon of August 10. taking with him the special equipment he would need, which included the ironbox receiver made by Thomas Watson in Boston. Brantford was to do the sending of the messages. Paris the receiving.

George P. Dunlop was the Paris telegraph operator and, when Bell arrived, he was alone in the office, which occupied part of the boot and shoe store of Robert White on Grand River Street. The two young men had met once before. They shook hands rather solemnly, as

befitting such an important occasion, and set to work to adjust the equipment.

Dunlop told Bell that word of the test was all over town and that the "big fellows" of Paris would be down to watch. The Rev. Thomas Henderson, an old friend of the Bell family, was the first to arrive.

The door of the shop kept opening and shutting. The big fellows promised by young Dunlop were putting in an appearance and Henderson was introducing them in turn to the inventor. Mayor Whitlaw was among the first, and also the express agent. Bernard Travers. Several of the more important manufacturers of the town came in, including John Penman, the founder of the Penman mills, a large textile factory; Messrs. Clay and McC’osh, who operated a woolen mill, and Messrs. Brown and Allen, who owned another factory. Most of the merchants who had stores on the street were beginning to stroll over. I he

What the phone was like 80 years ago

owner of the shoe store was present, looking slightly concerned as the company multiplied. Soon the street outside was as crowded as during the busiest of business hours. Very soon afterward, Dunlop bolted the front door, remarking that the shop could hold no more.

Bell took a quick look about the crowded store, his face tense with the anxiety he felt. He picked up the receiver. As the notes he wrote next day make clear, he suffered an unpleasant shock.

"The moment I put my receiving instrument to my ear, I heard perfectly deafening noises proceeding from the instrument, even when there was no battery on the circuit. Explosive sounds like the discharge of distant artillery were mixed with a continuous crackling noise of an indescribable character." He was not completely discouraged, however, for his notes continue: "In spite of this disturbing influence I could hear vocal sounds in a faraway sort of manner."

Four words from Macbeth had been audible. Bell took his ear away from the receiver and looked at Dunlop, who was crouching behind his counter. The latter asked, "Trouble?”

Bell waited before answering. Three voices,' two male and one female, had begun to sing. The first stanza was recognizable as The Maple Leaf Forever but the interfering sounds made it impossible to distinguish the words.

"Please send this. ‘Can hear faintly Maple Leaf. Key of D. Words indistinguishable. Disturbance on line. Instruct operator there to change the electromagnet coils on the instrument from low resistance to high resistance.' "

When he had completed this same change in the receiving end, Graham Bell lifted the instrument to his ear with more than a hint of reluctance.

Was it his father’s voice?

For a moment his expression did not change. Then his eyes seemed to light up. Still holding the receiver to his ear, he turned to Dunlop and nodded. The trouble had been in the use of low-resistance coils, as he had expected.

The next day he included in his notes, " I he vocal sounds then came out clearly and strongly, and the crackling sounds were not nearly so annoying, though they still persisted."

“To be or not to be," began a voice at the other end of the wire. Bell gasped with surprise. It must be his father’s voice. But that, he believed, was impossible. Melville Bell was not in Brantford.

He whispered excitedly to Dunlop. "Wire them, ‘Change has improved transmission greatly. Whose voice did we hear? Was it my father's?’ ”

The message was ticked off immediately. There was a pause at the Brantford end. Then Bell heard again those familiar tones.

"Yes, my son,” said Melville Bell. “This is your father speaking.” He explained that he couldn’t tear himself away to keep his appointment in Hamilton. It had been postponed and he had joined the group in the telegraph office.

Alexander Graham Bell wired an exultant message: "Father, your presence in Brantford at this time completes my joy tonight."

The citizens of Paris, who had turned out in such numbers to witness the test, deserved to have a share in the great moment. Graham Bell had his brisk helper send off another message, asking his father to continue talking until further notice. Then he called to the audience to take turns at the receiver. They were eager for the chance. One by one

Whers the great elocutionist’s words were heard, skepticism vanished from crowded store in Paris

they came up and applied an ear to the iron-box receiver. Without exception, they recognized the dramatic tones of the great elocutionist declaiming Shakespeare eight miles away, each phrase almost as clear as though he were in the store with them. Skepticism vanished from that hot and crowded emporium.

Too affected to speak, Graham Bell left the handling of the instruments to Dunlop and began to pace up and down in the limited space of the store aisle.

Melville Bell stopped transmitting and others at the Brantford end took his place. Songs were sung, both sacred and profane. The reception was now so good that the songs were recognized almost with the first bar. The listeners would shout out the titles. Oh, Wouldn’t You Like to Know? The Little Round Hat, Charming Judy Dockerty. Dunlop wired the title back each time and this raised the spirits of the Brantford group to such a pitch that they began to shout congratulatory messages.

The wire had been leased for one hour only but nine o’clock came and went unnoticed. The avid listeners in Paris kept demanding another turn at the receiver. The keys under the nimble fingers of Dunlop kept on ticking out requests for songs. The stream of recitation ran on until the group in Brantford could think of nothing more to declaim.

It was not until eleven o’clock that

the demand for more ceased and the witnesses began to leave the store. Robert White, the proprietor, locked the front door. This great episode in the history of the town had come to an end. Incidentally, the telegraph company never presented a bill for the use of the wires.

Bell was the last to leave. He carried his equipment to the buggy with slow steps and bent back. He climbed over the buggy wheel and for a few moments allowed himself to relax against the back of the seat, glad to be free of the noise and excitement, the handshaking, the questions, the congratulations.

The sky had cleared and above him he could see the moon. Would still more sensational uses be found for the voice in the realms of time and space? Would it be possible in some distant day to create echoes in the mountains of the moon by announcements spoken in whispers into machines in earth-built stations?

One thing was firmly in his mind, we may be sure. This venture he was making into the mysteries concealed behind Nature’s Iron Curtain was a mere beginning.

Finally a very weary young man gathered the reins into his hands and began the long drive home.

The Chord of Steel, from which this and the three preceding excerpts were drawn, will be published soon by Doubleday.

The telephone was invented in this house