Bell describes phone test failure

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In our world of electronic and digital communications, we wonder what traces of our daily life will exist for our descendants in the next century. Modern technology has given us the ability to be in almost constant contact with each other. But, will our e-mails and SMS still exist in a hundred years? For decades, letter writing was often a daily occurrence for most people. Staying 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 should be treasured, not simply thrown away once read. The Bells were abundant writers and as a result their story can be told today through thousands of letters.

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Born in Scotland in 1847, Alexander Graham Bell lived a unique life. Influenced by his father, Melville, an elocution teacher, and his deaf mother, Eliza; the loss of his brothers, Melville and Edward, to consumption; and his marriage to his deaf student, Mabel Hubbard, Bell left the world with a legacy few could imagine living without. How this happened is best revealed through the letters between these individuals. Here we present these letters to you.

Alec wrote this rather mournful letter to Mabel with a deep longing for her to be home and desperate for how slow the phone seemed to be taking. His failed phone test between North Conway and Boston had clearly taken its toll. On a positive note, however, he happily reported winning two medals at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.

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December 6, 1876

my darling animal

When will you come home? It seems so dull and dreary here without you. Life is under a cloud with me and I must see you soon. Your letters are so comforting and delicious – but they are not as comforting as you are, my dear. When will you come! Although it is the sixth and you are due to give birth on the eighth, it seems like an eternity to wait until then.

If you only knew how much happiness it gives me even to see you – to be near you – and to feel that you are mine – and that you really and truly love me – you would want to marry me right away – with nothing to live on – and starve together.

The! You see what a hen I am! I cannot wait for the slow process of time – and I rebel against the dictates of fate.

As long as you were there — and I could see you whenever I wanted — I was content and felt that I could wait patiently — for the coming time that should unite us forever.

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But now I’m rebellious – and I feel like doing something reckless – I’m so mad at myself – for neglecting all my opportunities for self-advancement.

Before I saw you, I was rich – for I had everything I wanted – and I coveted no more – than to live as I chose – and to be my own master. But now I’m really poor – for I can’t have you – and I must submit to the stern saying of fate that now separates us – without a whisper. You can be taken to San Francisco or Washington – and I have to smile and say how happy I am. Good! I’m happy darling – as long as you’re happy and comfortable – but it’s with a dull, painful kind of pleasure – that laughs at its own smile. Love makes me so selfish that I can’t lose sight of you. It’s so miserable to feel that I can neither accompany you nor offer you a house to entice you to stay.

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Forgive me dear if I write as I do. There is no safer vent for emotion than in words. Don’t think I regret that you went to San Francisco because I’m not — I only regret that I couldn’t go too. I will only be sorry if you had reason to feel unhappy. I would have liked to see the beautiful landscapes you describe. I love nature even more than science – the poetry of landscapes is something I delight in. I don’t know of any passage in literature that makes my heart pound as much as this beautiful passage

“There is a pleasure in the woods without a path
There’s a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is a society where no one interferes,
By the deep sea – and the music in its roar,
I do not love man less – but nature – more
Of these our talks; in which I fly
Of everything I can be or have been before
Mingle with the universe — and feel
What I can never express, and yet I can’t conceal everything.

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You must never think that science can dull my sensitivity to nature. On the contrary, I think it increases the adoration of beauty.

As a child I spent many happy hours among the heather of the Scottish hills – breathing in the landscape around me with a silent delight that I still remember today. –

But I look at these things now with other eyes. There are fresh beauties — then unsuspected — that fascinate me now. I see the harmonies of nature – the way one part fits into another – like cogs in a complicated machine – forming a beautiful, symmetrical whole.

I see just enough to feel how little I know about the universe around me – and to want to know more. I see just enough of everything’s perfect adaptability to its environment – to make me wish Darwin had demolished the reasoning that made it proof of an ever-living, ever-present God.

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Yet why regret the abandonment of an imperfect reasoning. The truth need not fear the logic of proof. The more we scrutinize – and the more we weigh the evidence of the facts – the more likely it is that we will arrive at the Truth

But where am I wandering? You will see from this rhapsodic letter how excited I am tonight – and how much I look forward to seeing you again.

Our experiment last Sunday almost failed. Mr. Watson was in North Conway and I in Boston – so we were 143 miles apart. Unfortunately the wire had been injured the day before by the cold snap. It had been broken in no less than five places – and had been hastily repaired. Some of the connections had been left in an imperfect state, and the result was that when I held the phone to my ear a succession of the most extraordinary noises occurred. It was as if a hurricane was unfolding for my express benefit – A roaring sound roaring like the wind mixed with the crashing of branches and all the sounds of a storm – completely prevented us from hearing any trace of the voice from Mr. Watson one hundred and forty three miles. It seemed that a cyclone had been imported by express by telegraph for the occasion. This was all the more mortifying as a number of skeptical telegraphers were present on occasion. Mrs. Eustis Hubbard was there too. After trying all sorts of experiments for nearly an hour — at last the telephone triumphed — and the voice of Mr. Watson was heard above the roar of the storm — singing “The last rose of the ‘summer “. I was happy that everyone present had the opportunity to hear his voice even if the experience was not as satisfying as I had hoped. The power of the telephone was sufficiently demonstrated – and after another half hour Mr. Watson and I were able to carry on a word of mouth conversation without too much difficulty.

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When will this thing be over! I’m tired of the multiple nature of my work – and the little profit that comes with it. Other men work their five or six hours a day — and have thousands a year — while I work morning till night — and night till morning — and accomplish nothing but wear myself out. . I expect the money to arrive just long enough for me to leave it to you in my will! Oh! how I yearn to have a nice little house of my own – and a nice little wife in it – and some time to rest. Don’t scold me darling for giving in now. I have a sad heart and I can’t keep my feelings bottled up like wine in a cellar. They don’t grow better by keeping them — so I might as well let them out and then it will be easier.

I see that I will be the recipient of two centennial medals – one for visible speech and one for telephone. Did I tell you that I wonder – whether the Japanese adopt Visible Speech as I wish – as an alphabet for daily use and not simply as a means of teaching the deaf. The Japanese curators were struck by my centennial exhibit, and I now have a Japanese student—Mr. Isawa—who is studying the system with a view to introducing it into public schools in Japan. Just fancy! I am now teaching a young Japanese boy to read and write Japanese although I don’t know a word of the language!! And yet I flatter myself that I can teach him to read his own language much more easily than a Japanese would.

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And now this voluminous epistle must come to an end — and I suppose you must be exceedingly happy. Forgive me my dear Mabel for writing the way I do – I will try to make my next letter a brighter one. I’m so glad you’re home – for I suppose you must be approaching from the East now – and hope you’re not worse off on your journey.

I hope Gertrude has come back with two red roses of her own—quite apart from the ones that belong to you—and that your father is well too. And now, with ever so much love for all of you – and a heartfelt thank you for yourself –
your own love

The Bell Letters are annotated by Brian Wood, Curator of Bell Homestead National Historic Site.

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