Mar 102016


On this date in 1876 Alexander Graham Bell made the first successful telephone call by saying over his new invention to his assistant, the famous words, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” Could there be a better name for the inventor of the telephone than Bell?

Bell was born in Edinburgh in Scotland, on March 3, 1847. His father was Professor Alexander Melville Bell, a phonetician, and his mother was Eliza Grace (née Symonds). Born as just Alexander Bell, at age 10 he made a plea to his father to have a middle name like his two brothers. For his 11th birthday, his father acquiesced and allowed him to adopt the name “Graham”, chosen out of respect for Alexander Graham, a Canadian being treated by his father who had become a family friend. To close relatives and friends he remained “Alec.”

As a child, young Bell displayed a natural curiosity about his world, resulting in gathering botanical specimens as well as experimenting even at an early age. His best friend was Ben Herdman, a neighbor whose family operated a flour mill, the scene of many adventures. Young Bell asked what needed to be done at the mill. He was told wheat had to be dehusked through a laborious process and at the age of 12, Bell built a homemade device that combined rotating paddles with sets of nail brushes, creating a simple dehusking machine that was put into operation and used steadily for a number of years. In return, John Herdman gave both boys the run of a small workshop in which to “invent”.

From his early years, Bell showed a sensitive nature and a talent for art, poetry, and music that was encouraged by his mother. With no formal training, he mastered the piano and became the family’s pianist. Despite being normally quiet and introspective, he reveled in mimicry and “voice tricks” akin to ventriloquism that continually entertained family guests during their occasional visits.[20] Bell was also deeply affected by his mother’s gradual deafness, (she began to lose her hearing when he was 12) and learned a manual finger language so he could sit at her side and tap out silently the conversations swirling around the family parlor. He also developed a technique of speaking in clear, modulated tones directly into his mother’s forehead wherein she would hear him with reasonable clarity. Bell’s preoccupation with his mother’s deafness led him to study acoustics.

His family was long associated with the teaching of elocution: his grandfather, Alexander Bell, in London, his uncle in Dublin, and his father, in Edinburgh, were all elocutionists. His father published a variety of works on the subject, several of which are still well known, especially his The Standard Elocutionist (1860), which was published in Edinburgh in 1868. The Standard Elocutionist went through 168 British editions and sold over a quarter of a million copies in the United States alone. In this treatise, his father explains his methods of how to instruct deaf-mutes (as they were then known) to articulate words and read other people’s lip movements to decipher meaning. Bell’s father taught him and his brothers not only to write Visible Speech but to identify any symbol and its accompanying sound. Bell became so proficient that he became a part of his father’s public demonstrations and astounded audiences with his abilities. He could decipher Visible Speech representing virtually every language, including Latin, Scots Gaelic, and even Sanskrit, accurately reciting written tracts without any prior knowledge of their pronunciation.


His father encouraged Bell’s interest in speech and, in 1863, took his sons to see a unique automaton, developed by Sir Charles Wheatstone ( ) based on the earlier work of Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen. The rudimentary “mechanical man” simulated a human voice. Bell was fascinated by the machine and after he obtained a copy of von Kempelen’s book, published in German, and had laboriously translated it, he and his older brother Melville built their own automaton head. Their father, highly interested in their project, offered to pay for any supplies and spurred the boys on with the enticement of a “big prize” if they were successful. While his brother constructed the throat and larynx, Bell tackled the more difficult task of recreating a realistic skull. His efforts resulted in a remarkably lifelike head that could “speak”, albeit only a few words. The boys would carefully adjust the “lips” and when a bellows forced air through the windpipe, a very recognizable “Mama” ensued, to the delight of neighbors who came to see the Bell invention.

Intrigued by the results of the automaton, Bell continued to experiment with a live subject, the family’s Skye Terrier, “Trouve”. After he taught it to growl continuously, Bell would reach into its mouth and manipulate the dog’s lips and vocal cords to produce a crude-sounding “Ow ah oo ga ma ma”. With little convincing, visitors believed his dog could articulate “How are you grandma?” More indicative of his playful nature, his experiments convinced onlookers that they saw a “talking dog”. However, these initial forays into experimentation with sound led Bell to undertake his first serious work on the transmission of sound, using tuning forks to explore resonance.

At the age of 19, he wrote a report on his work and sent it to philologist Alexander Ellis, a colleague of his father (who would later be portrayed as Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion). Ellis immediately wrote back indicating that the experiments were similar to existing work in Germany, and also lent Bell a copy of Hermann von Helmholtz’s work, The Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music.

Dismayed to find that groundbreaking work had already been undertaken by Helmholtz who had conveyed vowel sounds by means of a similar tuning fork “contraption”, he pored over the German scientist’s book. Working from his own erroneous mistranslation of a French edition, Bell fortuitously then made a deduction that would be the underpinning of all his future work on transmitting sound, reporting: “Without knowing much about the subject, it seemed to me that if vowel sounds could be produced by electrical means, so could consonants, so could articulate speech.” He also later remarked: “I thought that Helmholtz had done it … and that my failure was due only to my ignorance of electricity. It was a valuable blunder … If I had been able to read German in those days, I might never have commenced my experiments!”


In 1865, when the Bell family moved to London, Bell returned to Weston House as an assistant master and, in his spare hours, continued experiments on sound using a minimum of laboratory equipment. Bell concentrated on experimenting with electricity to convey sound and later installed a telegraph wire from his room in Somerset College to that of a friend. Throughout late 1867, his health faltered mainly through exhaustion. His younger brother, Edward “Ted,” was similarly bed-ridden, suffering from tuberculosis. While Bell recovered (by then referring to himself in correspondence as “A.G. Bell”) and served the next year as an instructor at Somerset College, Bath, England, his brother’s condition deteriorated. Edward would never recover. Upon his brother’s death, Bell returned home in 1867. His older brother Melville had married and moved out. With aspirations to obtain a degree at University College London, Bell considered his next years as preparation for the degree examinations, devoting his spare time at his family’s residence to studying.

Helping his father in Visible Speech demonstrations and lectures brought Bell to Susanna E. Hull’s private school for the deaf in South Kensington, London. His first two pupils were “deaf mute” girls who made remarkable progress under his tutelage. While his older brother seemed to achieve success on many fronts including opening his own elocution school, applying for a patent on an invention, and starting a family, Bell continued as a teacher. However, in May 1870, Melville died from complications due to tuberculosis, causing a family crisis. His father had also suffered a debilitating illness earlier in life and had been restored to health by a convalescence in Newfoundland. Bell’s parents embarked upon a long-planned move when they realized that their remaining son was also sickly. Acting decisively, Alexander Melville Bell asked Bell to arrange for the sale of all the family property, conclude all of his brother’s affairs (Bell took over his last student, curing a pronounced lisp), and join his father and mother in setting out for the New World. Reluctantly, Bell also had to conclude a relationship with Marie Eccleston, who, as he had surmised, was not prepared to leave England with him.

In 1870, at age 23, Bell, his brother’s widow, Caroline (Margaret Ottaway), and his parents travelled on the SS Nestorian to Canada, settling in a farmhouse at Tutelo Heights (now called Tutela Heights), near Brantford, Ontario. The property consisted of an orchard, large farm house, stable, pigsty, hen-house, and a carriage house, which bordered the Grand River. At the homestead, Bell set up his own workshop in the converted carriage house near to what he called his “dreaming place”, a large hollow nestled in trees at the back of the property above the river. Despite his frail condition upon arriving in Canada, Bell found the climate and environs to his liking, and rapidly improved.

After setting up his workshop, Bell continued experiments based on Helmholtz’s work with electricity and sound. He also modified a melodeon (a type of pump organ) so that it could transmit its music electrically over a distance. Once the family was settled in, both Bell and his father made plans to establish a teaching practice and in 1871, he accompanied his father to Montreal, where Melville was offered a position to teach his System of Visible Speech.

Bell’s father was invited by Sarah Fuller, principal of the Boston School for Deaf Mutes (which continues today as the public Horace Mann School for the Deaf), in Boston, Massachusetts, to introduce the Visible Speech System by providing training for Fuller’s instructors, but he declined the post in favor of his son. Traveling to Boston in April 1871, Bell proved successful in training the school’s instructors. He was subsequently asked to repeat the program at the American Asylum for Deaf-mutes in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Returning home to Brantford after six months abroad, Bell continued his experiments with his “harmonic telegraph”. The basic concept behind his device was that messages could be sent through a single wire if each message was transmitted at a different pitch, but work on both the transmitter and receiver was needed.


Unsure of his future, he first contemplated returning to London to complete his studies, but decided to return to Boston as a teacher. His father helped him set up his private practice by contacting Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the president of the Clarke School for the Deaf for a recommendation. Teaching his father’s system, in October 1872, Alexander Bell opened his “School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech” in Boston, which attracted a large number of deaf pupils, with his first class numbering 30 students. While he was working as a private tutor, one of his most famous pupils was Helen Keller, who came to him as a young child unable to see, hear, or speak. She was later to say that Bell dedicated his life to the penetration of that “inhuman silence which separates and estranges.” In 1893, Keller performed the sod-breaking ceremony for the construction of the new Bell’s new Volta Bureau, dedicated to “the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the deaf”.

Several influential people of the time, including Bell, viewed deafness as something that should be eradicated, and also believed that with resources and effort they could teach the deaf to speak and avoid the use of sign language, thus enabling their integration within the wider society from which many were often being excluded. In several schools, children were mistreated, for example by having their hands tied behind their backs so they could not communicate by signing—the only language they knew—in an attempt to force them to attempt oral communication. Owing to his efforts to suppress the teaching of sign language, Bell is often viewed negatively by those embracing Deaf culture.

In the following year, Bell became professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at the Boston University School of Oratory. During this period, he alternated between Boston and Brantford, spending summers in his Canadian home. At Boston University, Bell was “swept up” by the excitement engendered by the many scientists and inventors residing in the city. He continued his research in sound and endeavored to find a way to transmit musical notes and articulate speech, but although absorbed by his experiments, he found it difficult to devote enough time to experimentation. While days and evenings were occupied by his teaching and private classes, Bell began to stay awake late into the night, running experiment after experiment in rented facilities at his boarding house. Keeping “night owl” hours, he worried that his work would be discovered and took great pains to lock up his notebooks and laboratory equipment. Bell had a specially made table where he could place his notes and equipment inside a locking cover.[66] Worse still, his health deteriorated as he suffered severe headaches. Returning to Boston in fall 1873, Bell made a fateful decision to concentrate on his experiments in sound.

Deciding to give up his lucrative private Boston practice, Bell retained only two students, six-year-old “Georgie” Sanders, deaf from birth, and 15-year-old Mabel Hubbard. Each pupil would play an important role in the next developments. George’s father, Thomas Sanders, a wealthy businessman, offered Bell a place to stay in nearby Salem with Georgie’s grandmother, complete with a room to “experiment”. Although the offer was made by George’s mother and followed the year-long arrangement in 1872 where her son and his nurse had moved to quarters next to Bell’s boarding house, it was clear that Mr. Sanders was backing the proposal. The arrangement was for teacher and student to continue their work together, with free room and board thrown in. Mabel was a bright, attractive girl who was ten years Bell’s junior, but became the object of his affection. Having lost her hearing after a near-fatal bout of scarlet fever close to her fifth birthday, she had learned to read lips but her father, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, Bell’s benefactor and personal friend, wanted her to work directly with her teacher.


By 1874, Bell’s initial work on the harmonic telegraph had entered a formative stage, with progress made both at his new Boston “laboratory” (a rented facility) and at his family home in Canada. While working that summer in Brantford, Bell experimented with a “phonautograph”, a pen-like machine that could draw shapes of sound waves on smoked glass by tracing their vibrations. Bell thought it might be possible to generate undulating electrical currents that corresponded to sound waves. Bell also thought that multiple metal reeds tuned to different frequencies like a harp would be able to convert the undulating currents back into sound. But he had no working model to demonstrate the feasibility of these ideas. In 1874, telegraph message traffic was rapidly expanding and in the words of Western Union President William Orton, had become “the nervous system of commerce”. Orton had contracted with inventors Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray to find a way to send multiple telegraph messages on each telegraph line to avoid the great cost of constructing new lines. When Bell mentioned to Gardiner Hubbard and Thomas Sanders that he was working on a method of sending multiple tones on a telegraph wire using a multi-reed device, the two wealthy patrons began to support Bell’s experiments financially. Anthony Pollok, their attorney, handled patents.

In March 1875, Bell and Pollok visited the famous scientist Joseph Henry, who was then director of the Smithsonian Institution, and asked Henry’s advice on the electrical multi-reed apparatus that Bell hoped would transmit the human voice by telegraph. Henry replied that Bell had “the germ of a great invention”. When Bell said that he did not have the necessary knowledge, Henry replied, “Get it!” That declaration greatly encouraged Bell to keep trying, even though he did not have the equipment needed to continue his experiments, nor the ability to create a working model of his ideas. However, a chance meeting in 1874 between Bell and Thomas A. Watson, an experienced electrical designer and mechanic at the electrical machine shop of Charles Williams, changed all that.

With financial support from Sanders and Hubbard, Bell hired Thomas Watson as his assistant, and the two of them experimented with acoustic telegraphy. On June 2, 1875, Watson accidentally plucked one of the reeds and Bell, at the receiving end of the wire, heard the overtones of the reed; overtones that would be necessary for transmitting speech. That demonstrated to Bell that only one reed or armature was necessary, not multiple reeds. This led to the “gallows” sound-powered telephone, which could transmit indistinct, voice-like sounds, but not clear speech.


In 1875, Bell developed an acoustic telegraph and drew up a patent application for it. Since he had agreed to share U.S. profits with his investors Gardiner Hubbard and Thomas Sanders, Bell requested that an associate in Ontario, George Brown, attempt to patent it in Britain, instructing his lawyers to apply for a patent in the U.S. only after they received word from Britain (Britain would issue patents only for discoveries not previously patented elsewhere).

Meanwhile, Elisha Gray was also experimenting with acoustic telegraphy and thought of a way to transmit speech using a water transmitter. On February 14, 1876, Gray filed a caveat with the U.S. Patent Office for a telephone design that used a water transmitter. That same morning, Bell’s lawyer filed Bell’s application with the patent office. There is considerable debate about who arrived first and Gray later challenged the primacy of Bell’s patent. Bell was in Boston on February 14 and did not arrive in Washington until February 26.

Bell’s patent 174,465, was issued to Bell on March 7, 1876, by the U.S. Patent Office. Bell’s patent covered “the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically … by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sound” Bell returned to Boston the same day and the next day resumed work, drawing in his notebook a diagram similar to that in Gray’s patent caveat.

On March 10, 1876, three days after his patent was issued, Bell succeeded in getting his telephone to work, using a liquid transmitter similar to Gray’s design. Vibration of the diaphragm caused a needle to vibrate in the water, varying the electrical resistance in the circuit. When Bell spoke the famous sentence “Mr. Watson—Come here—I want to see you” into the liquid transmitter, Watson, listening at the receiving end in an adjoining room, heard the words clearly.


Although Bell was, and still is, accused of stealing the telephone from Gray, Bell used Gray’s water transmitter design only after Bell’s patent had been granted, and only as a proof of concept scientific experiment,[84] to prove to his own satisfaction that intelligible “articulate speech” (Bell’s words) could be electrically transmitted. After March 1876, Bell focused on improving the electromagnetic telephone and never used Gray’s liquid transmitter in public demonstrations or commercial use.


Such is history. To conclude I would like to note the following amazingly prescient quotes from Bell:

The day will come when the man at the telephone will be able to see the distant person to whom he is speaking (c.1906)

[It will not be long until] a man can take dinner in New York and breakfast the next morning in Liverpool (1907). The nation that secures control of the air will ultimately rule the world. (1908).

Every town or city has a vast expanse of roof exposed to the sun. There is no reason why we should not use the roofs of our houses to install solar apparatus to catch and store the heat received from the sun. Solar heat [can be used]…. to heat a liquid and store the liquid in an insulated tank… applying even the Thermos bottle principle of a partial vacuum around the tank.” (1914)

Coal and oil are……strictly limited in quantity. We can take coal out of a mine but we can never put it back. What shall we do when we have no more coal or oil? (1917)

[The unchecked burning of fossil fuels] would have a sort of greenhouse effect. The net result is the greenhouse becomes a sort of hot-house.”(1917).

Although a Canadian by transplantation, Bell was a Scotsman by birth. I thought that a Canadian Scots recipe would answer my usual need only to discover that there really is no such thing. Scots transplants display their heritage through classic Scots cooking along with highland games, bagpipe bands, and the like, much as they do in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. Time, therefore, for another Scots dish. This time my favorite cake, Dundee cake. The cake is often made with currants, sultanas and almonds; sometimes, fruit peel may be added to it. The cake originated in 19th-century Scotland, and was originally made as a mass-produced cake by the marmalade company called Keiller’s. Keiller’s marmalade company first produced the cake commercially and have been claimed to be the originators of the term “Dundee cake”. However, similar fruit cakes were produced across Scotland. The top of the cake is typically decorated with concentric circles of almonds.


Dundee Cake


175g softened butter (extra for greasing)
175g soft light brown sugar
3 tbsp orange marmalade
3 eggs, beaten
225g self-raising flour
25g ground almonds
2 tsp ground mixed spice
400g mixed currants, raisins, and sultanas
2 tbsp whisky
40g blanched almonds to decorate
1 tsp granulated or caster sugar, to decorate (optional)


Preheat the oven to 150°C/300F.

Grease and double-line a 20cm/8in loose-based deep cake tin with greaseproof paper.

Cream the butter and sugar in a food mixer until very light and fluffy.

Add the marmalade and mix for a few seconds more. Slowly add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Add the flour, almonds and spices to the batter. Mix slowly until well combined, then stir in the mixed dried fruit. Add the whisky and combine well.

Spoon the mixture into the cake tin, smooth the surface and carefully arrange the blanched almonds in circles on top.

Bake for 1½-2 hours, or until well risen, firm and golden-brown. Make sure it is cooked by inserting a toothpick and look to see that it comes out clean. Check regularly, to be sure the cake does not dry out.

Leave the cake to cool for 10 minutes then remove from the tin, peel off the lining paper and set aside to cool on a wire rack. Sprinkle with granulated sugar. Store in an airtight cake tin. It is best after a day’s rest but will not keep longer than 4 or 5 days.

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