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History Time: Alexander Graham Bell makes a connection

Posted by Kaileigh Higgins  December 14, 2010 10:00 AM

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Alexander Graham Bell from the frontispiece to "The Deposition of Alexander Graham Bell" (American Bell Telephone Company, 1908)

By Maggi Smith-Dalton, Guest Columnist

"Messer Hubbard and Bell want to install one of their "telephone devices" in every city. The idea is idiotic on the face of it. Furthermore, why would any person want to use this ungainly and impractical device when he can send a messenger to the telegraph office and have a clear written message sent to any large city in the United States?  ~ an 1876 The Telegraph Company (later, Western Union) memo

On the speaker’s platform, he folded his lanky frame to face the box on the table. From an overhead chandelier, a wire snaked through the air, connecting the odd-looking apparatus to a workshop on Exeter Place in Boston. He had finished his explanatory lecture, and now, as he bent to speak into the mouthpiece, he had every reason to relish the joys and, yes, the ironies, of his triumph.  

His audience at Salem's Lyceum Hall, drawn from the members of the Essex Institute, had heard about his prize-winning invention, and had invited him to lecture that 12th of February, 1877. Perhaps some felt a stirring of local pride in this young man and in the strange little mechanism which had so "wowed" the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition judges.

Alexander Graham Bell, who had arrived in the United States in 1871, had been a Salem resident from October of 1873 to early 1876, and had applied to become an American citizen while living in the city named for peace. By profession an acclaimed teacher of the deaf, with training and talent in music and elocution, not to mention a familial flair for the dramatic, he came from Boston in 1873 to live and work with his young pupil, George Sanders.

This arrangement which was to prove most advantageous to all. In Salem, he set up his own laboratory in the basement of the home belonging to Sanders’ grandmother. During his time here he concentrated on developing and testing an invention that would transmit music and the human voice between listeners and speakers, however distant and separate they might be. Some of those tests were conducted in Salem itself.

He continued to commute to Boston to fulfill his daily professional duties. Bell struggled financially, juggling teaching and lecturing with his research and inventive work. Given to "war whooping" dances in his rooms when excited over advances in his work (much to the dismay of various landladies over ensuing years), concurrently motivated by strong devotion to his educational work with the deaf, young Bell could often be seen trudging exhaustedly home from the Salem depot, having taken the last night train from Boston.

On this winter night in 1877, he stood before Essex Institute members with the memory of those years in his mind, fresh not only from successes but from recent failure (such as the rejection of his efforts to sell his patents to the Telegraph Company for $100,000).

How sweet must have been the moment when, in response to his query to the inanimate little box on the table, "Mr. Watson, will you speak to the audience?" the distinct reply emanated from within the same source, "Ladies and gentlemen – It gives me great pleasure to be able to address you this evening, although I am in Boston, and you in Salem!"

Further demonstrations of the capabilities of the miracle box included (as was customary) musical renditions by Bell from his Salem station – this night, of "Yankee Doodle," and "Auld Lang Syne." With Bell’s partner Thomas A. Watson at the helm in Boston, some two dozen participants (including musicians, artists and reporters) listened in the lofty rooms at Exeter Place.

Delighted pandemonium ensued among all, especially in Salem, where Mr. Bell was invited to "devote another evening in Salem to experiments with the telephone" … a request he honored on Feb. 23, 1877, at Lyceum Hall, before approximately 500 people. This Salem lecture netted him $85.00, which, according to writer Catherine MacKenzie, was "the first money the telephone had ever earned."

In the Boston Daily Globe the next day, the report describing Bell’s lectures and their effect made history in itself, for, according to Bell’s 1892 deposition in defense of his patents (published in 1908) the Globe proudly proclaimed that the story resulted from "The First Dispatch Ever Sent to a Newspaper by the Newly-invented Telephone, Professor A. Graham Bell’s System of Transmitting Sound by Telegraph" and called the event "a feat never before attempted – that is, the sending of a newspaper dispatch over a a space of eighteen miles by the human voice."  

Musician, educator and lecturer, Maggi Smith-Dalton is the president of the Salem History Society and the author of “Stories and Shadows from Salem’s Past: Naumkeag Notations” (The History Press, 2010). Reach her at

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