Alexander Graham Bell’s invention was inspired by “Telephone City”

Brantford, Ontario has ties to the United Kingdom and the United States.

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It is impossible to imagine how such a vast country, spanning six time zones, could have evolved into a prosperous dominion without tremendous advances in communications technology.

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From Bell to BlackBerry, pioneers of connecting a sparsely populated landmass – the world’s second largest country – have, of necessity, pushed connectivity through determination and ingenuity.

These seeds were sown in the medium-sized city of Brantford in southwestern Ontario. Arguably best known to younger generations as the home of hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky, “Telephone City” is where our hyperlinked network of smartphones, instant messaging and everything on-demand took off.

It was on March 10, 1876, that Alexander Graham Bell made the first successful telephone call to his assistant, Thomas Watson, with the immortal but barely moving words: “Mr. Watson, come hither.” I want to see you.”

It may not have made for a thriving oratory, but this cut conversation would change the course of history. As the first to file a patent on the telephone, the industrious Bell is also said to be on the way to becoming fabulously rich at the age of 35.

As with many Canadian stories, however, our relationship with Bell is complicated.

Born in Scotland and later a naturalized American citizen who lived in Massachusetts and Washington, DC, Bell is claimed by both the United Kingdom and the United States as one of their own.

But don’t dwell on it. Some of Bell’s happiest days were spent in Brantford, and his inspiration came from foggy summer days spent tinkering and thinking on the family farm.

“It was what he called his dream spot,” says Jillian, my guide at Bell Homestead, a national historic site since 1997 that includes Melville House, the family home named after Bell’s father, and the first Canadian telephone office, opened in 1877. .

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Located in the Tutela Heights neighborhood, the pastoral grounds look very much like the turn of the 20th century, although the house has been moved away from the banks of the Grand River due to erosion. However, a trail to the southeast offers views little changed from Bell’s days as the 280km heritage waterway lazily winds past the four-hectare property.

As the inventor himself said in a 1917 speech at the unveiling in Brantford of a memorial in his honor: the heights where the visions of the telephone came to my mind.

The telephone may have originated in Boston in 1875, he often said, but it was “engineered in Brantford” a year earlier.

Bell’s family emigrated from industrial Scotland in 1870 to provide a healthier climate for young Alexander, whose brothers had died of tuberculosis. The family lived in the house from 1870 to 1881, and Alexander returned for a cherished summer vacation long after moving to the United States.

Although now part of the suburbs of Brantford, the farm retains its rural flavor and the conservators have done an admirable job of recreating Victorian life. Amidst a diverse collection of original Bell family artifacts, visitors will learn from knowledgeable guides how Bell’s academic work to help the deaf, including his mother and wife, communicate more effectively was fundamental in the telephone development.

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Indeed, his dedication to the principles of elocution and other innovations was such that he refused to have a telephone in his own office lest it interfere with his scientific endeavors.

One of the highlights of the tour is a tour of Bell’s study, where replicas of his prototype telephones sit on a sturdy desk where he spent hours perfecting the “talking telegraph.” Learn how, in 1876, wires were painstakingly unwound to make the first long-distance telephone call, from Brantford to nearby Paris, 7 miles away.

At the adjacent Henderson House, which has been moved from its original downtown location, guests learn about the rapid evolution from Bell’s invention to Canada’s first telephone exchange. Marvel at early telephones, looking more like clumsy movie projectors, and see a working 1930s telephone exchange come to life in a series of clicks, flaps, cranks and bells.

A pilgrimage isn’t complete without a visit to the Bell Memorial at 41 West St., an art deco sculpture created in 1917 by Walter S. Allward, best known for his masterpiece, France’s Vimy War Memorial .

Bell, who died and was buried in his retirement near Baddeck, Nova Scotia, would no doubt be thrilled – and perhaps a bit disconcerted – if he were transported to the 21st century to see tourists using telephones wirelessly barely bigger than a pack of cigarettes for pulling holiday snaps between texting and the occasional voice call.

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But the eminent scientist was nothing if not a relentless innovator. In 1880, he helped create a rudimentary form of wireless communication that paved the way for today’s handheld gadgets. Nicknamed the “photophone”, it successfully demonstrated that light could be used to transmit sound.

And so, as we take pictures and even create movies on our ever-smarter smartphones, this is perhaps the best tribute of all to Telephone City and the energetic Scottish-Canadian-American inventor who connected us. in a way that would have stretched even his immense imagination.

—Andre Ramshaw

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