Washington, DC’s Emergence as a Center for Science through the Lens of Alexander Graham Bell

Thursday, October 28, 2021 By: Monica M Smith
“Had your train rolled into the District of Columbia around 1870, you might not have thought it a particularly innovative place. Or even a particularly pleasant place. You might have been too distracted by the smell".

This is how Monica Smith's "History Moment" begins. In this month's episode about people, places and communities she focuses on Washington, DC as an historical center for science through the lens of noted inventor Alexander Graham Bell.


 


Rotary Club of Washington, DC
27 October 2021 History Moment
Washington, DC’s Emergence as a Center for Science through the Lens of Alexander Graham Bell
By Monica M. Smith


I am Club historian Monica Smith, and I work at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, part of the National Museum of American History. I have the honor of giving a monthly history moment in which I like to share stories about people, places, and communities in our nation’s capital. Today, I will quote primarily from a Smithsonian colleague’s article about Washington, DC as an historical center for science through the lens of noted inventor Alexander Graham Bell.

[Quoted primarily from: Invention Hot Spot: Growth of the Scientific Community in Washington, DC, in the Late 1800s | Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation (si.edu) authored by my former Smithsonian colleague Amanda Murray]

“Had your train rolled into the District of Columbia around 1870, you might not have thought it a particularly innovative place. Or even a particularly pleasant place. You might have been too distracted by the smell.

The Washington City Canal, part of Pierre L’Enfant’s plan, fell into disuse in the late 1850s and became a stagnant open sewer. By 1870 [five years after the end of the US Civil War], the District was home to over 130,000 people who lacked basic sanitation. Things began to change with the Organic Act of 1871. A new city government took on the formidable task of modernizing the nation’s capital. Alexander Shepherd, director of DC’s Board of Public Works, spent over $20 million [US dollars] to improve the city. Railroad tracks and streets were graded, sidewalks paved, bridges built, a water and sewer system installed, and trees planted. The squalid Tiber Creek section of the Washington City Canal was covered over and a new street—the future Constitution Avenue [that runs along the National Mall]—was built in its stead.

Washington’s Reconstruction-era status as a swampy, undeveloped town belied the visionary activity brewing there. Federal agencies like the US Patent Office made the city a science hub, where inventors and entrepreneurs convened and organizations sprouted to support invention, discovery, and economic development. At the helm of the Smithsonian Institution as its first Secretary, Joseph Henry made extraordinary contributions to the organization of American science, in addition to his own pioneering research in electromagnetism. In 1871, Henry founded the Philosophical Society of Washington, based on the Saturday meetings he hosted at his home for prominent men interested in science.

Another, perhaps surprising, participant in the city’s transformation was [Scottish-born inventor] Alexander Graham Bell. His connections to a growing network of science advocates and institutions reveal the capital as a burgeoning hot spot of innovation at the end of the 19th century.”

[Insert from Volta Bureau (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)]
“In 1876, Bell had received the first telephone patent for his invention of an electric speaking telegraph, [which he developed with Thomas Watson]. In 1878, Bell and his wife, Mabel Hubbard, moved from Boston to Washington, DC. The following year, the French government awarded Bell the Volta Prize of 50,000 francs (around $10,000) for his invention of the telephone. Bell used the money to found the Volta Laboratory in Georgetown with his cousin [Chichester Bell] and friend [Charles Sumner Tainter]. The team researched sound recording and transmission. In 1887, they sold their record patents to the American Gramophone Company. Bell used his part of the profits to found the Volta Bureau—an organization established "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the Deaf." [The Volta Burea still stands]; famous deaf activist Helen Keller was present at the groundbreaking in Georgetown.”

Complementing the lab was a special annex at Bell’s home devoted to gatherings of the city’s intellectual elite, including politicians, government officials, scientists, artists, writers, and musicians. This network of connected individuals reflected the growth in formal, institutional support for Washington’s scientific community.

By 1900 there were 10 scientific societies in Washington with a total membership exceeding 4,000. Congress founded the National Academy of Sciences in 1863; the Academy elected Bell as a member in 1883. The Cosmos Club, a gathering place for men of science and letters, began in 1878 in the home of geologist John Wesley Powell, director of the Smithsonian Bureau of Ethnology. The Anthropological Society was organized in 1879, the Biological Society in 1880, and the Chemical Society in 1884. Alexander Graham Bell’s father-in-law, Gardiner Hubbard, founded the National Geographic Society in 1888, and Bell became its president in 1897. In 1898, Bell was elected to the Smithsonian’s governing Board of Regents. He befriended Samuel Langley, then the Smithsonian Secretary, and the two men collaborated on aeronautical experiments.

For all this growth, one must remember that efforts to organize science in the second half of the 19th century did not extend equally to all practitioners. For example, in 1870, Dr. Nathan Smith Davis, founder of the American Medical Association (AMA), deliberately excluded the racially integrated National Medical Society from admission to the AMA. Ultimately, in 1884, a separate medical society was organized by a biracial group of physicians: the (still vital) Medico-Chirurgical Society of the District of Columbia [the oldest African American Medical Society in the world]. 

Bell and fellow inventors at the Volta Laboratory made cutting-edge advances in recorded sound. In 1880 and 1881, Bell and Tainter deposited sealed boxes at the Smithsonian as insurance against competitors, proof of their inventions’ precedence. The boxes went unopened until 1937. Inside were descriptions and illustrations of the Volta Lab’s earliest successful sound-recording inventions, plus the devices themselves: the photophone, progenitor of modern fiber optics, which enabled the transmission of sound on a beam of light; and the graphophone, a “talking machine” to rival Thomas Edison’s phonograph.

The Bell story sheds light on a historic network of individuals and organizations—both private and federal—dedicated to supporting revolutionary technologies and their inventors. Bell’s work and connections in Washington augment our understanding not only of his inventive career but also of the city’s evolution, and offer a unique lens through which to view the rebuilding of a capital city, and indeed, a nation.”

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