“I came to Canada to die”
The life of Alexander Graham Bell
1870: In Britain Alexander Melville Bell had worked out Visible Speech, revolutionizing the treatment of the deaf and dumb. But two of his sons had died of TB, and his third was ill. To save him Bell moved his family to Brantford, Ont., and so began the story of the telephone
Thomas B. Costain
/ he most brilliant feat of inventive genius in Canadian history is also the most famous: Bell's telephone. But beyond that, little is widely known idiom the young Scot who made electricity talk and changed the world.
Now a second celebrated Canadian. novelist and historian Thomas B. Costain, has recreated Bells life in The Chord of Steel, a biography to be published soon. Here. Maclean's begins a condensation in four ¡nuts
IT WAS ON A LATE AFTERNOON in August 1870 that a light phaeton, which, if it were still in existence, would be preserved with zealous care in a museum, drove down one of the main streets in Brantford. Ont. Seated in the phaeton were two women and two men. One of the women was of middle age and had an air of refinement and quiet charm. The other was young and dressed with a hint of recent bereavement. The older of the two men had a beard which showed some traces of grey in its almost patriarchal length. The younger, in his early twenties, also had a beard: black, carefully trimmed. and with the sparseness and gloss of youth. Among the stories still told in Brantford about the coming of the Bell family, one concerns two citizens who happened to be standing together at the corner of Brant Avenue and Church Street when the dusty phae-
ton drove by. "There they are." said one of them, who could be identified as a doctor by the tip of a stethoscope protruding from his vest pocket. "Did you see the item about them in the Expositor?" The second man. who was in the real-estate business, nodded briskly. "Name’s Bell. I heard this morning they've bought the Morton property on Tutelo Heights." "Away out there? Isn't that odd?" "I certainly thought so." I he real-estate man added. "He’s a real professor. Gives lectures around the country. On deafness. He knows how to read lips, so I hear. " I he phaeton passed on and vanished from sight down the grade leading to the downtown bridge. The doctor shook his head thoughtfully. "It seems to me." he said, "that the young fellow CONTINUED OVERLEAF
The Bells were a rare family—all of them absorbed in the mysteries of sound
Alexander Graham Bell
looked kind of peaked. As though he might have a touch of lung trouble.”
The carriage crossed the river at the foot of Brant Avenue. The Bells found themselves in a section known as West Brantford. Turning onto the Mount Pleasant Road, they began a gradual ascent. After passing Farringdon Church, they made a left turn onto the Tutelo Heights Road, which followed in narrow dustiness the line of the river bluffs.
The property Professor Bell had purchased was the second between the road and the river. The ladies of the family, seeing it for the first time, found it an engaging prospect. The house stood well back from the road and was screened by tall trees and thick green shrubs; a two-story structure of quaint charm, with w'hite walls and black trim, an ornate but not unattractive porch stretching across most of the front. To the right, as seen from the road, was a conservatory.
"Melville House,” said the new owner, climbing out of the phaeton and surveying his domain w'ith proper pride.
His quiet wife, who had been looking about her with quickly inquiring eyes, read from his lips what he had said. She smiled in acquiescence; and Melville House it remained, until the time came w'hen the extraordinary success of their son made another name more suitable.
The head of the family spread out both arms on reaching the edge of the deep slope down to the river.
"The Grand!” he said oratorically. "How well named!”
The son drew' his breath in deep draughts, tor he was finding the air stimulating and good. In England he had been sickening with consumption. Perhaps this new home would provide the salvation for him that they were seeking. Here, so isolated and high, with a cool breeze blowing off the river, he might get his health back. For the first time, perhaps, he felt really hopeful.
His father pointed to the line of tall trees along the brink and selected one spot where the space between two poplars
seemed just about the right width for slinging a hammock.
Young Aleck Bell had already seen other uses for these shady places. Even during his most doubtful moments his mind had been full of plans, of theories, of half-formulated beliefs in the possibility of making an extraordinary new use of sound. This was a perfect place to reflect and study and plan.
These plans, in those early years, centred largely, but not entirely, on the Bell family’s principal preoccupation.
It is most unusual for all the members of a family to share one interest and for this mutual absorption to continue through three generations. This was true of the Bell family, w'ho devoted their lives to the training of the human voice.
It began with Alexander Bell, the grandfather, who was a shoemaker at St. Andrews, Scotland, in the early years of the nineteenth century. He wanted to be an actor. Unfortunately the stage was regarded in Scotland not only as low but even as downright wicked, so Bell did the next best thing. He moved to Edinburgh and set himself up as a teacher in speech and elocution.
The teaching of elocution proved so profitable that Alexander the First lived in luxury and ease. The thwarted actor came out in all his children, particularly in his second son, who was born in Edinburgh in 1819 and given the name Alexander Melville.
Alexander Melville Bell inherited the family traits and talents in superabundance. He was destined to reduce the teaching of proper speech to a science and to write a book called Bells Standard Elocution, which came out in 1860 and has continued to sell ever since. The number of editions through which it has run approaches the monumental figure of two hundred. He was to be also the inventor of a system he called Visible Speech.
The turning point in the life of Alexander the Second came when he left London (where he had been assisting his
father) for Edinburgh in preparation for a trip across the Atlantic in i 843. There was in the Scottish capital at the time a painter of miniatures, Eliza Grace Symonds. It occurred to young Bell that he should get himself immortalized on ivory before leaving for the wilds of America, so he sat to Miss Symonds for his portrait in water color.
They were married soon afterward and the eager subject of the portrait gave up the idea of America. They settled down in Edinburgh, where young Bell gave himself out as a professor of elocution and the art ot speech, and began to collect pupils. Mrs. Bell went on with her career as a painter.
They had three children, all boys. The second, named Alexander, was born on March 3, 1847. The eldest, christened Melville James, had inherited the histrionic gifts of his father and grandfather. The third son, Charles Edward, was born in September 1848. He seems to have been a quiet and gentle boy, always a little delicate.
Alexander the Third, or perhaps it would be more to the point to call him Alexander the Great, was a Bell in many respects but in the most important aspect he went far beyond the others. To the rest of the family the teaching of proper speech was an end in itself. To the third of the line it was a means to an end. The point of drastic departure was that in his mind, even as a boy, he had begun to explore the dim lanes of science.
At Royal High School in Edinburgh, Alexander did not distinguish himself as a scholar. But he kept a museum, collecting the bones of small animals and classifying them carefully and intelligently. His interest in botany was great. He studied the stars with intensity and awe.
He had inherited a love of music from his mother and she was eager to have him develop what seemed to be a real gift. He enjoyed his musical tuition so much that at one stage he decided he would devote his life to music. His mother was becoming hard of hearing (an CONTINUED ON PAGE 44
CONTINUED ON PAGE 44
The life of Alexander Graham Bell continued from page 13
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1 ie First of AIeck~s inventions was a mechanical doll that startled the neighbors by crying
ironic twist of circumstance that a Bell should suffer in this respect) but she continued to play the piano with a rather pathetic insistence, even after she was not capable of hearing the notes her fingers produced.
Although it seemed that everything necessary was being done to give him a proper education, the family (and Aleck himself) was to receive a surprise when he was sent for a year to live with his grandfather in London.
The grandfather introduced Alexander to the kind of reading that would do him the most good. To his delight the boy found that the library seemed to have everything that had been written on the allied subjects of hearing and acoustics. His interest was fired at once. He fourni himself, inevitably, immersed in an article entitled Principles of the Science of Tuning Instruments with Fixed Iones. This would enchain his attention, foi it dealt with certain vague ideas he had been carrying about for some time in his head.
It was a richly useful year in every w'ay that he spent with the old man. He had learned one thing he would never forget. Music could not be anything but a pleasant and genteel minor interest. The path was clear ahead. I here were secrets to be learned about the manipulation of sound. He must discover what they were.
By the time Alexander returned to Edinburgh his father had completed his great work, the development of Visible Speech. He had discovered that sounds were produced by easily distinguishable physical action inside the head and throat and that these never varied. The roar of a lion was the result of the same use of vocal cords which produced the bark of a dog. As the action never varied, it was possible to designate sounds by certain symbols, which could be written down just like the familiar letters of the alphabet.
Visible Speech was the first concrete method of enabling the dumb to teach themselves how to speak. To Alexander Melville Bell it was evident that deaf mutes were silent not because they lacked the physical organ used in speaking but because they could not hear. Their vocal cords were ready to respond when called upon but the clamor of tongues about them meant nothing. But by learning the symbols they could acquire the faculty of making the sounds designated; and from this, in time, would come the ability to speak.
Visible Speech became the abiding and predominant interest of all members of this highly vocal and talented family. They talked about it constantly. It was a crusade to which they were dedicating themselves. (It has been said that George Bernard Shaw was inspired to write his great comedy Pygmalion by the accomplishments of the Bell family.)
On one occasion the father said to his two elder sons. "My boys, I have a task for you. I'll give you a prize if you can make a figure which talks."
They set to work with enthusiasm. Alexander the Third was to make the head, with mouth and tongue. His elder brother was to construct the throat, complete with larynx and vocal cords. Alexander decided to make the head of guttapercha. The lips were made of iron wire
covered with rubber over cotton batting. The tongue was of wood in connected sections, and covered with rubber over cotton.
The elder brother in the meantime was making an artificial windpipe from a tin tube. Inside were two sheets of tin covered with rubber which could be vibrated by blowing through the windpipe. The first results astonished them. Alexander would manipulate the lips while Melville blew lustily through the windpipe. The lips gave forth modulated sounds: Mama, Mama.
The boys took their mechanical head out to the dark landing of the house, which they shared with many other tenants. Alexander manipulated the lips vigorously while Melville blew into the windpipe until his face was almost purple with exertion. T he gutta-percha head gave out a succession of loud anti agonizing sounds: Mama. Mama, Mama!
A door opened below them and an anxious voice called. "What’s wrong?” Other doors opened above and below and more voices joined in the chorus of inquiry.
The two young inventors, satisfied with the results, picked up the robot and relumed on tiptoe to their own Hat. leaving the other tenants to solve the mystery of the crying child.
Soon after he had completed his first "invention" Alexander made a decision which at the time seemed no more than a boyish whim. He bestowed on himself the middle name that was to become the pivotal sound of that famous euphony, Alexander Graham Bell. He had found when quite young that the existence of three Alexanders in the family was confusing. Having no second name, he concluded that it would be proper for him to select one for himself, and settled on Graham.
He always said thereafter that he chose the name because a friend of his father's. Alexander Graham, had returned from abroad and was visiting Edinburgh when the Bells lived in their first home. Young Bell liked the visitor and announced at
the time that in future he would be Alexander Graham Bell, and his parents agreed that the idea was a sound one.
Lie was sensitive enough to feel that his grandfather might not like it. To re-' speet the old man's feelings he never openly assumed the name until after the death of Alexander the First in 1865. In later years he almost invariably referred to himself as Graham Bell.
in 1865 the family moved to London, leaving young Alexander and his elder brother behind in Edinburgh. A general upsurge of interest in scientific matters was taking place. The great impetus, perhaps. had been supplied by the publication in 1859 of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, an event which had rocked the world and had brought down a storm of anathema from pulpit and synod and convention.
What appealed most to the Bells was that men in all parts of the world were thinking about the problems of speech and the possibility of transmitting sound over wires and under the seas. New' horizons opened for Alexander Melville Bell in London. Before his second son could join him there, he had been appointed professor of elocution at the University of London, a role he enjoyed intensely, and had been elected a member of the Philological Society.
Alexander the Third went to London in 1868 to act as his father's assistant and to complete his education at University College. He had just reached his majority. At twenty-one. this earnest young Scot was already treading hard on the heels of world fame.
But beneath the Bells' busy, cheerful family life there had been for some years a dread which left them no mental peace. Charles Edward, the youngest son. had never been strong. Before they came to a full realization of the danger, the boy suddenly slumped into an advanced stage of consumption. Nothing that the best doctors could suggest would check the disease. ( Medical science was still fifteen years away from the basic discovery that tuberculosis was caused by a bacillus, not
by heredity.) Within a year of the Bells’ arrival in London. Charles Edward was dead.
Alexander was at his bedside, and was deeply affected. He went to his room and wrote in his diary this poignant paragraph :
Edward died this morning at 10 minâtes to 4 o'clock. He was only IS years S months old. He literally "jell asleep."' He died without consciousness and without pain, while he was asleep. So may I die. A (HI.
The oldest boy, Melville, was married and conducting his father's classes in Edinburgh. The reports they had of him were not reassuring and it seemed possible that he was suffering from the same disease. On one point the doctors of the day were in agreement, that consumption could be cured if caught in the early stages. The father of the boys made up his mind that he must get his two surviving sons to a more healthful and vigorous climate.
Melville Bell recalled how well he had been when he had made a youthful trip to Newfoundland. Would the same conditions be found in Canada? He seems to have written at once to a friend of his. the Rev. Thomas Henderson, a Baptist minister living in retirement in Paris, a small town in Ontario on the Grand River. Apparently he received every encouragement from his old acquaintance to bring his family to Canada.
But there would be no time to come to a decision. Several months after the letter was written, the reports from Edinburgh became most alarming. Knowing. perhaps, that he had little longer to live. Melville took his wife to London. He died on May 28. 1870, at twenty-five, as suddenly as his brother two years before.
Soon Alexander, too. became unnaturally pale and thin. The specialist who examined him gave an unfavorable report. The boy was ill. dangerously ill.
The family immediately took passage for Canada. Melville's young widow went with them. They arrived on August 1,
1870. within sight of the rocky dome on which the city of Quebec perches.
They continued on at once to Paris, where Henderson lived, but Paris seemed too small and the Bell family felt a preference for Brantford, seven miles away. When Professor Bell was shown Tutelo Heights on the edge of that city, he knew this was the home he had sought.
And so in due course the family of
four climbed one morning into a newly purchased phaeton and Melville Bell gathered the reins into his hands for the trip with which this narrative began.
All members of the family seem to have maintained an air of calm and hopefulness during these trying days, although the fact that Alexander Melville Bell had announced they were giving the new home a two-year trial was a measure of the desperation they felt. He was not cer-
tain that the move to Canada would have the desired results and yet he had thrown his career over without any hesitation to take this one chance. It seemed to those who understood the situation that he was clutching at straws.
As for Alexander Graham Bell, his feelings can be estimated by the references he made to the situation later in his life. "I went to Canada to die,” he said.