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Bell plans experiment of his speaking telegraph

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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.

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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.

Writing from his parent’s home in Brantford, Alec filled eight hand-written pages with details of electricity, meteors, a visit to Sour Springs and permission granted him to use the lines of the Dominion Telegraph Co. for experiments with his speaking telegraph. A lack of lamp oil kept Alec from finishing this letter on the night it was written. The remainder will appears in next week’s edition of The Bell Letters.

Brantford, Ontario

August 1st, 1876

My dear May

I am rather ashamed of my yesterday’s letter directed to Nantucket as you must have seen in it the reflection of the headache from which I was suffering. It is so long since I have had a musical evening – that I had forgotten the after-effects that always – in my case – attend upon musical dissipation. “I waited for the Lord” has been ringing in my ears ever since Sunday night – mixed up with echoes of Mendelsohn’s four-part songs – and fragments of Bishop’s glees. On Monday my “musical-fever” (as my mother calls it) had not abated – so Aileen and I spent the afternoon in Nordheimer’s music store playing duets. We played through every solitary piece they had in the store (!) – four-hand pieces I mean – and then went home to tea and a bad headache. Please excuse the letter written under such circumstances. If it does not give you a headache to read it I am satisfied. This morning on visiting Uncle David’s house – all I could do was to ask for the loan of a bed (!) – as I was quite unable to go home in the heat of the day.

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On waking this afternoon – refreshed and well – I found on my pillow three letters awaiting me. One from you, another from Miss Hjortsberg (which I enclose) and the third from one of the members of my normal class – now teaching in Peru. Poor Willie! I am sorry for him, and shall certainly go to see him unless I find it important to return to Boston via Montreal. By the by – I forgot to tell you in my last – of the arrival of a newspaper from Edinburgh – (sent by some friend there) – containing an article entitled “Important Advances in Telegraphy.”

It is a copy of Willie’s article in the Montpelier Argus! So, you see he has been the means of letting my friends in Edinburgh know something of the work in which I am engaged.

The manager of the Dominion Telegraph Co. places his wires at my disposal any evening after eight o’clock. We are to have a little experiment tomorrow or Thursday between Brantford and Mount Pleasant a distance of five miles. I have not yet seen George Brown although I hear he is in Brantford.

A letter from Pollok & Bailey has been forwarded to me from Boston – asking me to give drawings & explanations of my second method of inducing a continuous current of Electricity by the motion of permanent magnets – as he thought there was a similar claim made by some one else. I find the disadvantage of being away from Boston in my inability to consult books of reference.

It became necessary for me in order to answer Mr. Pollok’s note – to refer to an experiment recorded by Sir Snow Harris in his work on Magnetism – and to copy his illustration.

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My father however had not the work – nor was it in the town library – and for some time I was at a loss what to do. My friend – Dr. Hunter – however came to my mind – so up I started to the Blind Institution – to request permission to hunt through his library. Sir Snow Harris’ work indeed was not there – but I found a book containing the experiment & illustration wanted – so I do not now need the work. The experiment I find is due to Ampere and not to Sir Snow Harris.

In the book lent me by Dr. Hunter I find many curious facts concerning electricity – which are quite new to me. One experiment is so astounding that I cannot help telling you. Under the head of Frictional Electricity the author cites a number of experiments of a very curious nature – and among them occurs the following:-

He says that if an orange or lemon be laid upon the plate of an electrical machine and a spark passed though it (in the dark) – the fruit becomes “transparent and luminous” during the passage of the spark.

This is such an extraordinary statement that I lay it bye in my memory – labeled “doubtful” – until I see it verified for myself – or confirmed by the experiments of others.

Brantford is excited over a Meteor that appeared a few nights ago – a ball of fire half as large as the moon in appearance – and yielding a light bright enough to read small print by.

Look out for Meteors now. From the 6th to the 13th of August is a period for regular display. On the 10th of August the Earth crosses the orbit of the meteor-system – and on that day there is always a display of shooting stars – proceeding from a pint in the Constellation “Perseus”.

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Occasionally, the display is very grand although I believe it is never so striking as the star-shower occurring every thirty-three years on the 16th of November. On the last occasion (which I believe was in 1867) all the stars in the sky seemed to be falling – and at one period of the night the heavens appeared a net-work of shooting-star tracks – through the meshes of which – the fixed stars made their appearance.

The August meteors never come in shoals like the November shooting-stars. The average appearance is one every minute. But they range in appearance from balls of fire – to the tiniest little streaks of light. My Uncle Edward tells me that a few years ago a huge ball of fire appeared in Australia and fell to the ground about fifteen miles from his house.

The spot was found immediately by the smoke & steam that rose from the ground. A huge mass of meteoric iron weighing between two and three tons had penetrated the earth to the depth of five feet! It was extracted a few days afterwards – and half of it is now in the British Museum in London – and the other half in the Melbourne Museum in Australia.

Uncle Edward paid a visit to the Indian Council-house in Tuscarora to-day – as the guest of the Government Commissioner. There were from forty to fifty Chiefs assembled in council – and two or three hundred Indian “warriors” in the habiliments of peace.

Three nations were represented in council – the Mohawks, Tuscaroras and Delawares. Uncle Edward could not tell us the object of the meeting as the proceedings were all conducted in the Mohawk language – but he stated that he was formally introduced through an interpreter as “a stranger from a far distant land” – and had to shake hands with the forty chiefs in succession – and that he was called upon to address the meeting through their interpreter.

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A look of surprise ran around the assembly when he told them that if they were to dig a hole right through the earth under their feet they would come out on the other side just about the place where he lived! He said that when they went to bed his people were just getting up – and that when it was summer here it was winter there. He told them about the Maories who had originally been a savage race but were now represented in the Parliament of their country on equal terms with the whites. – He congratulated them (the Indians) upon the condition in which he found them – and trusted that the day was not distant when they too would be qualified to participate in the government of their country – as the Maories were at the other side of the world.

I think I told you that the whole family spent last Saturday in the Indian Bush at a very curious place called “The Sour Spring”. Water bubbles up through a large hold in the ground and overflows the sides of a little hill – staining the earth a red-ochre colour. The whole place looks like a tan-yard. The water has a very peculiar taste. I believe a complete analysis of the water has never been made although it possesses very great medicinal properties. People come hundreds of miles to get a little earth from Sour Spring.

They carry the soil away and place it in water. The salts contained in it are dissolved in the water – so that they have all the benefit of a drink from the Sour Spring without the necessity of carrying away the water itself.

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I enclose a little of the earth for your special benefit. I find that the earth we have brought home has very little of the salts in it – so you better add very little water if you wish to obtain the full flavour of the spring. Place it in a wine-glass of water, stir it up well with a spoon, and then allow it to clear before drinking. I send you very little – as I “rather guess” – one wine-glassful will be enough for the whole family!

We spent a very pleasant day in the Indian bush – but without any adventures – if I except a little flirtation that I carried on with a very pretty Indian damsel of the name of [written in Visible Speech symbols].

But of course it would not do for me to tell you of this – so I shall say no more. I am forced to close this epistle as my lamp is just going out. Good night – The flame flickers and I can hardly see – I shall finish by daylight tomorrow.


The Bell Letters are annotated by Brian Wood, curator, Bell Homestead National Historic Site.

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