May 10, 1876 — Big Day for Alec and the World.
May 10, 1876 was a big day. Eleven years after the end of the nation’s deadliest war America was gathering in Philadelphia to heal its wounds, celebrate its 100th birthday and display its achievements. President Grant was in town to open the Centennial Exposition. Dignitaries from around the world were gathering for the festivities.
Meanwhile in Boston. In Boston a 29 year-old Boston University professor, his family called him Alec, was looking forward to his own big day. Two months earlier he had been granted a patent for an improvement in telegraphy.2 Now he would be demonstrating it at the monthly meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.3
He must have been nervous. A few days before he had written his father that he was busily preparing for the presentation and that it would be one of the great events of his life. But the invention had performed with only mixed results in a recent test and his father had just admonished him that he needed to focus on earning a living and not spend so much time on his electric hobby. And then there were the gray heads of the Academy itself, a learned society that included some of the top minds in the country.
The demonstration was being given at the Boston Athenaeum, just down the street from Alec’s University office. Wires were strung out the window of his office and along the street to the meeting room. His fiancée's brother, Willie Hubbard, was in Alec’s office ready to operate the sending station.
When it was time for Alec to speak he pressed a button signaling Willie to begin playing music on a small organ in his office. All of a sudden the hymn “Old Hundred” filled the room as he spoke. When he began discussing simultaneous transmission of several notes, Alec signaled Willie to begin playing chords. The room erupted into a round of applause. A long-time member said it was the most enthusiastic reception he had ever seen at an Academy meeting.
Alec was ecstatic. He was invited to give another presentation at the Institute of Technology and a reporter from the Boston Transcript was writing an article about his work. But as always reality set in. The semester was ending and Alec needed to attend to his classes. He also had bills to pay and his mother wrote warning him that he had to get to bed at a reasonable hour, she had heard he was killing himself.
Back in Philadelphia. The Centennial Exposition continued to draw throngs to Philadelphia. Alec’s lawyer and future father-in-law, Gardiner Hubbard, convinced him to display his invention. Alec sent a revised model that could reliably transmit speech. It attracted little attention.
Sunday, June 25th, was set aside for technology exhibits to be shown to a group of judges who would award prizes. Alec went to Philadelphia to be present, although he felt guilty about leaving his students waiting for their grades and diplomas.
Things ran late on Sunday and the tired judges gave Alec’s apparatus a quick look and started to move on. Then the Emperor of Brazil, who was straggling, recognized Alec from a visit to his Boston classroom and asked about his students. Alec replied that they were well, but that he was in Philadelphia to show his invention. The Emperor asked to see it and several other judges accompanied him for the demonstration, including Sir William Thompson, one of the day’s leading experts on electric theory and telegraphic science.
Alec went to the sending station and began to sing. Then he said “Do you understand what I say.” The judges were astonished to hear the words and ran to find Alec. They took turns speaking and listening and Sir William went to get his wife so she could hear. That evening Sir William spoke glowingly of the demonstration over dinner and later that week he and the Emperor recommended Alec’s invention to the Committee of Electrical Awards, which gave him the Gold Medal.
Today we usually refer to Alec more formally as Alexander Graham Bell. Presumably his father forgave him for not heeding the advice about time spent on his electric hobby.
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On May 10, 1876 everyone knew about the Centennial Exposition while hardly anybody had even heard of a telephone. Today telephones are everywhere and the Centennial Exposition is but a footnote to history. Just imagine what unheralded, but world-changing events might be happening at this very moment.
- Crowd in front of Main Building of Centennial Exposition on May 10, 1876. Image from The PhillyHistory Blog.
- Alexander Graham Bell, Improvement in Telegraphy, U.S. Patent 174,465 filed February 14, 1876 and issued March 7, 1876. View on Google Patents.
- This narrative is based on letters in the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers collection held by the Library of Congress and the Deposition of Alexander Graham Bell in the suit brought by the U.S. to annul the Bell’s patents, printed by American Bell Telephone Company (1908), pp 95 et seq.
- Letter patent dated March 7, 1876 for Improvement in Telegraphy, image from Wikipedia.
- Composite created from image of Athenaeum at 10½ Beacon Street (1875)(left) from Digital Commonwealth and image of B.U. buildings at 18 and 20 Beacon Street (1870)(right) from Boston Public Library.
- From image in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, available in on-line archives.
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