In our world of electronic and digital communications, one wonders what evidence of our day-to-day lives will exist for our descendants in the next century. Modern technology has given us the ability to be in almost constant touch with one another. But, will our emails and texts still exist a hundred years from now? For decades, letter writing was often an everyday occurrence 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 be kept, not simply discarded once read. The Bells were profuse writers and as a result, their story can be told today through thousands of letters.
Born in Scotland in 1847, Alexander Graham Bell lived 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 living without. How this came to pass is best revealed through the letters between these individuals. Here, we present those letters to you.
Aleck’s last letter to his parents was written while en route to Boston. This one was written at the end of the day on the way back to Salem, again giving further description to his experiments with the phonautograph. This original letter included hand-drawn symblols from Melville’s Visible Speech system. They have not been included in this week’s column.
Boston to Salem
May 6th, 1874
Dear P, M, C & Ch.
My last letter to you was Salem to Boston – so I take advantage of the return trip to finish my subject. Let me see. Where am I? I was just telling you of the style which was made so thin that it divided into nodes like a string. When a vowel such as was sounded, the vibrating end, instead of presenting the usual appearance of two boundary lines (a & b) and a shadowy space between them showed three well defined lines a, b & c the centre line being close to the upper line. On uttering the vowels without any break in the voice the centre line descended until it almost co-incided with the lower one. When the vowel was uttered four well-defined lines made their appearance . gave a multitude of fine lines interspersed by shadowy spaces. In fact there seemed to be a difference in the form of the vibration for each sound.
On Monday I went to the Institute of Technology and showed these results to Prof. Cross and he was much interested. I asked him whether a silk thread, set in vibration by the membrane might not produce similar results on a magnifier. He thought it might – and he is to experiment & let me know the result.
By throwing a bright light, through a narrow slit, upon the vibrating style, the form of the vibration is beautifully brought out.
Suppose it vibrates in a circle a little ring of bright light appears in the air etc. The sun was just setting when I was at the Institute but we tried the effect upon the style. When was sounded and the vibrating style held before the slit a brilliant line of light of the shape of an 8 mae its appearance. Some of the forms observed to come and go are represented here . We shall try this experiment on Saturday morning with a silk thread.
Last Saturday week I experimented all day long in my study. I shut two or three doors to cut off all sounds from the lower regions. Unfortunately I cut off also the heat from down stairs, and so managed to get into the doctor’s hands with a bad cold.
On Wednesday I attended a reception at Prof. Monroe’s house – and increased my cold so much that I awoke in the middle of the night with such an oppression on the lungs that I felt unable to breathe. I was so nearly suffocated that I had to arouse Mrs. Sanders and get assistance. The doctor thought it was inflammation of the mucous membrane, and kept me in bed for a couple of days. I felt somewhat alarmed as this is the first time I have had any marked trouble with my lungs. But the doctor has examined my chest and finds it all right – and I am happy to say it has all passed off safely and I can now again report a clean bill of health.
With much love
The Bell Letters are annotated by Brian Wood, curator, Bell Homestead National Historic Site.
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