The Great Telephone Caper: Boston or Brantford?

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Here’s a riddle. What’s the connection between “The Great White Plague”–consumption, or tuberculosis the more common names–and the invention of the telephone?

We’ll peek through the curtains into the parlour of the Melville Bell home in London, England, circa 1867. There we’ll find a family wracked with sorrow and we’ll uncover the answer to our riddle.

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Two of the adult sons of Melville and Eliza Bell have succumbed to consumption. Edward, the youngest has died at age 18. His mother wrote of his untimely passing: “he was a good dear boy, and our way will be dark without him.”

Three years later, the Bells’ eldest son, Melville, 25 passes away of the same rampant disease. With the discovery of effective antibiotics still decades away, contracting the dreaded consumption was a likely invitation to the afterlife.

Now, only 23 year-old Alexander (Alec) remained to carry on the family name. And, as Alec was prone to what his mother called “head-achey fits,” Eliza worried incessantly about his health.

Melville’s subsequent decision to uproot his only son, his wife and his son’s widow from the smog and soot of London for the clean air of Canada was not a popular one with young Alec. He had a sweetheart and a job he liked. What upwardly-mobile Englishman would have traded this for backwoods Canada, just recently become a nation?

Fascinated by Sound

Alec Bell had a position as a teacher of deaf children at a private school in Kensington. It was through this connection that Alec had become fascinated by sound. He’d begun to conduct experiments using tuning forks and crude “sound machines.”

He’d come by his vocation and interests naturally. Eliza suffered from deafness caused by a childhood infection and Melville, a former actor, now was a Professor of Elocution. He’d invented a method he called Visible Speech for teaching deaf children.

So despite Alec’s protestations, in July 1870, Melville booked passage for his family on a steamer bound for Canada. Alec’s diary entry, written a few days before his departure indicates his state of mind ahead of the adventure. “I tried to imagine myself in the Backwoods of Canada…it was not very hard to imagine…”

Still young Alec Bell must have known in his heart, the wisdom of the momentous step he was embarking on. For Alec was in the early stages of tuberculosis himself. He suffered from severe headaches and a constant cough. On his 6 foot frame, he carried only 130 pounds. He had written to friends: “I went to Canada to die.”

Settling in Brantford

After arriving in Quebec City, the Bells boarded a train for Paris, Ontario, where Melville’s friend Reverend Henderson lived. There the family would stay until they found a home. It did not take long.

Within days, Melville had located a 10 ½ acre property with a comfortable “country house” just outside the town of Brantford, less than ten miles from Paris. It was called Tutelo Heights and was situated on a high bluff overlooking the Grand River. The Bells renamed their home Melville House.

Melville and Eliza soon found their place in Brantford’s social life. Alec did not and spent much of the coming months “healing,” wrapped in a blanket, sitting in the garden. He grew impatient and bored.

Still, Alec must have been thankful too. The fresh air of Canada was gradually improving his health. He put on weight and the pallor of his complexion lessened.

Alec’s sedentary life had also given him considerable time to ruminate. Still fascinated by sound, his ruminations centered on electricity and how it could be used for long distance communication. He envisioned a “speaking telegraph,” that could carry the human voice over telegraph lines.  It had been little more than 20 years since Samuel Morse had sent the first telegraph message.

As his health improved, Alec set up a small laboratory in the house to conduct his sound experiments.  But they did little to quell his mounting frustration with his uninspired existence in little Brantford. When he heard of a teaching position at a private school for “Deaf Mutes” in Boston, Massachusetts, he applied.

In March 1871, eight months after he stepped foot on Canadian soil, Alexander Graham Bell was bound for Boston. He took up a position, at $500 a year at Miss Fuller’s School for the Deaf in that American city. Boston became his home and ten years later, he became an American citizen.

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A collective shriek of incredulity bounds into cyberspace towards me. “But I thought that Bell was a Canadian and he invented the telephone in Brantford!!” “You say he was an American?”  “What’s next? That Don Cherry orders his suit jackets in Los Angeles?”

So here’s the Bell story. Over the coming months, Alec Bell spent his days teaching (and earning a paycheck), and worked far into the night with his experiments on the sound telegraph. He was convinced that the device would allow long-distance communication. He only needed to grasp the principal.

On a visit to his parents’ home in Brantford in 1874, Bell’s epiphany came. He rushed back to Boston and his laboratory. It was here where the first intelligible speech over a telephone connection occurred. “Mr. Watson come here. I need you,” was spoken by Bell to his assistant, James Watson, who was working in another room of the house.

Brantford’s Claim to Fame

Now to what happened in Brantford. Forging ahead with this invention, in 1876, Bell completes the first long-distance transmission of sound. The call takes place between a transmitter in Brantford and one in the village of Mount Pleasant, several miles distant. Two other such calls were made between other Brantford-area points. A plaque in downtown Paris, Ontario commemorates the telephone transmission between that town and Bell’s home.

The invention of the telephone would make Alexander Graham Bell a wealthy and world-famous man. In 1877, he married the former Mabel Hubbard, the daughter of a prominent Bostonian. Mabel was profoundly deaf and communicated expertly by reading lips.Curiously, despite his advocacy for the deaf, Alexander Graham Bell strongly opposed marriage of two deaf individuals. He feared “contamination” and “propagation of deafness.”

Alec and Mabel’s was a happy marriage that produced four children—two boys, who died in childhood, and two girls. The Bells now divided their time between Boston and their summer home near Baddeck, on Bras D’Or Lake, Cape Breton Island. For the rest of his life, Bell focused his attention on building flying machines.

Both Alexander Graham Bell and Mabel Bell are buried on the top of Beinn Bhreagh Mountain near their Cape Breton home. A plaque marking Bell’s grave reads: “Teacher-Inventor-Citizen of the U.S.A.”

Finally to the Bell Homestead

Melville House passed out of Bell ownership in 1881. A succession of 6 owners followed. In 1909, the house and property was purchased by the Bell Telephone Memorial Association. It was then deeded to the City of Brantford. One year later, it opened its doors to the public as a museum. Extensive restorations and recovery of original Bell furnishings have continued over the years.

Living no more than a 45 minute drive from Brantford, I had never visited the Bell Homestead. So it was with a sense of embarrassment that I introduced myself to Bell Homestead National Historic Site Curator Brian Wood.

He and a young assistant were in the gift shop taking down Christmas displays when I arrived. Curator Wood apologized that the Homestead’s Tea Room was not open this time of year, but invited us to see the rest of the Site.

Our first stop was into the home itself, a model of Victorian decorating. We wondered if the unwieldy “ear trumpet” was Eliza Bell’s, and if so, had she developed admiral arm muscles tone holding it to her ear! A handsome piano dominates the parlour. Alec had skill at the keyboard.

A tour of the Telephone Museum is the highlight of a visit to the Bell Homestead. And while the telephones, from the earliest models through to today’s mini-cell phones remind the visitor of the great progress of technology, it is the lifelike mannequin of an early telephone operator wearing 6-pound headgear that brings the concept of “progress” to the fore. If the tonnage on the operators’ heads was not sufficient to cause discomfort, the arched-back posture they needed to adopt to do their job surely invited eventual infirmity.

My visit to the Bell Homestead was long overdue and brought me a prize past the Historic Site itself. In the gift shop I purchased author Charlotte Grey’s excellent biography of Bell called Reluctant Genius. It is a fascinating study of a complex man.

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