Alexander Graham Bell’s invention was inspired by ‘Telephone City’

Brantford, Ont., has links to both the United Kingdom and United States.

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It’s impossible to imagine how a country this vast, spanning a full six time zones, could ever have evolved into a successful dominion without far-reaching advances in communications technology.

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From Bell to BlackBerry, pioneers in connecting a thinly populated land mass — the second-largest country in the world — have by necessity driven connectivity through determination and ingenuity.

Those seeds were planted in the mid-sized southwestern Ontario city of Brantford. Arguably better known to younger generations as the home of hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky, the “Telephone City” is where our hyperlinked network of smartphones, instant-messaging and on-demand everything got its crackly start.

It was on March 10, 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell made the first successful telephone call to his assistant, Thomas Watson, with the immortal but hardly stirring words: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”

It may not have made for soaring oratory, but that clipped conversation would change the course of history. As the first to file a patent on the telephone, the industrious Bell would also be well on his way to becoming fabulously wealthy by the age of 35.

As with many Canadian stories, however, our relationship with Bell is complicated.

Born in Scotland and later a naturalized American citizen who lived in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., Bell is claimed by both the U.K. and the U.S. as one of their own.

But don’t get hung up on that. Some of Bell’s happiest days were in Brantford, and his inspiration came from the hazy summer days spent tinkering and pondering at the family farmhouse.

“It was what he called his dreaming-place,” says Jillian, my guide at the Bell Homestead, a National Historic Site since 1997 that includes Melville House, the family home named after Bell’s father, and Canada’s first telephone office, opened in 1877.

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Located in the Tutela Heights neighbourhood, the pastoral grounds appear much as they did at the turn of the 20th century, though the house was moved away from the banks of the Grand River because of erosion. However, a trail to the southeast offers views little changed since Bell’s time as the 280-km heritage waterway makes its lazy sweep past the four-hectare property.

As the inventor himself said, in a speech delivered in 1917 at the unveiling in Brantford of a memorial in his honour: “As I look back upon it, visions come to me of the Grand River and of Tutela Heights and my dreaming-place upon the heights where visions of the telephone came to my mind.”

The telephone may have been born in Boston in 1875, he often said, but it was “conceived in Brantford” a year earlier.

Bell’s family emigrated from industrial Scotland in 1870 to provide a healthier climate for the young Alexander, whose brothers had died of tuberculosis. The family lived in the home from 1870 to 1881 and Alexander returned for cherished summer vacations long after he moved to the U.S.

Though now part of suburban Brantford, the homestead retains its rural flavour and the curators have done an admirable job of recreating Victorian life. Amid a varied collection of original Bell family artifacts, visitors will learn from the knowledgeable guides about how Bell’s academic work in helping the deaf, including his mother and wife, to communicate more effectively was fundamental in the development of the phone.

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Indeed, such was his devotion to the principles of elocution and other innovations that he refused to have a telephone in his own study lest it intrude on his scientific endeavours.

One of the tour highlights is a visit to Bell’s study, where replicas of his telephone prototypes are laid out on a sturdy desk where he spent hours perfecting the “speaking telegraph.” Learn how, in 1876, wires were painstakingly unspooled to place the first long-distance telephone call, from Brantford to the nearby town of Paris, 11 km away.

At the adjacent Henderson House, which was relocated from its original location downtown, guests learn more about the rapid evolution of Bell’s invention at Canada’s first telephone office. Marvel at the first phones, looking more like clunky film projectors, and check out a working 1930s telephone exchange that jolts to life in a series of clicks, flaps, hand-cranks and ringing bells.

A pilgrimage is not complete without a visit to the Bell Memorial at 41 West St., an art deco sculpture created in 1917 by Walter S. Allward, best known for his masterpiece, the Vimy war memorial in France.

Bell, who died and was buried in his retreat near Baddeck, N.S., would no doubt be pleased — and perhaps a little nonplussed — if he were transported to the 21st century to see tourists using wireless phones scarcely bigger than a pack of cigarettes to shoot holiday snaps in between sending texts and making the occasional voice call.

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But the pre-eminent scientist was nothing if not a relentless innovator. In 1880, he was involved in creating a rudimentary form of wireless communication that paved the way for today’s hand-held gadgets. Dubbed the “photophone,” it successfully demonstrated that light could be used to transmit sound.

And so, as we take photos and even create movies on our ever-more-clever smartphones, that is perhaps the best tribute of all to Telephone City and the energetic Scottish-Canadian-American inventor who connected us in ways that would have stretched even his immense imagination.

— Andre Ramshaw

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