In our world of electronic and digital communications, one wonders what evidence of our day-to-day lives will exist for our descendants in the next century. Modern technology has given us the ability to be in almost constant touch with one another. But, will our emails and texts still exist a hundred years from now? For decades, letter writing was often an everyday occurrence for most people. Keeping in touch meant sitting down with pen and paper. Receiving a letter was often an exciting event, especially from someone miles away. And, for many, including Alexander Graham Bell and his family, these letters were something to be kept, not simply discarded once read. The Bells were profuse writers and as a result, their story can be told today through thousands of letters.
Born in Scotland in 1847, Alexander Graham Bell lived a unique life. Influenced by his father, Melville, a professor of elocution, and his deaf mother, Eliza; the loss of his brothers, Melville and Edward, to Consumption; and marriage to his deaf pupil, Mabel Hubbard, Bell left a legacy to the world that few could imagine living without. How this came to pass is best revealed through the letters between these individuals. Here, we present those letters to you.
Readers of this letter will wonder about its contents, perhaps questioning the validity of the historic first long-distance call from Brantford to Paris, that occurred just over a month following the test that Alec described here for his parents. However, although sounds and words were clearly heard, it was later determined that the actual transmission was over the short part of the circuit rather than the long lines. In other words, the call did not travel to Rye Beach and back, but rather just between the transmitter and receiver, side-by-side in the same room. Therefore, the transmission on Aug. 10, 1876, was the first successful long-distance telephone call.
Friday, July 7th, 1876
Dear Papa & Mama
I had the opportunity of testing my apparatus for the first time to-day upon a real telegraph-line. We had the use of a line to Rye Beach a distance of 60 miles.
Mabel’s voice has been the first human voice to traverse a real telegraph wire. She spoke into my telephone and the vibrations of her voice had to travel to Rye Beach and back (a distance of 120 miles) before reaching my ear. The experiment was successful and I heard her although I could not understand what she said.
A young man spoke into the instrument and I heard the words “Do you understand what I say?” – “Do you hear me?” And then I heard him singing. It is wonderful – most wonderful in the first place that the sounds should traverse 120 miles of wire and be audible at the other end and in the second place – it is marvelous that the vibration of a piece of steel spring weighing a very few grains – should influence the current in that way.
Upon connecting the telephone organ – the sounds came out splendidly so as to be heard several feet away from the instrument.
I am to have the use of a still longer line on Sunday at three o’clock in the morning!
I trust that Frances is better. If Uncle Edward comes through Boston I should like him to call here. The University is closed. I fear I can’t come home before the 19th and I would rather feel that the wedding would be on the 26th. I want to meet Sir William Thomson privately in Boston about the 15th or 16th.
Your affectionate son
The Bell Letters are annotated by Brian Wood, curator, Bell Homestead National Historic Site.