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May 10, 1876 — Big Day for Alec and the World.

Crowds outside main building of Centennial Exposition on May 10, 1876.
Centennial Exposition Opening Day.1

May 10, 1876 was a big day. America was gathering in Philadelphia to celebrate its 100th birthday, display its achievements and heal its wounds eleven years after the end of the nation’s deadliest war. President Grant was in town to open the Centennial Exposition. Dignitaries from all corners of the Earth were arriving for the festivities.

Meanwhile in Boston. That morning 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 Soon he would be demonstrating his invention at the monthly meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.3

U.S. Patent 174,465 for Improvement in Telegraphy.
Alec’s Patent.4

He must have been nervous. He had just written to 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 recently performed with only mixed results and his father had reminded 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 presentation was taking place at the Academy’s office on the ground floor of the Boston Athenaeum, just down the street from Alec’s University office. Wires went out his office window and along the street to the meeting room. His fiancée’s brother, Willie, was waiting in Alec’s office to operate the sending station.

While he was speaking, Alec pressed a button signaling Willie to begin playing music. Suddenly the hymn “Old Hundred” filled the room. When the talk turned to simultaneous transmission of multiple tones, Alec signaled for Willie to play chords and 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.

Two images: Boston Athenaeum 1875 on left; B.U. buildings at 18 and 20 Beacon Street 1870 on right.
Composite Image of Beacon Street with Athenæum (left) and B.U. (right).5

Alec was ecstatic. He was invited to give another presentation at the Institute of Technology and a reporter from the Boston Transcript was preparing 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 modified model that could reliably transmit speech. It attracted little attention.

Prizes were to be awarded for the best exhibits in various categories and judges were scheduled to view technology exhibits on Sunday, June 25th. Alec went to Philadelphia so he could be present when they got to his display, although he felt guilty about leaving his students waiting for their grades and diplomas.

Photo of Alexander Graham Bell in 1876.
Alec in 1876.6

Things ran late on Sunday — the tired judges gave Alec’s device a quick look and started to move on. Then a judge who had fallen behind came straggling in. It was Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil. He recognized Alec from a meeting in Boston and asked about his students. Alec said they were well, but that he was in Philadelphia to show an invention. The Emperor asked to see it and some of the other judges went over to watch.

Alec went to the sending station and began to sing. Then he said “Do you understand what I say.” The judges couldn’t believe they were hearing a machine speak and literally ran to find Alec. They then took turns speaking and listening.

One of the participants, Sir William Thompson, was so impressed that he went to get his wife so she could hear. Sir William was one of the day’s leading experts on electric theory and telegraphic science and that evening spoke glowingly of the demonstration over dinner. Later he and Emperor Dom Pedro recommended Alec’s invention to the Committee of Electrical Awards, which awarded it the Gold Medal.

Today we usually refer to Alec by his full name: Alexander Graham Bell. Presumably his father forgave him for not heeding the advice about time spent on his electric hobby.

* * * * *

On May 10, 1876, the Centennial Exposition was in the headlines of every newspaper and only a handful of people had even heard of a telephone. Today telephones are everywhere and the Centennial Exposition is but a footnote to history. Just imagine all the remarkable, but unheralded things that might be happening at this very moment.

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  1. Crowd in front of Main Building of Centennial Exposition on May 10, 1876. Image from The PhillyHistory Blog.
  2. Alexander Graham Bell, Improvement in Telegraphy, U.S. Patent 174,465 filed February 14, 1876 and issued March 7, 1876. View on Google Patents.
  3. 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.
  4. Letter patent dated March 7, 1876 for Improvement in Telegraphy, image from Wikipedia.
  5. 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.
  6. From image in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, available in on-line archives.

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Updated February 19, 2017.