By LEONARD C. BRUNO
With the February release of its online version of a portion of the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, the Library of Congress continued a tradition of electronic communication that began more than a century ago with the first successful telephone message: "Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you."
These and other historic first transmissions and the communication revolutions they engendered are documented in the manuscript holdings of the Library of Congress. All Americans recognize the simple but profoundly significant first messages sent by Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) in 1876 and a generation earlier by telegraph inventor Samuel F.B. Morse (1791-1872) — "What hath God wrought?" Now, anyone with Internet access can examine a selection of the Bell papers on the Library's American Memory Web site at www.loc.gov.
With a generous grant from the AT&T Foundation (see LC Information Bulletin, March 1999), the Library has begun a project to digitize significant portions of its Bell and Morse holdings, starting with the larger of the two collections, the Bell Family Papers. The first release of Bell material comprises a selection of approximately 38,000 images, consisting of correspondence, scientific notebooks, journals, blueprints, articles and photographs documenting Bell's invention of the telephone and his involvement in the first telephone company. The materials also chronicle his family life, interest in the education of persons with hearing impairments, and aeronautical and other scientific research.
This online presentation of the Bell Family Papers can be searched by keyword, subject, name and collection series (such as family correspondence or general correspondence). Also offered are five "Special Presentations" consisting of selected collection highlights, a timeline of Bell's life and achievements, a family tree with contemporary photographs, and essays on Bell as inventor and on the relationship between the telephone and the telegraph.
Efforts were made to preserve the look of the original documents in the electronic versions, and the grayscale format used by the Library captures and displays the diversity of tones in manuscript papers as well as the varying nuances produced by handwriting in pencil or ink. Roughly half of this presentation consists of original typescript letters and documents, including correspondence. The transcripts for the correspondence are searchable. Upon completion of the Bell collection next year, similar work will begin on the digitization of the Morse Papers.
The major portion of the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers was donated to the Library by Bell's heirs in 1975. The papers were previously on deposit at the National Geographic Society, where they were organized and maintained in a special location called the Bell Room.
The collection of Bell Family Papers is divided into several archival series, including Family Papers, General Correspondence, Subject File, Laboratory Notebooks, Article File and Speech File. The collection spans 1834-1970, with the bulk of the materials concentrated during the period 1855-1922.
Among this huge collection (nearly 150,000 items in the Manuscript Division) is a handwritten experimental notebook containing Bell's description of events as they occurred in his Boston laboratory on March 10, 1876. His entry for that day tells of his successful experiment with the telephone. Speaking through the instrument to his assistant Watson in the next room, Bell recorded the famous, "Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you." These words would inaugurate the next great revolution in communications. Later that day, Bell wrote proudly to "Papa" of his accomplishments and announced "a great success." After describing his experiment with Watson, Bell goes on to predict, correctly, that "the day is coming when telegraph [phone] wires will be laid on to houses just like water and gas — and friends will converse with each other without leaving home."
The Bell Papers in the Manuscript Division are diverse in their reflection of the varied interests, talents and even preoccupations of the great man himself. Besides the considerable collection of both family and general correspondence, other parts of his papers are arranged by subject. While the telephone naturally comprises a sizable portion of this category, there are also materials on such subjects as aviation, including the Aerial Experiment Association, which he and his wife, Mabel, formed, as well as on tetrahedral kites, hydrofoil boats, sheep breeding and of course, the deaf. This breadth of interest is also documented in the 135-volume "Home Notes" and 75 volumes of "Lab Notes" that he compiled. These handwritten journals by Bell and his assistants document more than 40 years of experimentation and research.
In many ways, Alexander Graham Bell could be considered an heir of Morse, having worked first with the telegraph, seeking to improve it and go beyond its marvels. Indeed, Bell spent a considerable amount of time trying to perfect the "harmonic telegraph," which he hoped would send multiple messages at different pitches over the same wire. It was this research that led him eventually to consider the unheard-of notion that human speech itself — rather than only dots and dashes of a code — could be transmitted electrically. Once Bell and his talented assistant, Thomas A. Watson, made the accidental discovery that only a continuous current (rather than Morse's pulses or interrupted current) could transmit varying sound waves, it was only a matter of time until he devised a functional telephone.
Bell came from a family that was personally and professionally involved with all aspects of sound, speech and hearing. Both his father and grandfather were teachers of speech and elocution, and his wife as well as his mother were deaf. As an expert on speech and sound as professor of "vocal physiology" at Boston University, Bell came to realize that just as the air vibrates with the speaking voice, so too would a continuous current of electricity vibrate with the tones of the human voice. Bell's early phone system employed an electromagnet connecting two identical membranes, one of which would mimic the sound vibrations (voice) sent by the other when spoken into.
Like the Bell Papers, the Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection of Photographs in the Library's Prints and Photographs Division centers on both the private and professional life of Bell and would serve both the historian and the biographer. Besides images of the Bell clan, friends such as Helen Keller and the families linked by marriage — the Hubbards, Grosvenors and Fairchilds — this large collection of photographs documents Bell's aeronautical research as well as his work on hydrofoils and sheep breeding. Altogether, the Bell papers and photographs comprise a major collection in the history of American science and technology.
The Library's collection of Samuel F.B. Morse Papers is also housed in the Manuscript Division and contains more than 10,000 items. Given to the Library of Congress by his son, Edward Lind Morse, and his granddaughter, Leila Livingston Morse, between 1916 and 1944, the Morse collection has had other items added through purchase and gift between 1922 and 1995. The Morse Papers span the years 1793-1944 and include personal and professional correspondence, diaries and notebooks, scrapbooks, maps, handwritten religious tracts and, of course, information on the Morse code, his universally accepted alphabet code of dots and dashes used to send and record telegraphic messages. By far the most riveting as well as historically significant item among this material is the original paper tape of the first telegraphic message, which contains not only the raised dots and dashes but Morse's own signed and dated note in which he explains the accomplishments of that historic day. Morse's early telegraph system produced a paper copy whose raised dots and dashes were later read by an operator.
No less interesting however is the correspondence contained in the Morse Papers. Seven days after his great success, Morse wrote to his brother, Sidney, in a circumspect and almost humble tone concerning what he thought were the responsibilities that went along with success. Twice in this letter he quotes the famed message, sent on May 24, 1844, "What hath God wrought?" and uses it to invoke his own deep religious feelings. Later, he still is feeling the flush of success when he tells Sidney of a congressional opponent who later confessed, "It is an astonishing invention."
Morse also writes with remarkable foresight in October of the same year, when he cautions his assistant, Alfred Vail, about the potential misuse of this new medium. Morse warns Vail to be scrupulous in reporting election results, saying "As there is great interest taken, by the citizens generally of both political parties, in the results of the various elections occurring at this season, you will be especially careful not to give a partisan character to any information you may transmit." He warns Vail above all never to transmit any rumors. This shows that Morse early on had already gained considerable insight about the political aspects and potential pitfalls of rapid communication.
Born in Charlestown, Mass., in 1791, the son of a minister, Morse graduated from Yale in 1810 and went to England to study art and perfect his talent for painting. Upon returning home, he found he was unable to earn a living as an artist. Nonetheless, he remained in the art worlds of New York and Europe for well over a decade, and it was not until 1832 that he found what was to be the focal point of his life. Electrical experimentation was all the rage at this time, and Morse was not exempt. With all the passion he had previously devoted to painting, he pursued the idea of communicating over distance by means of electricity. With technical assistance given by Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the newly formed Smithsonian Institution, Morse eventually constructed a telegraph that could send messages over wires through a system of pulses or interruptions of current. His "Morse code," however, was a true inspiration, and the system of dots and dashes he devised made his system both simple and efficient.
With the financial backing of a reluctant Congress, Morse sent his first telegraph message over lines connecting Washington and Baltimore. His now-famous message was suggested by Annie Ellsworth, the young daughter of a good friend, who had selected the quotation from the Bible (Numbers 23:23). Electricity had conquered distance for the first time, and the nation was literally abuzz. Even Morse was shocked at the degree and extent of enthusiasm he encountered. With this great success, telegraph poles would soon follow the lines of the railroad, and together they would open the West. By 1850, every state east of the Mississippi but one (Florida) was connected by telegraph, and in 1861 a telegraph line spanned the continent. In 1866, the transatlantic cable was laid successfully and the world was truly linked for the first time.
These collections detailing the work of two of the nation's greatest inventors provide a fascinating and instructive view of their technical achievements and personal lives. Using a recently developed communications medium, the Internet, the Library is able to make available, in electronic form, much original material documenting the historic communications breakthroughs of these two great Americans.
Mr. Bruno is the manuscript historian for science in the Manuscript Division.