Digging Up James Smithson

Alexander Graham Bell traveled to Italy at the turn of the 20th century on an audacious mission to rescue the remains of the man whose legacy endowed the Smithsonian Institution.

Alexander Graham Bell did not spend the Christmas season of 1903 in the festive tradition. On the contrary, the inventor of the telephone passed the holiday engaged in a ghoulish Italian adventure involving a graveyard, old bones, and the opening of a moldy casket. Accompanied by his wife, Mabel, he had traveled by steamship from America at his own expense and made his way down to the Italian Mediterranean by train.Read more »

The Pluck Heard 'Round the World

Alexander Graham Bell was able to invent the telephone after Watson tweaked a reed that transmitted sounds to the next room

On a hot day in June 1875, 28-year-old Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant, Thomas Watson, were toiling in adjacent workshops at 109 Court Street in Boston. Under sloped attic walls of rough-sawn wood, the two men hunched over benches covered with curled wires and jar-shaped batteries filled with acid. A few years before, an inventor named Joseph Stearns had made a fortune selling Western Union a device capable of sending two telegraphs simultaneously over one wire.Read more »

Breaking The Connection

The story of AT&T from its origins in Bell’s first local call to last year’s divestiture. Hail and good-bye.

The history of telephone communications in the United States is also, in large measure, the history of an extraordinary business organization. On January 8, 1982, that organization announced that within two years it would tear itself apart, and on January 1, 1984, it made good on its promise. Read more »

Hindsight, Foresight, And No Sight

Late in 1876, William Orton, president of the Western Union Telegraph Company, rejected an opportunity to purchase from Alexander Graham Bell and his associates all patents relating to Bell’s telephone for $100,000. Since Bell’s patents are generally considered the most valuable ever issued by the United States Patent Office, Orton’s refusal to buy them earned him an odd immortality: he is the man who made the worst decision in American business history. Read more »

The Intrepid Mr. Curtiss

The fastest man in the air competed with the Wrights for ten years, became rich, and awakened America to the air age.

America has long been celebrated as a nation of inventive tinkerers. As President Grant’s patent commissioner remarked a century ago, “our merchants invent, our soldiers and sailors invent, our schoolmasters invent, our professional men invent, aye, our women and children invent.” On occasion one of these tinkerers among us is touched with enough genius to influence history. Glenn Hammond Curtiss is a case in point. Read more »

A Conquest Of Solitude

Before, during, and after the work that made him famous—his invention of the telephone—Alexander Graham Bell was deeply involved in teaching the deaf. It was his first work, and when he was seventy, he wrote that “recognition of my work for and interest in the education of the deaf has always been more pleasing to me than even recognition of my work with the telephone.” The impetus for this interest was extremely intimate: both his mother and his wife were deaf.


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A Wrecker’s Dozen

There are places on this earth, in Europe particularly, where conservation is taken to mean the preservation of the notable works of man as well as nature. Magnificent old railroad stations and churches, public buildings, historic houses, architectural landmarks of all kinds, are valued for their beauty or for the memories they evoke, for the sense of continuity they give a place, or, often, just because they have been around a long time and a great many people are fond of them. But here in America we don’t—most of us, anyway—seem to feel that way.Read more »


"My God, it talks!” said the Emperor of Brazil. So the new invention did—but not until Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant had solved some brain racking problems

On the afternoon of June 2, 1875, two young men bent over work benches in the hot and stifling garret of a five-story brick building occupied by the electrical workshops of Charles Williams, at 109 Court Street, Boston. They did not speak to one another, for they were in separate rooms some sixty feet apart, at opposite ends of the floor. Between the rooms ran a length of wire. Read more »

Thanks, But No Thanks, Mr. Bell

The powerful Speaker of the House missed not one but two chances to invest in AT&T in the early days


When ex-Speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon of Illinois retired from politics in 1923, he had served almost continuously in the House of Representatives for nearly fifty years, and was regarded as a master political strategist and a shrewd judge of men. But, as he sorrowfully confessed to his longtime secretary and biographer, L. White Busbey, his discernment did not extend to inventors and their get-rich-quick schemes. Read more »