Speaking strictly from our point of view in the year 2021, given all of the amazing devices we have (literally) at our fingertips, which of the two men mentioned in the title above deserves the highest accolades for influencing our world? Alexander Graham Bell or Thomas Alva Edison? Perhaps I can help you make a decision on this question by looking back to the very beginnings – back when these two men were just beginning to transform the old world into a new one.
To discuss Bell, we have to begin a little farther back in time with one Samual Morse; portrait painter, photographer and professor of fine arts. Morse started the ball rolling in terms of long distance communications. After a horrible year in which he lost his wife, father, and mother, he fled to Europe with hopes of achieving enough artistic fame to be awarded the coveted commission to paint a great mural inside the Capitol Dome in Washington. When he learned a rival painter from Italy was chosen for the Capitol work, he decided to accept his artistic failure and return home. Dining nightly aboard the ship Sully, he engaged in lively discussions about electricity with a Harvard geologist named Charles Jackson. As they bantered about various tasks that electricity might be harnessed for, one of them made the statement, “If the presence of electricity can be made visible in any part of the circuit, I see no reason why intelligence may not be transmitted by electricity.” The debate over which man had this great epiphany was soon moot. Jackson would later die in an asylum, thus leaving Morse the legacy of what was to come from that statement.
Samuel Morse spent the next four years experimenting with various “wood-and-brass-and-wire-and-mercury devices to do just that: transmit intelligence using electricity. If he could find a way to open and close a circuit in a pattern or sequence representing words or numbers, information could be sent from one device and received by another. At first, the signals were very basic – five clicks represented the number 5 and three clicks, a pause, and four clicks would signify the number 34. These number sequences were printed in identical codebooks used at both ends of the line so simple messages could be sent and decoded. Eventually, a more refined code would be developed offering more speed and detail to the messaging, what we know today as ‘Morse code’. In elementary school, my brother and a friend who lived across the field north of our house traded Morse Code messages with homemade blinker light devices. His name was Joe Morse so I was vaguely disappointed when I later learned that it was Samuel, not Joe, who invented Morse Code. Known as US Patent No. 1,614 – Improvement in the Mode of Communicating Information by Signals by the Application of Electro-Magnetism, some say Morse’s invention patent is “one of the most significant documents in world history.”
Naturally, it took some time to perfect Morse’s messaging system. The primitive batteries of the day could only send messages short distances at first. Inventors more skilled than Morse helped him improve the distance messages could be sent by linking multiple galvanic cups (a simple type of battery) together, but it was priest turned machinist Alfred Vail who would make transcontinental messaging possible. Vail broke longer circuits into smaller segments with ‘relays’ – magnetic transmitters that would read a weak signal and then boost it before sending it on to the next relay. Vail’s device was declared to be a “creative engineering achievement of the first order,” by author Simon Winchester in his 2013 book, The Men Who United the States (Harper Perennial). Eventually, Congress passed an appropriation bill (by a narrow 89-83 margin) to invest $30,000 to build a forty-four mile line between Washington and Baltimore – the first electrical engineering project ever undertaken in the United States. The first telegraph message was sent across the system on May 24, 1844: 9*#6*)1&9417)*6 comprising the last four words of Numbers 23:23 – “…it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!”
There was an explosion of technological advancement that saw major cities linked by telegraph within a few short years. A giant new company called the ‘New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company’ sought to control the new media. The wordy name was eventually shortened to ‘Western Union’. With a little more prodding, the politicos passed the Pacific Telegraph Act in 1860 to underwrite the $40,000 needed to take telegraphy coast to coast. The first message was transmitted by President Abraham Lincoln during the first months of the Civil War: “I announce to you that the telegraph to California has this day been completed. May it be a bond of perpetuity between the states of the Atlantic and the Pacific.” It took less than a decade and a half to expand from sending the first Baltimore to Washington message to a transcontinental one capable of transmitting messages coast to coast.
The act of rapidly transmitting information across the country changed the shape of commerce. Winchester says, “It created a profoundly new epoch in human history. Yet it was quite lacking in intimacy and privacy.” Telegraph instruments were not tools ordinary people could adapt to – most could not read Morse Code so having one set up in the home parlor was not going to happen. The next big revolution in long distance communication would come from the mind of Alexander Graham Bell. A teacher of the deaf (his father, and later his wife, were also afflicted), the idea of the telephone first came to him in 1874. He later wrote that he wondered if, “it would be possible to transmit sounds of any worth if we could only occasion a variation in the intensity of the current exactly like that occurring in the density of air while a given sound is made.” Joseph Henry, at the time the head of the Smithsonian Institution and one of the greatest electrical engineers in America, told Bell, “You have the germ of a great invention.” Bell claimed he did not have the skill to make it work to which Henry told him bluntly, “Get it!” Less than two years later, he was awarded US Patent No. 174-465, “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 sounds.” The most famous test of this newfangled idea took place just weeks before the patent was awarded.
Naturally, there were months of experimentation leading up to Bell filing for a patent. He had conducted some of his work in a dank basement in Salem where the witches’ trials had taken place in colonial days. In early 1875, he moved into a shop attic on Court Street in Boston whose owner routinely supplied his upstairs tenants with assistants. The helper assigned to assist Bell was to become his decades long companion and assistant was named Thomas Watson. It was Watson who was testing three vibrating reeds as a means to send multiple signals down a single telegraph line when one of them stuck to the device’s magnet. When he pulled it free, Bell was in the next room and heard the ‘twang’ transmitted to his own receiver. In Winchester’s account, “[Bell] realized the vibration had induced a tiny electric current that had traveled from one room to the next by wire and had made the reeds on Bell’s magnets twang at the same frequency. He bent his languid frame over the instrument and cupped his ear: there was no doubt about it. Sound was being sent and received where only symbols had gone before.” Bell had found a way to send “vibrations through the air.”
Bell and Watson worked to refine their instruments so exact frequencies and timbres could be sent along the wire and recognized on the receiver’s end. With a speaking tube attached to his instrument, Bell was adjusting the resistance of the circuits to replicate the sound produced by the vibrations. Needing his assistant’s help, he spoke into his speaking tube, “Mr. Watson – Come here – I want to see you.” Thomas Watson came on the run and exclaimed, “ I could hear you. I heard what you said.” The first intelligible telephone message was made on March 10, 1876. It was a moment Bell could still recall vividly some forty years later when making another test.
By the first decade of the 1900s, telephones were wildly popular with millions already in use across the United States. The first transcontinental telephone line was strung and Bell was in the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in Manhattan ready to test the connection on January 25, 1915. Three thousand miles away, Watson was in the Bell Building in San Francisco. When Watson picked up his telephone, there was dead silence followed by a click and a faint electrical buzz. Out of the earpiece he heard Bell: “Hello, Mr. Watson. Can you hear me?” “I can hear you perfectly,” Watson replied. Surely with a smile on his face, Bell continued, “Mr. Watson – come here, I want you.” Watson himself smiled at the memory of their historic first call and said, “I could – but this time it would take me a week to get to you.”
Ontonagon has a place in the story of the telephone story. As told in This Land, The Ontonagon (Bruce Johanson – Ralph W. Secord Press – 1985), Rockland business man Linus Stannard traveled to see the Centennial Exposition held in Philadelphia in 1876. According to Johanson, “Stannard attended scientific lectures and exhibits . . . One such exhibit drew his special interest. A bearded, portly man whom some regarded as a crackpot, while others regarded him as a gifted teacher of the deaf, was lecturing on a device that would transmit a human voice over a wire! Having had to deliver messages on horseback or on foot, the man from Rockland saw immediately the usefulness of such a device in an isolated area such as the Ontonagon Country. The following day, Stannard witnessed an actual demonstration of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention and was now convinced of its great potential in the Ontonagon Country.”
Stannard returned home and his descriptions of this new invention spread his enthusiasm about it to Ben Chynoweth of Rockland, Lawrence Collins of Greenland, and James Mercer of Ontonagon. By 1877, there were three telephones operating in Rockland – one at Stannard’s home, one at his store and the other at Chynoweth’s home. By the end of winter, Mercer had wires strung on cedar posts to his home on the outskirts of Ontonagon and to the Mercer Dock at the mouth of the Ontonagon River. Collins also wanted to be connected and had wires strung from Rockland to his store in Greenland. Some in Ontonagon called it “Mercer’s Folly,” but the four applied for and received the first charter for a telephone system in the State of Michigan. The company was named the Ontonagon Telegraph Company and George Stannard, Linus’ son, became the president. Let us also not forget the demand for copper generated by the emergence of this new mode of communication. Ontonagon County was not only on the ground floor of the Bell revolution, but also knee deep in supplying the country’s growing demand for the copper needed to produce the devices everyone would soon be clamouring for.
The telephone business would make Bell and his heirs very rich. Western Union made a monumental mistake when they turned down a chance to invest in the company and (as they characterized it) ‘Bell’s toy.’ Realizing their mistake, Western Union later offered $25 million for the patent rights but it was too little, too late. By the time Bell died in Nova Scotia on August 2, 1922, there were thirteen million telephones in the United States alone. Telephones now outnumber people in America, yet there are billions worldwide who do not have access to the telephone (or for that matter, clean water and basic sanitation facilities which are also lacking for many). With that said, it should also be noted there are now more than six billion cell phones in the world and even in places lacking other ‘basics’, the realm of long-distance communication has become yet another one of those ‘basic human rights’.
Bell’s US Patent No. 174-465 is said by some to be the most valuable patent ever awarded. Morse’s Patent 1,647, it was said, “caused the old world to be tossed into the ashcan and a new one to be born.” The same might be said about the telephone, but it took many years for some (like Midwestern farmers) to stop thinking of a telephone as an instrument that only brought bad news, oftentimes in the middle of the night. Regardless, the rapid acceptance of the telephone as a “device with lasting commercial class and mercantile clout” was unstoppable. As Winchester sees it, “Alexander Graham Bell has long been regarded fondly as the archbishop of the capitalist cathedral, especially by the millions around the country who were prudent or prescient enough to own telephone shares.” As the glum Western Union chiefs must have said to themselves a year after they turned down a chance to invest in the Bell operation, “Some toy!”
We have now made the case whether or not Alexander Graham Bell deserves to be held in the highest regard for influencing our world. In Part 2 of Bell or Edison?, we will make the case for Thomas Alva Edison’s place in the pantheon of those who helped shape our modern world.
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