The fortune nobody wanted to make
The life of Alexander Graham Bell
Third of four parts
Skepticism dogged Bed's efforts to finance the telephone. Mark Twain turned him down. Publisher and politician George Brown was fainthearted. Then came the day when the Emperor of Brazil said, “My God, it talks!”
Thomas B. Costain
NOT LONG AFTER the day early in June 1875 when Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant, Thomas Watson, first sent “voice-shaped undulations" over a wire. Bell was back at the family home in Brantford. Ont. Although he had so recently taken the first giant step toward the realization of a dream of many years’ standing — the transmission of the human voice over wires — he appears to have done little experimental work on the telephone during that summer and autumn.
Indeed, by his own account. Bell actually pondered during that summer whether to give up working on his electrical inventions and return to earning a living as a teacher of the deaf. That and other problems that weighed on his mind at Brantford in I (875 -— ill health and lack of money — were graphically summarized in Bell's own words, in evidence he gave in 1887 in suits entered for the canceling of the Bell patents:
“I must direct attention to my pecuniary condition in the summer of 1875, when I went to the home of my parents in Canada to recruit my health. During the year 1875 I had devoted my time to my electrical researches, to the neglect of the professional work upon which I was dependent for support. My associates, Mr. Sanders and Mr. Hubbard, although they had agreed to pay the expenses of the construction of my experimental apparatus, had made no provision to pay me for my time. When my professional work (the classes he maintained) had become disorganized, I could of course have made arrangements for my support with Messrs. Sanders and Hubbard; but on account of the delicate relations that began to arise between myself and Mr. Hubbard, I was unwdlling to ask for any assistance.
“The delicate relations to which I allude will be understood w'hen I say that Mr. Hubbard’s daugh-
ter is now my wife. At the time I left for Canada in the summer of 1875 my health had given out, and my professional work also, and during that summer vacation it became a matter for serious consideration what I should do in the future. I desired to place myself in such a position that I should be able to marry. On the one hand 1 knew that if I devoted myself to my professional work, it was capable of yielding me an income; and. on the other hand, I believed that if 1 devoted my attention exclusively to my electrical inventions, they w'ould bring me in a fortune.”
Graham Bell was always hard-pressed for funds. One day in 1875 he paid a call at the shop of James P. Excell, one of Brantford's most colorful residents. Excell ran a tavern, in front of w'hich he kept a shop for the repair of umbrellas, the making of keys and kindred activities. He gave Bell a friendly nod, noticing
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The life of Alexander Graham Bell
continued front page 28
From an umbrella mender, he got $300 in cash — from a Brantford notable, mainly promises
that the young man seemed nervous. "Yes, my boy?”
"Mr. Excell, I need money. I need it rather badly.”
Jimmy Exccll, who heard everything that went on in town, knew about the Bell experiments.
"It is for the invention?”
"Yes, Mr. Excell. I have passed the experimental stage. It works. It will be a success. But there is still so much to be done. Improvements, you know, and materials and the cost of patents. And that takes more money than I have." "How much do you need?”
The dedicated young man swallowed. It was a colossal sum he must ask.
"Yes, my boy?”
"Three hundred dollars."
The mender of umbrellas laid down whatever task he had in hand. Then he left the room, and soon he could be heard climbing the stairs to his living quarters above. When he returned, he carried a leather bag, tied carefully with a thick cord. This he opened and then shook out on the counter ten-dollar bills, gold pieces, silver. He counted out three hundred dollars, which made a formidable mound.
"There you are, my boy.”
Alexander Graham Bell was at first too much taken by surprise to say anything. Then he stammered, "You will have a note for me to sign?”
The elderly man shook his head.
“Young man,” he said, "if your word is not good, then your signature will not be of value. I do not want a note.”
This is the story repeated by some of the oldest residents. It is not included in what may be called the recognized stories of the Great Event. But it is such a pleasant anecdote that I cannot resist telling it.
The question of financing the invention was always a difficult one for the Bells, and many citizens of Brantford were invited to participate. I doubt if much help was gained in that way. In my recent search along the trail that led to the telephone, I encountered many people who spoke wistfully of what might have been. “Oh, if Great-grandfather So-andso.” they would say, “had not been so careful about his investments and .so tight with his money, I would be a millionaire today.”
Among the Brantford residents to whom Bell took his financial problems was the Hon. George Brown, founder of the Toronto Globe and one of the principal authors of Canadian Confederation. Brown spent his summers at Bow Park, a magnificent thousand-acre farm and country estate two miles from the Bell home. He had by this time withdrawn from active politics but he still used his trenchant pen in the columns of his newspaper as a whiplash to keep the Liberal party true to its traditions.
George Brown listened intently while
the youthful inventor explained his need for funds. He knew what young Hell was trying to do but he undoubtedly shared, in part at least, the opinion of most people, that the telephone would never be anything but a toy. No man who tossed money about as he did in the improvement of his herds could be called closefisted. More likely he did not think it would be either wise or dignified to be concerned with a scheme which might be considered crack brained.
How much would be needed?
Not a great deal, explained the young
inventor. No more than enough to enable him to finish his experiments with a free mind. Perhaps at this point the figure was mentioned which later was to have been embodied in an agreement. The amount stipulated was twenty-five dollars a month from George Brown and a similar payment from his brother Gordon for a period of six months. For this, the Browns would be given a half interest in the British Empire patents, including Canada.
It seems, nevertheless, that an understanding was reached by which Brown
and his brother agreed to make monthly payments to cover Bell's personal expenses. This was in September 1875 but after Bell returned to Boston the expected remittances were not received, nor did the promised agreement reach him. Later the inventor stated that the understanding had covered the taking out of patents in foreign countries by the brothers Brown. No application was to be filed in the U. S. Patent Office until the European arrangements had been completed.
George Brown sailed to England on January 25 of the following year. Graham
Bell and his backers and associates waited anxiously for w'ord of the filing in London. Nothing came. They were prepared to act immediately. The American application was sworn to in Boston and was sent to the solicitors in Washington, with instructions to act immediately when the word from abroad had been received.
Years later, on the witness stand in a patent lawsuit, Bell explained the sequel in these words:
"Mr. Brown neglected to take any action in the matter and sent no cablegram; and Mr. Hubbard, becoming impatient at the delay, privately instructed my solicitors to file the specification in the American Patent Office, and on the fourteenth day of February, 1876, it was so filed without my knowledge or consent.”
It was a good thing that Hubbard took it on himself to act. The application was filed in Washington on the morning of February 14. During the afternoon of the same day a rival inventor, Elisha Gray, filed his caveat w'hich described the idea he intended to employ in making a telephone.
George Brown was not the only outstanding man who failed to see the potentialities of the telephone. Samuel L. Clemens, known to the world as Mark Twain, was given a chance to invest in it and declined. With the great humorist it was a case of many times bitten, finally shy.
The patent application w'hich secured for Bell and his partners the rights to the telephone was drawn up by Bell in Brantford during the summer, which he dedicated also to regaining his health, to attempting to raise money, and to deciding whether he should concentrate on inventing or teaching.
Bell returned to Boston .that autumn with that last decision apparently unresolved. Certainly he resumed his classes and continued to work with Watson in his attempts to make his primitive apparatus produce something better than "voice-shaped undulations.”
It was 1876, the year of the great Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, marking the hundredth anniversary of the nation, and his partners were eager for Bell to exhibit his invention to the tens of thousands of visitors who would Hock to the huge fair.
Bell was stubborn. At first he said that he did not want his models displayed while they were still far from perfect. Then he took refuge behind the fact that the time for making entries had expired. Finally, he pointed out that the annual examinations of his pupils would begin the day after his exhibits would be judged, and he could not be in both places. But Mabel Hubbard, to whom he was now formally engaged, had a mind of her own. There was much determined debate and shaking of heads and perhaps a little stamping of feet in the house on Brattle Street. But the lady won. It was so late when she did that the electrical section was filled and the telephone (certainly the most monumental exhibit in all of those two hundred buildings) had to be placed in the Massachusetts Educational Section.
Many years later, when the inventor of the telephone could afford to smile over the stubbornness of his youth, Bell said: "I was not much alive to commercial matters. So I went to Philadelphia, growling all the time at this interruption."
As it turned out. the success of the exhibition's most spectacular exhibit ow'ed something to the attention it received from the exhibition’s most spectacular visitor — Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil, the only monarch in the Americas. Dorn
Pedro was the very model of a modern constitutional monarch and was favorably known for the liberality of his views and the many enlightened things he had done for the people of his country.
He came to the Centennial with a large party, including his consort. Dona Thereza. Philadelphia welcomed him thunderously, with booming salvos of cannon and the skies lighted up with huge gas fixtures.
Dom Pedro was one of the judges of the Centennial's scientific exhibits, which had been set for Sunday, June 25, when the space would be free of noisy spectators. It was stitlingly hot and the young man from Scotland, who found such weather almost unbearable, stood in the aisle in the East Gallery beside the receiving set which Thomas Watson had arranged, with the transmitter on the other side of the building, mopping his
brow in discomfort of body and mind. He could see that the judges, a group of most distinguished men, including Dorn Pedro and the great Englishman Sir William Thomson (who played a big part in the laying of the Atlantic cable), were feeling as miserable as he was. They were carrying their tall silk hats in their hands and were vigorously applying silk handkerchiefs to their brows.
When they came far enough down the aisle for him to hear what was being said, he realized that they were going to stop before coming to his exhibit. I hey had stood as much of the heat as they could for one day. His heart sank, for he had to catch a train that night to get back to Boston in time for the examinations. Gardiner Hubbard had already gone and had left a nephew, William Hubbard, who was not much versed in science and could hardly be expected to present the telephone in a successful light the next day.
But the massive figure of the Brazilian monarch (.lid not come to a halt with the rest of the judges, lie had caught sight of the disconsolate Bell at the end ol the aisle. Some few weeks before, he had visited Boston and had talked to the young Scot about his methods of teaching the deaf and the dumb. He walked on, holding out his hand.
'1 think it is Mr. Bell,” he said, in a voice which reached the other judges. "This is a far distance from your classes. How are the deaf-mutes of Boston?”
“They are very well,” answered their
absentee teacher. Then he decided to do what he could to avert the disaster which loomed ahead for him. He informed the emperor that his exhibit was the next one and so would not be judged. It was necessary for him to leave the city that evening.
"Then.” declared the democratic monarch. “ we must have a look at it now."
He took the inventor's arm and walked briskly to where the humble little receiver stood at the end of a seemingly endless line of wire.
The other judges followed, without any
hint of interest or pleasure in the prospect. But the will of a ruler, especially one of such overpowering personality as the blondbearded emperor, was not to be gainsaid. — The telephone would be inspected after all.
Bell changed places with Willie Hubbard in order to speak himself into the transmitter, on the far side of the room. His voice had never been more resonant as he began on Hamlet's soliloquy.
“To be or not to be — " he began. And then he paused, for he could see in the distance that Dorn Pedro was press-
ing the membrane receiver to his ear and stroking his beard at the same time with a puzzled air.
He continued with the soliloquy, speaking the immortal words with all the emphasis the two earlier Alexanders had taught him. Then he reached a most appropriate line near the close,
And enterprises of great pith and moment. With this regard, their currents turn awry
He saw that Dom Pedro had straightened up. Had the current turned awry —
would this enterprise of great moment prove a failure after all?
It was unfortunate for Graham Bell that he was not close at hand when the mercurial monarch raised himself to his full height ami looked about him.
“A voice was speaking in my ear!” he cried.
It was clear to all about him that Dom Pedro was the most astonished man on the North American continent at that moment. One report has it that he dropped the receiver, exclaiming, “My God, it talks!” So carried away was he by this experience that the other judges evinced a desire to test the strange instrument also. Willie Hubbard waved an arm to Graham Bell to go on with the transmitting. Bell continued to speak, sometimes returning to the soliloquy, for he found the opening line a peculiarly fitting one. In everything he said, he took pains to enunciate with the greatest clarity. He could sec that Sir William Thomson (who would win acclaim as Britain’s leading scientist under the title of l ord Kelvin) had taken the receiver and was exhibiting as much surprise as the huge Dom Pedro. Others took a turn, including Professor Barker of the University of Pennsylvania
and Elisha Gray, one of Bell’s competitors for honors in the electrical field. Then the whole group began to hurry across the building to the side where Bell was standing beside the transmitter. Apparently they wanted to see just what kind of magic he was invoking to create such an effect. Dom Pedro was in the lead, the tails of his formal coat flapping behind him and his beard bristling with excitement.
The explanation that the inventor gave was clear and concise and all of them, with the possible exception of the emperor, were so well grounded in electrical laws that they could understand. They all had heard a voice whispering in their ears. Although the words spoken had not been loud, they were reasonably clear and understandable. One doubt lingered in their minds. Was it anything more than a thread telegraph (it was sometimes called the Lovers’ Telegraph), a device which transmitted sound along a wire mechanically? Would Bell be good enough to allow them to remove the apparatus to another location, where they could set it up for themselves? He said, “Yes,” but that he could not remain to superintend the removal. He had to
return to Boston at once, he explained.
The removal was carried out in his absence and the result was the same. Words passed over the wire from transmitter to receiver and there was no doubt in the minds of any of the judges that the sounds they heard were produced by electricity. It was reported to the inventor, back in Boston and absorbed in the examinations, that Sir William Thomson was so excited that he and Lady Thomson kept changing places, one speaking and the other listening, both laughing like "a pair of delighted children.”
In due course Alexander Graham Bell received the Centennial awards for both the multiple telegraph and the telephone.
Bell always said that the success of this display at the Centennial Exhibition was a matter of the greatest luck. By this he was not referring exclusively to the part played by Dorn Pedro. He had in mind also how well the sounds came over the wire. I hey had never before behaved so well.
The sounds which spoke in the ear of an emperor were sufficiently clear to convince all the judges that one of nature’s greatest secrets had been uncovered. ★