In our world of electronic and digital communications, one wonders what evidence of our daily lives will be left for our descendants in the next century. Modern technology has given us the opportunity to be in almost constant contact with each other. But will our emails and texts still exist a hundred years from now? For decades writing letters was a daily routine for most people. Keeping in touch meant sitting down with pen and paper. Receiving a letter was often an exciting event, especially from someone miles away. And for many, including Alexander Graham Bell and his family, these letters were something to keep, not simply throw away once read. The Bells were prolific writers and as a result their story can be told through thousands of letters today.
Born in Scotland in 1847, Alexander Graham Bell led a unique life. Influenced by his father, Melville, a professor of elocution, and his deaf mother, Eliza; the loss of his brothers, Melville and Edward, to Consumption; and marriage to his deaf pupil, Mabel Hubbard, Bell left a legacy to the world that few could imagine life without. How this came about is best revealed by the letters between these individuals. Here we present those letters to you.
After Alec kept Mabel up to date on telegraphic matters during her trip to San Francisco, Alec tried to keep his parents informed with this letter. Knowing that his mother would worry about his health if he wrote to Mabel as mournfully as he had, and missed her terribly as he did, Alec kept a cheerful tone in this letter, requesting that his parents go to Boston for Christmas to come.
My dearest Mama
I’m sure you think I’m drifting further and further away from home and becoming more and more of a telephone abstraction.
I wish I could look at all of you or if you had a phone in Brantford. I’m as busy as can be and even busier. The telephone has advertised me so extensively – people are beginning to remember that I am alive – and professional affairs are looking brighter. My big problem at the moment is the unwieldy size of my correspondence. I feel like the old woman who had so many children she didn’t know what to do. I keep writing like a steam engine – but the cry is “they still come”, and I often feel like giving up in desperation when I see the stack of letters on my table. Letter from friends – letters from strangers – business letters – telephone letters from all parts of the country – offers to buy telephones – offers for the right to use them in certain parts of the country (I like such letters – they show the dawn of a brighter day) – letters from graduates now working with Visible Speech asking for advice – these and a thousand other things pile up on me until I begin to despair – and sigh for Canada – or a nice one of my own cottage – with a nice little comforting woman in it too. However, I’m afraid that’s still a long way off and I’ll have to wait patiently.
I’m here all alone now. Mabel, Mr. Hubbard and Gertrude must have reached San Francisco by then – Mrs. Hubbard is in New York with Berta and Grace. The house in Cambridge is occupied by others – and Boston does seem empty to me. Without work I think I would be sick. There’s something comforting about work – at least – when it’s as sympathetic as mine.
Mr Watson calls me at seven and if I don’t get up – he pulls me out of bed and doesn’t leave me until I’ve washed – by then I’ll be safe and lose the urge to turn back.
I don’t know if I told you about my telegraph line. I had a telegraph line set up from my home in Exeter Place to Pearl Street – about a quarter of a mile to connect to the private line owned by the Cambridge Observatory and used to transmit the correct time across the United States. Knowing the professors at Harvard, etc., I am personally given all kinds of facilities for experiments and have exclusive control of the line from my room to Cambridge (a distance – by wire – of eight miles – as the line does not come directly) every evening I wish after six o’clock.
The line has been in a very deficient state for quite some time – which is why it’s a great line for me to work on as it prepares me for the difficulties I encounter with longer lines. We’ve had all sorts of problems, but so far overcame them all – and the phones – far from breaking down on such a circuit – give indications of such power that I believe they will work through the wires.
Next Sunday, I’m experimenting on a 125-mile private line owned by the Eastern Railroad.
A letter was received a few days ago from Mr. Max Hjortsberg of Chicago offering me the use of thirteen hundred miles of telegraph lines owned by the Qunicy and Burlington Railroad – with which he is affiliated – and stating that the chief electrician of the company would love to work with me – and travel with me or for me to part of their line. A wonderful opportunity if only I want to seize it.
A free pass over 2100 kilometers of track – and all the possibilities to experiment. I also have the offer of using a line from Boston to Louisville, Kentucky – and yesterday – the Boston and Maine Railroad offered me forty miles of wire to experiment with!
I can now be connected directly to almost any part of the world I’m in if I can get the facilities. The Cambridge Observatory is often directly connected to San Francisco on the one hand – and I believe even to Europe on the other. It’s wonderful to be able to sit in my own room and talk to Prof. Rogers in Cambridge – even a whisper is conveyed intelligibly.
I notice that my case is being looked up in the Patent Office. I have mr. Gray’s Declaration of Invention and I have priority. It is imperative that I go to Washington to be sworn in and examined by the patent commissioner. I can’t leave my classes here – and I’ll be required to go over the Christmas break and I think it’s very unlikely I can spare the time or money to make the double trip to Washington and Canada.
I want you and daddy to come see me instead. Do not you want to? Come over here and let Dad examine my new normal class on the appointed day – December 22nd – that is to come a little early and spend a few days in Boston – and I will treat it like a business matter and bear the cost.
My last letter of May was from Salt Lake City, where she had visited the Mormons. Her letters are so lucid and interesting that I am sending you one or two to read. Please return. Should a testimony be presented to Dad and Uncle? What’s the meaning? Please accept the congratulations.
Love to Lizzie, Mary, Louisa, Carrie, Mrs. Ottaway, Aileen, Uncle, Aunt, and all the absent, and much to you two selves.
Your loving son
The Bell Letters are annotated by Brian Wood, Curator, Bell Homestead National Historic Site.