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Alexander Graham Bell in Salem

by Jen Ratliff on 2023-01-26T10:42:00-05:00 | 0 Comments

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Alexander Graham Bell’s time in Salem, Massachusetts began in October 1873, when he was hired by leather merchant Thomas Sanders to help teach his five-year-old son, George, who was born deaf. Bell had been working as a professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at the Boston University School of Oratory. Sanders invited the then 25-year-old Bell to live in the home of his mother, Mary Ann (Brown) Sanders at 242 Essex Street in Salem while instructing his son.

Bell’s father, Alexander Melville Bell had begun promoting and publishing his own work on Visible Speech, a system of phonetic symbols designed to aid deaf people in better articulating sounds in 1864. Visible Speech contains a series of images that correspond to mouth placement, creating visual cues on how to make sounds commonly found in language. In 1867, he published a book on the topic titled Visible Speech: The Science of Universal Alphabetics. It was just one in a series of his publications on phonetics.

Despite spending most of his time in Great Britain and Canada, a majority of Melville’s work was published in Salem, Massachusetts by James P. Burbank, who operated a printing service on St. Peter Street.


At night, while in the Sanders home, Alexander Graham Bell began experimenting with multii-message telegraph technology. Bell met Salem native Thomas A. Watson, an electrical worker and machinist while purchasing supplies for his inventions in Boston. Bell was impressed with Watson’s skillset and the two decided to collaborate. The pair ultimately agreed to focus on transmitting voice messages, a decision that would inevitably lead to the invention of the telephone.

Over the next two years, the men divided their time between Salem and Boston to create a working model of the telephone. According to Bell’s journals, it was in Boston in March 1876 that the very first message was delivered by telephone. “Mr. Watson come here, I want to see you.” is reportedly what Bell said to his partner. The two made another private test call in Ontario, while eight miles apart, before unveiling their new technology to the public.

On February 12, 1877, Bell and Watson set up their telephones 35 miles apart, Bell in Salem at the Lyceum Hall, and Watson in Boston at the headquarters of the Boston Globe. Watson spoke and even sang to Bell and an audience of 500 onlookers. Reportedly, a few members of the audience were invited on stage to speak into the new device. That evening, a Boston Globe reporter in Salem used Bell’s telephone to contact his colleagues in the Boston office to share details of the events. This is the first time a telephone was used for reporting the news.

Following this demonstration, Alexander Graham Bell’s notoriety grew steadily. He secured a patent for the invention and later established the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T). Bell left the Sanders house and married Mabel Hubbard, a former pupil, that July. However, the Bell family continued to frequent the North Shore and rented homes in Rockport and Magnolia. The Sanders home in Salem was demolished to make way for the YMCA building in 1898. In 1922, the Essex Institute (now Peabody Essex Museum) placed a plaque on the YMCA building acknowledging Alexander Graham Bell’s time in Salem.

Digitized Archives
Alexander Graham Bell Photographs and Ephemera
Historical Sketch of the Salem Lyceum, 1879
Lyceum Hall Photographs and Ephemera

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