Sometimes when revisionists stick their nose into history it can really bug me. I feel compelled as a historian to rant about an annoying turn of events that happened in 2002. Let’s see if we can revise the revision!
It seems that the US Congress, that bloated, self-absorbed good old boys club, had passed a resolution declaring Italian-American Antonio Meucci as the inventor of the telephone. Meucci, who was born in Florence and settled in New York’s Staten Island apparently, demonstrated a device he called a “teletrofono” years before Alexander Graham Bell obtained a patent for his phone in 1876. The device Mr. Meucci created and demonstrated was nothing more that a simplistic intercom, nothing anywhere near as sophisticated or capable as Bell’s telephone.
But you know those Americans. They will rewrite anything if it suits their fancy. Sometimes their rhetoric and posturing gets pretty damn tiresome.
Alexander Graham Bell, the genius of Baddeck, was born in Edinburgh Scotland. No surprise there. If you study history you find that we Scots invented just about everything. (Och, it’s no polite to brag John). Bell conceived of the idea of making an electrical current vibrate to sound in the same way the air does. It took countless experiments for him to get to that memorable moment in 1876 in Boston. Remember what he said then? It was “Elementary my dear Watson.” No wait, that was Sherlock Holmes. Bell said:”Mr. Watson, come here; I want to see you.” It was the world’s first successful telephone call, a call that precipitated the biggest invasion of privacy ever known to man. Bell in fact didn’t like telephones and wouldn’t have one in his house. Like a lot of us he found them intrusive.
I have often wondered how it was that Bell, who became an American citizen to take full advantage of the US patents for his phone, wound up at Baddeck. A little digging revealed that he found the social whirl and summer heat of Boston intolerable. It seems he packed up his immediate family and in-laws one summer to visit Newfoundland where his father had lived in his youth. He became captivated on the way by Cape Breton and the hills overlooking Bras d’Or Lake which reminded him of the Scottish lochs and highlands.
When the steamer he was on ran aground en route to Newfoundland he happily returned to the little village of Baddeck at Bras d’Or where he decided he would move and build his home.
It is an imposing stone building with a magnificent view and a must see when you tour the island.
The grounds it lays on is known as Beinn Bhreagh (pronounced ban vreeah) and means beautiful mountain in Scottish Gaelic. It is one of Canada’s National Historic sites.
Alexander Graham Bell had a mind that teemed with ideas. At one time or another he applied himself to everything from sheep breeding to radar, from phonograph recording to thought transference. He worked on distilling fresh water from the sea, hydrophones and even sonar.
In the late 1890’s Bell began working on concepts of heavier-than-air flight and propulsion. In 1907 he formed a special association without precedent back then called the Aerial Experiment Association which brought together a group of diverse, brilliant and enthusiastic young men including the gifted engine maker Glen Curtiss. Eventually one of the group flew the famous “Silver Dart” off the ice of Baddeck Bay on February 23, 1909. It averaged 64 km/hr for its .8 km flight and eventually flew 32 km. It was the first ever flight by a British subject in the British Empire and officially ushered in the Air Age in Canada. A replica of the Dart was flown on the lake 100 years later by former Canadian astronaut Bjarni Tryggvason.
In later years Bell turned to the notion of a hydrofoil, a machine he envisioned would fly through the water like an aircraft flies through the air. One of his A.E.A. team, Casey Baldwin, eventually built, with Bell’s assistance, the HD-4 which roared down Baddeck Bay at an amazing 114 km. per hour. It was designed to be a submarine chaser and was equipped with aircraft engines! HD-4 was the fastest man had ever travelled on water at the time, a record that stunned the world and stood for two decades.
Of all of Bell’s achievements I consider his work in correcting problems of speech the most significant. He perfected the unique Bell system of teaching the deaf to speak correctly. His wife Mabel was a totally deaf woman when he married her and he was able through his system to return her to a normal social life. Totally dedicated to her husband, a grieving Mabel died 5 months after Alexander passed away in 1922.
Not to be outdone by that inane Congress resolution in 2002, our then Heritage Minister, Sheila Copps, tabled a resolution on the last day of parliament recognizing Alexander Graham Bell as the inventor of the telephone. Needless to say it passed unanimously. Someone should have called Congress then and told them they’ve got the wrong number!