Whitfield Lovell - Embers, artist talk, 5 p.m., SFA Concert Hall, and opening reception, 6 p.m., BU Art Gallery, Friday, Sept. 14.

Vol. V No. 5   ·   14 September 2001 


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Alexander Graham Bell: the BU years

By Brian Fitzgerald

A BU professor created a device 125 years ago that "annihilated time and space," Thomas Edison said, "and brought the human family closer in touch."

  Alexander Graham Bell (right) with BU President William Fairfield Warren in 1916.

Alexander Graham Bell, who from 1874 to 1879 was a professor of the mechanism of speech in Boston University's School of Oratory, "originally intended to be the first person to transmit multiple telegraph messages over a single wire at one time using different tones," points out Pulitzer Prize-winning Bell biographer Robert Bruce (GRS'47,'53). In March of 1875, Bell was financially strapped and exhausted. He was working on his "harmonic telegraph" and at the same time lecturing on "vocal physiology and elocution" at BU, as well as teaching deaf students to read, write, and speak. When School of Oratory Dean Lewis B. Monroe offered to pay in advance his professor's lecture fees for the following year, Bell was ecstatic. He would finally be able to devote enough time to his invention. "Without his help," said Bell later, "I would not have been able to get along at all."

Working in a rented attic room on Court Street in Boston -- near BU's College of Liberal Arts and School of Law buildings downtown -- Bell wanted to transmit by wire not just sounds, but the human voice. On June 2 of that year, while Bell was at one end of the line and at the other end his assistant, Thomas A. Watson, worked on the reeds of the telegraph in the next room, Bell heard over the wire the sound of a plucked reed. The next day, after much tinkering, the instrument transmitted recognizable voice sounds, but no words. The two experimented all summer, and in September, Bell began to write the specifications for his first telephone patent, which was issued on March 7, 1876. Three days later, in Bell's new lab on Exeter Place, he shouted into the mouthpiece, "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you." At the other end of the wire -- this time on another floor -- Watson heard every word. It was the world's first intelligible telephone transmission.

Bruce, a CAS professor emeritus of history, believes that Bell possessed the rare combination of qualities that are the mark of a great inventor. In his 1973 biography, Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude, Bruce writes that Bell had "the ability -- call it intuition or genius -- to conceive of an incredible goal, the stubborn faith to keep grasping at straws, the luck to find the magic needle in the haystack, and the wit to recognize it."

BU had planned to honor Bell by building a neo-Gothic tower bearing his name as part of a giant cathedral-like complex behind where Marsh Chapel is today. But the proposal fell victim to the Great Depression, especially after the Metropolitan District Commission took 130,000 square feet of the University's riverside property by eminent domain in 1929 for what would become Storrow Drive. Still, the professor's spirit is memorialized at BU by the Alexander Graham Bell Professorship of Health Care Entrepreneurship, currently held by University Professor Richard Egdahl.

In 1916, Bell returned to the University for a downtown reception marking the 40th anniversary of the invention of the telephone. "I count it a great honor to have belonged to Boston University," Bell said at the event, according to the June 1916 Bostonia. "It was while I was connected to the school that all the work was done on the telephone. He added that his "dearest friend" Dean Monroe helped him more than once financially in carrying out his experiments. "Gentlemen," he concluded, "these things which I have described are the by-products of my work in your institution, and were made possible because of the encouragement of your university."


14 September 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations