Alexander Graham Bell famously unveiled the telephone to the public on May 10, 1876, before members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences at the Boston Athenaeum. If you stand before the venerable stone building today, it is easy to conjure the scene of gentlemen in top hats emerging from horse-drawn carriages and streaming toward the meeting to hear a young scientist present what he called his “researches in telephony.” He took the opportunity to describe his work and trace the efforts of his predecessors to send sounds over telegraph wires; as he wrote to his parents immediately afterward, “the meeting at the Academy was a grand success.”
But a close look at primary documents, including Bell’s detailed letter home and the text of his talk that survives in the leather-bound Proceedings of the American Academy, reveals something curious. Bell, who had successfully called to his assistant Thomas Watson over a telephone two months earlier and had also secured a broad U.S. patent on the invention, did not use this public debut to show how the device could transmit speech. He demonstrated to his colleagues only the far lesser technological feat of transmitting simple musical tones, something a number of researchers had already accomplished. As Bell told his parents, he strung telegraph wires from his office down the street to the Athenaeum and had an assistant send “some rich chords” from what he described as a “telegraphic organ” in his office.
It was two weeks later, before a good-sized audience at a meeting of the MIT faculty, that Bell publicly unveiled the most exciting aspect of his research. Handwritten minutes from the Institute Archives reveal that Bell carried on an unprecedented public conversation over the newfangled contraption. The specific words are, sadly, lost to history. A brief Boston Transcript article about the event noted that vowel sounds came through Bell’s telephone intelligibly enough, while consonants were all but “unrecognizable.” The article went on to say that “occasionally, however, a sentence would come out with startling distinctness.”
The choice of MIT as the venue for the worldwide introduction of Bell’s speaking telephone couldn’t have been more fitting. It reflects a little-known fact of telephone history: MIT professors and equipment had played a key role in Bell’s work.
Bell, a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, had landed in Boston in 1871 in his early 20s, hoping to invent things in his spare time. A teacher of the deaf and the son and grandson of elocutionists, he had a strong working knowledge of acoustics and speech but little solid training in mathematics or physics. In Boston, however, he found himself at the world’s center of telegraphic research.