Tagged: Alexander Graham Bell
In his rivalry with Thomas Edison, Graham Bell made many attempts to record sound using media that ran the gamut from metal, glass, and foil to paper, plaster, and cardboard. Many of Bell’s discs survive, but the technologies used to record them are long forgotten.
Researchers and scientists from the National Museum of American History and the Library of Congress in Washington, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, and the University of Indiana have collaborated on a project to catalog and decipher the primative recordings, using high-resolution digital scans to convert them to audio files.
One wax-and-cardboard disc, recorded on April 15, 1885, contained a recording of the eclectic inventor himself:
“Hear my voice — Alexander Graham Bell.”
The Canadian writer and Bell biographer Charlotte Gray describes the find in the current issue of Smithsonian Magazine.
Gray once asked Dr. Mabel Bell Grosvenor, whether her grandfather had an accent.
“He sounded,” she said firmly, “like you.” As a British-born immigrant to Canada, my accent is BBC English with a Canadian overlay: It made instant sense to me that I would share intonations and pronunciations with a man raised in Edinburgh who had resided in North America from the age of 23. When Dr. Mabel died in 2006, the last direct link with the inventor was gone.
The tantalizingly brief recording reminds me of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s voice, but Gray offers a more pertinent association:
In that ringing declaration, I heard the clear diction of a man whose father, Alexander Melville Bell, had been a renowned elocution teacher (and perhaps the model for the imperious Prof. Henry Higgins, in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion; Shaw acknowledged Bell in his preface to the play).
I heard, too, the deliberate enunciation of a devoted husband whose deaf wife, Mabel, was dependent on lip reading. And true to his granddaughter’s word, the intonation of the British Isles was unmistakable in Bell’s speech. The voice is vigorous and forthright—as was the inventor, at last speaking to us across the years.
H/T: Dave Johnson
Less than an hour ago, from his perch aboard the International Space Station, Cmdr. Chris Hadfield posted this photo of Contrarian’s Kempt Head, Boularderie Island, home.
(Just incidentally, the photo also shows the ice of Baddeck Bay, from which Alexander Graham Bell’s research team flew Canada’s first powered aircraft, the Silver Dart, in 1909, a factoid Hadfield happened to mention.)
For the geographically challenged, Boularderie Island is the slender finger of land extending in from the right edge of the photo. Kempt Head forms the island’s southwestern tip, and is the name applied to the community that occupies the portion of the island shown here. The picture was taken from an altitude of 370 kilometres. Cmdr. Hadfield has since moved on, at a speed of about 7.71 kilometres per second.
Click here for the full-sized image.
H/T: Marla Cranston
Yesterday I posted a photo from National Geographic’s new Tumblr feed showing Alexander Graham Bell leaning in to kiss a woman who was holding herself inside one of his iconic tetrahedral kite frames. Both the National Geographic and I identified the women as Bell’s wife, Mabel Gardiner Hubbard.
Not so, writes Contrarian reader Donna Johnson, who works at the Bell Museum* in Baddeck:
This is one of my favourite photos. Also a favourite of the visitors, who are sometimes a bit disappointed when we point out that, contrary to popular opinion, this is actually Bell kissing his daughter Daisy, not Mabel. If you take note of the date and the age of Bell vs. the age of the woman, considering also that Mabel was never without her glasses, you’ll see why it couldn’t be her.
Still a lovely photo though and an indication of how much his girls loved their dad!
Always grateful to have Contrarian readers set me straight on matters of fact, I was about to publish a correction when I did the math on the dates. Mabel was born on November 25, 1857. She would have been six weeks shy of her 46th birthday on October 16, 1903, when the photo was taken. Marian Hubbard Bell, aka Daisy, born in 1880, would have been 22 or 23. To my eye, the woman in the photo looks closer to 46 than 23. (For what’s its worth, Bell would have been 56.)
Fortunately, Contrarian lives in sight of Beinn Bhreagh, the Bell estate outside Baddeck. I called two acquaintances who are grandchildren of Daisy’s, and great-grandchildren of the famous couple. Marian Weissman had never heard the claim that the woman in the photo might be Daisy. She thinks the woman is too old, and adds, tartly, “He wouldn’t have kissed his daughter that way!”
Marian’s cousin Hugh Mueller reports “a lot of controversy” about the identity of the woman in the photo, adding, “I think it’s Daisy.” But when I pointed out the respective ages of the two women in 1903, Mueller demurred. “I’m just not sure,” he said.
Finally, Baddeck historian Jocelyn Bethune, a rich source of Bell lore, believes it’s Daisy. ”Oh how I wish it were Mabel,” she writes, “but I am pretty sure it is Daisy, and pretty sure it was taken at Beinn Bhreagh.”
I have a feeling we’ll hear more about this topic.
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* In Canadian federal officialese, the Baddeck facility dedicated to A. G. Bell is a National Historic Site, not a Museum. Museums fall under the purview of Canadian Heritage, whereas the Bell Thingamajig falls under Parks Canada, which designates it a National Historic Site. So say the bureaucrats. Any fool can see it’s a museum.
National Geographic has been publishing gorgeous photographs for 125 years, so starting a Tumblr feed seems a natural step for the dowdy journal. One of the first entries features Mabel Gardiner Hubbard
Bell [See update below] inside a tetrahedral kite frame, while her husband, Alexander Graham Bell, leans in for a kiss. Doesn’t it just make you wish you had known these two?
10 16, 1903, this photo surely must have been taken at Beinn Bhreagh. Click on the image to see the full-sized version.
Anyone who saw Cirque du Soleil’s recent shows in Halifax will have noticed the circular structure used to convey people and props between the stage and the upper reaches of the MetroCentre’s girders.
The shape of this trussed torus, and the way it hung in the air, reminded me of something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then it hit me:
Alexander Graham Bell’s circular kite, two fabric-covered disks, conjoined by tetrahedral trusses, flying over Beinn Bhreagh. No larger point here — the structures aren’t even all that similar in detail — just a striking confluence of shape, style, and scale across the span of a century.
Little Shining Man, a kite sculpture created by Heather and Ivan Morrison, takes flight from a beach at St. Aubin’s Bay, on the Bailiwick of Jersey.
Videography by James O’Garra. H/T John Hugh Edwards.
Contrarian regulars know of my admiration for the eclectic James Fallows, who writes and blogs for The Atlantic. James is in China this winter, finishing up a book, and while he does that, rotating squads of unterbloggers are filling in for him. I’m in the rotation this week, and I’ve posted three items so far:
My week of guest-blogging happens to fall amidst a crush of other work, so it’s unlikely I’ll get much posted here until things settle down. But I will alert you to posts at Jim’s site.
TheAtlantic.com’s tech columnist Alexis Madrigal marked the 135th anniversary of Alexander Graham Bell’s US patent for the telephone by reproducing a doodle-like drawing of the device Bell submitted with his patent application:
That’s a fragment; see the whole diagram here.
Madrigal found the image among Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, which are stored at the Library of Congress and available online in a searchable database. Naturally, that set Contrarian searching for terms like “Telegraph House” (9 hits), “Beinn Bhreagh” (100), “Ross Ferry” and “Kempt Head” (zip and zip). A search for “Sydney” produced 47 hits, including this remarkable letter to then-US President Theodore Roosevelt:
Charles Thompson was a longtime employee of Bell’s, described by biographer Robert Bruce as the absent-minded Bell’s “chief proxy in coping with the gritty details of domestic life.” According to Baddeck historian Jocelyn Bethune, he had come into the Bells’ employ in January, 1887, when a fire damaged the third storey of the family’s Washington home. Bell’s papers suffered water damage, and the 18-year-old Thompson was one of several residents of a nearby boarding house hired by a housekeeper to help clean up the mess. He was smart, and he proved adept at deciphering Bell’s scrawled handwriting, and this led to a permanent position.
Thompson became a frequent seasonal visitor to Baddeck, and owned property in Sydney. On a visit there in late November, 1904, he and his wife tried to check into the Grand Hotel, but were turned away. In a severe downpour, they tried the The Queen, The Windsor, The Sydney, and possibly one other, but were turned away every time. Finally—and by now soaking wet—they were accommodated at The Royal, ironically, the only one of the group that survives 106 years later.
Returning to Baddeck with a bad cold, Thompson wrote the Sydney Post a letter describing his treatment. The paper published it November 28, under the headline, “Color Line Under the British Flag.”
Bell’s entourage, and his Baddeck social circle, were outraged. The inventor wrote a letter of protest to Sydney’s US Consul, a Mr. M.E. West, as well as President Roosevelt.
Mr. Thompson… is an upright, conscientious man in whom I have the highest confidence. He has traveled with me in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, France, Italy and Great Britain, as well as in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and never outside of his own country has he been discriminated against on account of his color except in Sydney, Cape Breton Island — at least so far as I know.However one may deplore the existence of the color line in certain parts of the United States, we have hotels there specially for colored people, so that the exclusion of a respectable colored man from a public hotel in our country does not work the hardship it does in Sydney. Exclusion from six of the hotels of Sydney resulted in turning these people out into the cold and wet, during one of the most severe storms of the season without a place where they could lay their heads. After several hours exposure to the storm they fortunately found at last one hotel — the Royal — where the Proprietor had humanity enough to receive them and give them shelter. Mr. Thompson is now lying ill in my house here as the result of the exposure, and his wife also is far from well.I propose to call the attention of the State Department in Washington to the necessity of providing protection for colored citizens of the United States in Canada — so as to prevent the possibility of the repetition of another such outrage as this.There is nothing in the appearance of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, or in their manners or characters to justify exclusion from any hotel. There is so little of the negro in Mr. Thompson’s appearance that he has often — in foreign countries — been taken for a Japanese, while his wife might well pass for Spanish.
A committee of Baddeck burghers delivered a letter of profuse apology to Thompson, to which many Baddeck residents added their signatures.
We do not understand why a respectable couple (as we all know you to be) although colored, should be turned away from any Hotel, and we sincerely hope that you and Mrs. Thompson may long be spared to spend many summers on Canadian soil and receive treatment from the hands of the public that a gentleman of your esteem so well deserves.
You can find copies of the original documents, and transcriptions, in the Library of Congress’s Bell collection: Do a search for “Roosevelt” and “Thompson.”
Thanks to Jocelyn Bethune for help sorting out this story. She wrote about the incident in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, during Black History Month of either 1998 or 1999.