Melville Bell, a Telephone Connection
When it came to telephone service in Canada, Melville Bell was the man to see. Helping his son invent the first telephone, Melville owned the Canadian patent rights.
When it came to telephone communication, Alexander Graham Bell was the man to see. After years of developing the technology, his success was proven by making a long-distance call from Brantford to Paris, Ontario in 1876. “The day is coming,” he told his father, Melville Bell, “when telegraph wires will be laid on to houses just like water and gas – and friends converse with each other without leaving home.” While some were skeptical about such a modern doodad, the public was ready to be convinced. Within a few years, telephones were ringing in homes and businesses.
Melville Bell, the man to see
When it came to telephone service in Canada, Alexander Graham Bell was not the man to see. Instead, it was his father, Melville Bell. Alexander had sold 75 percent of the Canadian patent rights to his father for $1 in 1877. At that time, Melville was a prominent professor of Elocution at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, teaching philology, phonetics and language skills. Previously a professor at Edinburgh and London universities in England, he was the creator of “Visible Speech”, a successful program that used symbols to form a universal alphabet that helped the deaf to create sounds.
In a lecture about the telephone, Professor Bell noted that, “We seem to penetrate into a spirit-world and hear the very ghosts of sound. It depends on the speaker whether these aerial shapes are dime or clear in outline. The telephone presents them, however faint, with perfect definiteness, if they have been so moulded by the speaker’s lips.” The professor believed in a strong future for the telephone and that it “would bring England and America, Australia and India all within speaking distance.”
The telephone rings!
One of the first beckoning rings of the telephone was heard in Kingston, Ontario in 1879. The Rockwood Asylum leased two telephones for $10 each per year. Two years later, the city received one of the first telephone exchanges in the country. One of Canada’s largest exchanges at the time, it had 25 home telephones and 107 commercial lines. Operator service was available 24 hours a day; the rental fee per telephone jumped to $35 a year.
In 1879, Melville Bell searched for a buyer to get the telephone system up and running in Canada. None were found. Canadian businessmen thought it too expensive to operate, that it was too risky a venture.
Nor was it any easier in the United States. Out of frustration, Alexander attempted to sell his patents to Western Union, the large telegraph company. He was rebuffed. Their excuse was that the telephone was a passing fad and that there would be no need for such a device. (Less than a year later, Western Union rethought and became a competitor.)
A brand new Bell Telephone company formed
National Bell purchased Alexander’s patents and also answered Melville Bell’s call, purchasing the Canadian patents too. Charles Fleetford Wise was dispatched to Montreal, Quebec as General Manager in charge of founding the corporation and organizing the communications business. A Montreal businessman was chosen as president of the brand new Bell Telephone Company of Canada. The company received its federal Charter of Incorporation on April 29, 1880.
In 1881, Melville Bell and his wife left Canada to join his son Alexander and his family in Washington, DC. The Bell family considered the science of hearing, speech and language to be of great importance and continued their quest to improve the lives of the hearing-impaired. Melville died in Washington, DC in 1905.
A visionary, a scientist, a humanitarian, Melville Bell left an indelible mark on Canadian communications.
Buckskin to Broadloom: Kingston Grows Up by Alvin Armstrong, Published by the Kingston Whig-Standard, 1973. Pp. 326-328.
More About his son, Alexander Graham Bell on suite101.com.
This article first appeared on Suite101.com. Copyright Susanna McLeod