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An Anniversary for the Telephone and the Bell Henry Library

SIL14-B2-09a The invention of the telephone has a fraught and complicated history, but in spite of legal challenges and controversy, most can comfortably credit Alexander Graham Bell with its creation. On this day, October 9th, in 1876, Bell and Thomas A. Watson held the first two-way telephone conversation, one in Boston and the other in Cambridgeport, a town about two miles away. The conversation lasted some three hours, the dialogue transcribed in each location, both versions of which were published side-by-side in an effort to dispel any suspicion of trickery, and to demonstrate that “audible speech by telegraph” had been achieved.

Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and a leading scientist in the field of electricity and magnetism, encouraged Bell in his pursuits. After Henry’s death, Bell purchased his library from his widow; Bell’s descendants donated the two collections, to be kept together, to the Smithsonian. After long being housed in the offices of the Joseph Henry Papers Project, the collections are now at the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. The Bell Henry Library offers a fascinating portrait of the intellectual life of two eminent scientists and life-long experimenters. Included in these collections are their own annotations, presentation copies of numerous works, and many catalogs of scientific apparatus and pamphlets, many of which are quite rare.

SIL14-H003-08a Having this collection in our care had an added benefit: in Bern Dibner’s Heralds of Science, his selection of the two hundred most significant publications in the history of science, he includes Bell’s Researches in telephony, published in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1876. While the Libraries held its own copy it was in another collection with the rest of the serial volumes. Now we not only have the Herald, we have Bell’s own copy of it.

While the Bell Henry Library has not yet been cataloged, we do have a list of all the works in both collections—titles, authors, place and date of publication if available, annotations and presentation copies noted—which should provide an adequate guide to scholars interested in studying these collections, the gentlemen themselves, or the history of speech pathology, telephony and electricity during that exciting time. We will soon be making these lists available online.—Kirsten van der Veen

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