Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: Alexander Graham Bell and Rhode Island

Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: Alexander Graham Bell and Rhode Island

Alexander Graham Bell, 1892
Bell at the opening of the long-distance line from New York to Chicago in 1892. (Wikipedia Commons).

Our small part in the birth of the telephone.
by John Williams Haley

This article comes from The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, Vol. IV, pages 214-216, published by the Providence Institution for Savings, 1944. Transcribed by Christopher Martin.

ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL came to this country from Scotland, and, following in the footsteps of his father, taught in a school for deaf mutes in Boston. During his leisure moments he devoted much time to experimentation with telegraphy. During one of these experimental periods he discovered the first possibilities of telephone communication—quite by accident. Young Professor Bell and his assistant, Mr. Watson, had set up some specially constructed telegraphic instruments at opposite ends of a room, and while Watson was engaged in snapping some reeds on his set of instruments, Bell carefully recorded the results transmitted to him. One of the reeds accidentally fused, making a distinct sound which was clearly communicated over the wire.

"What was that?" he called to Watson. The latter explained. "But I heard it," exclaimed the professor. A few moments of reflection, and he began to perceive the possibilities involved in the discovery, and immediately set to work on an apparatus which would transmit the human voice. This was in 1875. A year later he came closer to the realization of his dreams, inasmuch as he was able to send the famous message "Come here, Mr. Watson, I want you," over the few feet of wire stretched between two floors or separate rooms of a building. From then on, it was the intriguing story of an inventor's hopes, discouragements, starvation, struggle, sacrifice, disillusionment, and final triumph.

Hearing of Bell's interesting experiments and remarkable invention, two Brown University professors, Eli Whitney Blake and John Pierce [sic] undertook to re-work some of Bell's experiments and originate new sound-sending devices. They knew that Bell had been working on the theory that the power of his instruments was in proportion to their size. In fact, when Bell held an exhibition of his discoveries in old Music Hall in Providence, he had displayed some small instruments with diaphragms only an inch in diameter, and also a larger one with a diaphragm of fully one foot. These had reproduced music perfectly, but not the human voice.

Professor Blake conceived the idea of concentrating all sound impulses on the center of the diaphragm. He achieved this by reducing the size of the diaphragm to exclude alien sounds, and then built a new type of converging or concave mouth-piece which centralized air vibrations made by a person talking. The importance of this improvement should be readily understood, even though sensitivity and selectivity have long since become highly developed powers of the modern sound catching diaphragm, or radio microphone. During the years of 1875 and 1876 several of the students in Professor Blake's laboratory put their heads and hands to work on the idea that had attracted the interest of their teacher, and it is recorded that some sort of telephone apparatus was finally set up by which these young experimenters could converse with each other over a wire strung from one room to another. As a result of this research and experimenting, Professors Blake and Pierce undertook to give a demonstration. In the home of Mr. Rowland Hazard on Williams Street, the crude sending and receiving instruments were installed and wires were strung between two rooms, at some distance apart. A large gathering of people had been invited to witness the experiment, and many of these were completely startled to hear, over what the Professors called the telephone, the voices of friends they recognized, but did not suspect were among the guests.

When he learned of the experimentation going on in the laboratories of Brown, and when stories of the remarkable demonstration at the Hazard house in Providence reached his ears, Alexander Graham Bell did exactly what any inventor would do under the circumstances. He lost a lot of sleep and wrote several threatening letters to Professors Blake and Pierce. Did they attempt to cash in, so to speak, on their private discoveries; did they run to a patent lawyer in an attempt to prove that they had any prior claims to the invention and development of what appeared to be a miracle of science? Not at all. They were just amused and went right on with their research and experimenting. And when they had finished, one of their instruments, said to be the first over which speech could be heard clearly, was packed into a cardboard box and shipped to Mr. Bell, with their cards. Shortly after, they communicated with Mr. Bell, professing that, inasmuch as they had not been addicted to visions of possible wealth, but had only been acting in the true spirit of scientific investigation, he was wholly welcome to the fruits of their past labors and to the benefit of future experimentation. Naturally, this generous action brought Bell to Providence at once to meet and confer with his would-be friends, and from then on many things happened in the evolution of the device. Professor Blake continued his experiments at Peace Dale, Rhode Island, where he set up for use as a practical convenience a telephone line between the home of Rowland Hazard and that of his brother. This line was one quarter of a mile long, and was the first to be used for other than experimental purposes. Also, about this same time, Dr. Fenner H. Peckham, later an official of the Providence Telephone Company, established sound communication between his home at 27 Benefit Street and his office near the railroad tunnel on North Main Street. This line was a half mile in length and made use of telegraph wires already strung between the two locations. Over this line was transmitted the first call for medical assistance ever sent by telephone, an emergency message which immediately demonstrated the tremendous practical value of the new invention.

On Thursday, June 28, 1877, the third of the four days set aside for one of the biggest celebrations in the history of Rhode Island, Rutherford B. Hayes, President of the United States, was the honored guest of the Grand Army of the Republic at a Rocky Point clambake. Between speeches, cannon salutes, fireworks, parading, cheering and general tumult, it was announced that a demonstration of "this new fangled contraption," called the telephone, had been arranged for the amusement of the President and his party. After the Mayor of Providence had concluded his brief address, the President retired to what the newspapers then described as a "parlor," where Prof. Bell's agent, Mr. Frederick A. Gower, had set up a telephone instrument. Connection was made with the City Hotel in Providence, and President Hayes experimented for some minutes sending and receiving vocal messages. It was the Chief Executive's first experience with the device, and he expressed himself satisfied with the "very remarkable" efforts produced and the ease with which he was enabled to manage it. The Governor of Pennsylvania and several other gentlemen tried out their voices and ears with the same gratifying results.

Engraving of President Hayes at Rocky Point clambake.
A contemporary engraving shows President Hayes sampling clams at the June 28, 1877, Rocky Point clambake.

It would be interesting to hear of any person living who happened to be on the other end of that line in the City Hotel when, for the first time in history, the voice of a President was carried over a slender wire to a point at least twelve miles away. Several months before this first Presidential telephone message, a call over a much longer distance had been made when Prof. Bell talked from Providence to Mr. Watson, his assistant, in Boston. The first trial was made from the old Union Station, using the Providence and Boston telegraph line, but although sounds could be heard, the number of relays and the force of the wind blowing against the wires made speech unintelligible. The party then adjourned to make use of a new telegraph line in the editorial rooms of the Star and Press on Dyer Street, and this second trial proved completely successful.

Photo of City Hotel, undated.
City Hotel, undated. (The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, Vol. IV, 1944).

These are the highlights of Rhode Island's contributions to the invention and improvement of Mr. Bell's idea, but another important and interesting contribution came from one who saw the opportunities for financial gain in the perfecting of the instrument as a practical means of intercommunication.

Colonel William H. Reynolds, who lived in Providence many years before his death in 1906, and who was the grandfather of the present well-known local citizen who bears the same name, became very much interested in Mr. Bell's invention, and made the acquaintance of the inventor. Col. Reynolds was a veteran of the Civil War, having served as Lieutenant Colonel of the First Regiment of Artillery in command of Battery A at the Battle of Bull Run. For the sum of $5,000 Colonel Reynolds finally purchased control of Mr. Bell's patent for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and for $2,500 more, he secured controlling rights for Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Russia.

One of the most interesting records pertaining to this subject is a newspaper account of the scene in Osborne House, London, when Bell and Colonel Reynolds displayed their telephone to Queen Victoria. It was Colonel Reynolds of Providence who made it possible for Bell to journey to England and there arrange for the historic demonstration in the presence of Her Majesty. Colonel Reynolds realized handsomely from his venture, but it is recorded that the inventor and his Rhode Island financial backer worked for three months in England before they could raise a single shilling. How often this is the case with good ideas.

John Williams Haley (1897-1963), former vice president of the Narragansett Brewing Company, was best known for his weekly radio program, "The Rhode Island Historian," which ran from 1927 to about 1953 on WJAR. Several hundred of his radio scripts were published in pamphlet form by the Providence Institute for Savings ("The Old Stone Bank"), and many were later reprinted in the four-volume Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island.

Return to Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island index.

Editor's Notes
John Peirce (1836-'97) was only briefly a professor of chemistry at Brown, from 1862-'64, as he preferred to spent his time in research. According to Proceedings of the Rhode Island Historical Society, Volume 25, it was he who came up with the name "telephone."

The old Music Hall, also known as the Barstow Block, was located at 272-280 Westminster Street (since renumbered). It was restored in 1905 and was later known as the Public Market building. The Federal Center, 380 Westminster Street, stands on the site now.

Rowland Hazard (1844-1915) was President of the Peace Dale Manufacturing Company, a woolen manufacturer. His Providence home (he had one in Peace Dale, as well) was at 45 Williams Street. He's buried in South Kingstown historical cemetery #37.

Among his many life accomplishments, Dr. Fenner Harris Peckham, Jr. (1844-1915) served for a time as Vice President of the Providence Telephone Company. He is buried in Swan Point Cemetery.

The mayor of Providence when Rutherford B. Hayes visited Rocky Point in 1877 was Thomas A. Doyle (1827-1886). A statue of Doyle stands in front of Beneficent House at the intersection of Broad and Chestnut Streets.

Frederick Allen Gower went to work as an editorial writer with the Providence Press and Star (see below) in 1871. Gower met Bell by chance, it is said, when he lost a coin flip with another staff member, the loser having to interview the "crazy man" who thought it possible to transmit the human voice over telegraph wires. Intrigued by Bell's ideas, Gower became Bell's press agent, then business partner and chief advisor, which made him a rich man. It was Gower, according to a 1940 Providence Journal article, who convinced Bell that the telephone was a practical invention for more than just commercial use. Gower died July 18, 1885, attempting to cross the English Channel in a balloon at Cherbourg, France.

Providence's first telephone exchange was opened April 2, 1879, and the first commercially successful long distance line, from Providence to Boston, followed on January 12, 1881.

The City Hotel was originally the mansion home of Charles Dyer. In 1832 he turned it into a one-hundred-room hotel. In its day it was the place to stay in Providence, and celebrities like actor Junius Brutus Booth, singer Jenny Lind, and President Andrew Jackson made the hotel their home while visiting the city. Torn down in 1903, the building was located on Weybosset Street, about where the Greek-styled portico to Johnson & Wales University's downtown campus is.

"Star and Press" refers to the Providence Evening Press, established May 14, 1859, and the Providence Morning Star established 1869. Both were owned by the Providence Press Company with an address at 22 Weybosset Street (near the present-day Turks Head Building). Dyer Street (one end of it anyway), is only about a block away.

We so far have not been able to track down Colonel William H. Reynolds' grandson, the "present [1944] well-known local citizen who bears the same name," nor have we found why he was well-known. Fame is fleeting.

From the Providence Journal, June 29, 1877:

The President at the Telephone

About 3 o'clock the President enjoyed a new sensation. Under the direction of Mr. Fred A. Gower, managing agent of Prof. Bell, a telephone wire was connected with the Western Union Telegraph wire [at Rocky Point], tendered for the purpose of manager Bradford, and telephone communication established with Prof. Bell at the City Hotel in this city.

The President was then invited to place one of the telephones, which by the way resembled a rather large-sized bobbin, against one ear, which he did, when Mr. Gower spoke in the other in a moderate tone of voice, saying, "Prof. Bell, I have the honor to present to you the President of the United States, who is listening at the other telephone; do you understand?"

The President listened carefully while a gradually increasing smile wreathed his lips, and wonder shone in his eyes more and more, until he took the little instrument from his ear, looked at it a moment in surprise, and remarked, "That is wonderful."

During this time Prof. Bell said, according to Mr. Gower, who was listening at the telephone: "Mr. President, I am duly sensible of the great honor conferred upon me in this for the first time presenting the speaking telephone to the attention of the President of the United States. I am located in one of the parlors of the City Hotel, in Providence. I am speaking to you through thirteen miles of wire, without the use of any galvanic current on the line. I hope that you understand distinctly what I say, and I shall be very glad to hear something from you in reply, if you please."

At the suggestion to him from Mr. Gower, that he should speak to Prof. Bell, the President said, "Please speak a little more slowly." A few more messages passed, when the President again remarked, "That is wonderful," saying he could understand some words very well, but could not catch sentences.

[Pennsylvania] Gov. [John] Hartranft also tried the wonderful little instrument, with much the same experience as the President, saying in answer to a query from Prof. Bell, "I understand you very well."

Rocky Point phone call historicakl marker, 2017.
An historical marker placed in Rocky Point Park in the mid-2010s commemorates the first Presidential phone call. (July 2, 2017).

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