Alexander Graham Bell, Digital Nomad

Had he been on Twitter, @AGBell would have only had one follower.

Historic accounts paint him as a friendly enough guy, but for all of his charms and great fame, his earliest telephones only allowed for a single, one-way conversation to take place: one person spoke and the receiver listened. That must have been tough.

To rewind the history of telephone technology is to deconstruct the din of more than a century of electronic conversation one voice at a time—all the way back to that very first voice transmitted from one place to another.

That place was Ontario.

Few realize that the world’s first long-distance phone call took place in Ontario, on August 10, 1876.  Excited crowds gathered at the telegraph office in the small town of Brantford and took turns singing and reciting into a receiver, while 6 miles away, in another telegraph station in the small country town of Paris, Alexander Graham Bell listened to the sounds that had traveled in an instant over the open hills and farms of Ontario.

For me, traveling to the Bell homestead in Brantford, Ontario was more pilgrimage than anything else—a personal field trip that reverenced the past and the very origins of the card-sized smart phone that I now carry in my hand.Long after someone has died, the places behind those people still remain. Be they poets, inventors, rock stars, or renegades, we glean some connection from dead heroes by visiting their homes, their gravesites, or merely the surroundings they once enjoyed. We seek Degas in Paris, Jesus in Jerusalem, and Tolstoy in Russia.

Thus I went looking for Aleck Bell in Canada.

Brantford does not assume a burgeoning urban space. It is a sparse Ontario town of 35,000 inhabitants with unfenced front yards and weekend laundry on clotheslines. The downtown contains entire blocks of boarded-up buildings, the fossils of industry and progress now nearly forgotten. Beyond the town lie vast farmlands, and as I ticked off kilometers on the road, I passed busy tractors cutting and baling hay into cylindrical rolls that lay mathematically upon the naked hills.

A small and straight country road leads to the Bell Homestead, a two-story house with green trim and a single front gable above a veranda porch. The place was entirely empty—perhaps because it was Sunday—and I struggled to find a human to pay admission to. Alone, I walked up the wooden stairs, stepped across the threshold and immediately spotted the study, a rather Victorian room appointed to appear exactly as it had (probably) looked in 1876, when Alexander Graham Bell made those first few phone calls.

My touristic visit was entirely pleasant—a passionate man in period costume arrived and delivered a detailed account of the house and life of the intellectual and liberal Bell family. His monologue highlighted certain moments that foreshadowed the invention of the telephone, and several models of the world’s first telephones were on display.

The first commercial telephones leased to customers consisted of a pair of polished wooden boxes ($20 per year) each of them about the size of a microwave oven. The phone’s only opening was both the transmitter and receiver and to call one another, a person needed only to stick one’s finger into the hole and scratch the metal plate. The hope was that the other person would hear that scratching and respond.

Standing before these old-time objects, I couldn’t help but compare the large, clumsy boxes with the tiny phone in my hand—one large and rather singular in purpose, the other miniscule and nearly-infinite in its range of services (yes, there is an app for that).

The Bell homestead was decorated with much care and historic detail—from the rooms and objects around me I learned so much about Alexander Graham Bell, and yet there was something else that I longed to see. After reading about the inventor and his life, I was less interested in his desk and bed and tea set than I was in his thoughts and ideas. In the end, that’s what distinguished this one house from all others—once upon a time, somebody with great ideas had given birth to those ideas among these rooms.

But beyond those rooms was the inventor’s “Dreaming Place”, a peaceful spot behind the house where he went to think and dream and reflect upon whatever it was that he was working on at the time. I wanted to visit this dreaming place and I hoped that in traveling to Ontario, I would be able to visit that spot.

Getting to Alexander Graham Bell’s Dreaming Place is not so easy—definitely not part of the official visit. The sharp bluff behind the house is too steep and precarious—one must walk a few hundred meters down the road, then follow an overgrown rabbit trail that descends and disappears in the woods.

As I made my way deeper in the woods, stinging nettles and poison ivy grabbed at my legs, my shoes sank ankle-deep into stinky mud and the downy fluff of tree seeds stuck like snow all around. When I finally did reach the curved banks of the Grand River, I followed the shore back until I was right behind the Bell homestead. It was here in this spot that the inventor of the telephone had spent so many quiet hours of his early life—an outdoor idyll, a “dreaming place” indeed.

I am not romanticizing at all by reporting that this exact spot of nature is still quite idyllic. The forest glowed an intense afternoon green. Songbirds filled the air, interrupted only by the noisy black crows that hopped from tree to ground and back again. High in the sky, hawks circled with purpose, and on the ground, tiny spiders climbed on invisible threads strung between miniature flowers. Everything in this place was full of life—I watched the lucid shallows of the brown river as a million tadpoles scrambled impatiently for land. Green dragonflies zipped past, busy with all the business of a cool Canadian summer. Gusts of warm wind blew past and shook the trees in turn, as if chasing a ghost up the river.

I stayed a good hour at the Dreaming Place, enchanted by my own imaginations of the man who once sat here to let his mind work. My mind failed to conjure up any significant world-changing inventions, but the area was certainly quiet and the setting conducive to reflection. I had my own telephone switched to silent mode, but in the middle of the countryside and right in Alexander Graham Bell’s own backyard,  3G reception is quite strong.

Though I abstained for a time, the Twitter conversation continued all around me, updating itself with messages from friends in Singapore, Australia, Europe, California and South America. Voices from around the world channeled into my phone and I was able to respond in kind, tapping out messages and hitting “Send.” As I sat and tweeted in Alexander Graham Bell’s backyard, I felt like I was holding two ends of history together, end to end. This rather recent (yet everyday) capacity for constant, multi-directional global connectivity all traces back to this tree-lined river and a man who once sat here, dreaming of such connectivity.

The telephone was not his only dream, nor was it his only invention. Among his countless contributions, Alexander Graham Bell was among the original founders of the National Geographic Society. His father-in-law (Gardiner Green Hubbard) was the Society’s first president, and in turn, Alexander’s son-in-law became the first, full-time editor of National Geographic magazine. Alexander himself officially served as Society president and unofficially served as a kind of warm-hearted grandfather to the organization. When he died in 1922, the September issue of National Geographic ran a full-page tribute to “Founder, former President and senior Trustee of the National Geographic Society,” which included a distinguished photographic portrait of the inventor (Dr. Bell, as he was later known, was quite fond of photography and was instrumental in making it a priority of the magazine).

Today, digitally flipping through the far back pages of National Geographic, I came upon several features in which Alexander Graham Bell was either the subject or contributor.  Of these, the most à propos was one particular article reporting on, “Voice Voyages by the National Geographic Society, A Tribute to the Geographical Achievements of the Telephone.

The March 1916 feature article reports on a dinner celebrating the 40th anniversary of the patent of the telephone, in which members of the society gathered at the “New Willard” hotel and embarked on “Voice Voyages” around the United States by making calls from coast to coast and from the Mexican border to the Canadian. Like any good travelogue, the article even maps the phone calls, showing exactly where the dinner guests “traveled” in one evening. An enthusiastic contributor expresses the great thrill felt by the distinguished dinner guests:

“Had they not heard the Pacific’s surf beat upon its rockbound coast, while they themselves were on the very threshold of the Atlantic!”

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On that March night, when members of National Geographic Society called El Paso, Texas, the speaker inquired of the listener on the other line, “Do you realize you are speaking to 800 people?” Today, with the buzzing hive that is social media, we can speak with thousands of people every second, and thousands of people are speaking back to us in turn. The instant flow of conversation throughout the global space constitutes a new kind of travel and offers a new digital geography where mind and experience connect any individual on any continent. Likewise, hashtags derive a kind of new road map of ideas and subjects, just like those early telegraph wires upon which the inventor of the telephone placed his first calls.

Surely Alexander Graham Bell was the original digital nomad. Not simply because he was an inventor who traveled extensively in his life (which he did), but more importantly, he was a man who devoted his entire life to the communicative concepts of travel—not only connecting people as they traveled from one place to another, but in the general movement of sound, light, air, and thought.

As I tweet my way around the world, tapping out each new 140-character-message from countries far and wide, I think of the time before, when agents tapped away on their telegraph machines and then later, when Aleck Bell played his pump organ in a house down the road, sending music back to the party guests at his house. The action itself was the transmission of sound and life from one place to another, but the overarching achievement was travel—shared travel.

Just as we did back in 1916, National Geographic is still exploring the “Geographical Achievements of the Telephone.” No longer is it a public phone call with 800 members gathered in a room—no, today it is an explosion of Twitter voices in the millions—a global conversation in which everything and all places in the world become connected and where someone sitting at a desk in Kansas can travel with me to Antarctica, Africa, Europe and even Ontario. I like to believe that our use of this new online reality is nothing more than a continuation of the original vision of an original founder of the National Geographic Society.

For the record, I am writing this blog post in Ontario, on a W-Fi connection labeled “Bell”. There are Bell phone booths out on the street as well—a reminder how a single hope of an idea was nourished in a leafy backyard not so far away from here and grew and grew until it changed the world.

For a man who changed humanity forever, Alexander Graham Bell was very humble. Yet he shared his own wisdom in public and in private, offering timeless quotes to live by:

“Don’t keep forever on the public road, going only where others have gone. Leave the beaten track occasionally and dive into the woods. You will be certain to find something you have never seen before.”

Such is travel—and as long as I’m still traveling, I intend to follow Dr. Bell’s advice.

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