Part 2: Alexander Graham Bell's capital addresses

By Carlene E. Stephens
View of Smithsonian Castle, 1863

Where does creativity reside? The first place we think of is the mind. But what role do surroundings play in the ideas behind invention and innovation? The first part of this story sketched out the growing importance of Washington, D.C., as a stimulating center for science and technology. Consider the following places in the city that figured prominently in the work of Alexander Graham Bell:

Smithsonian Institution Castle
1000 Jefferson Drive SW, Washington, D.C., 20560

Photo form above of Smithsonian Castle, trees, long road with people who appear small due to distance

Alexander Graham Bell had a long relationship with the Smithsonian. When he visited Joseph Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian, in the 1870s, the Smithsonian had only one building, which today is called the Castle.

On three occasions in 1880 and 1881, Bell and his associates deposited at the Smithsonian sealed tin boxes containing models and documentation of their sound inventions. The inventors hoped that the sealed boxes would prove their priority in invention in case of patent disputes.

Bell became a member of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents in 1898 and served until just before he died in 1922.

U.S. Patent Office (now the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture)
8th and F Streets NW, Washington, D.C., 20004

Image of large white building, cloudy sky, street scene in front with carriage

With the help of his Washington patent attorney Anthony Pollok, Bell received the basic patent for the telephone in 1876. A recent book—Christopher Beauchamp's Invented by Law: Alexander Graham Bell and the Patent That Changed America—outlines the crucial role of patent attorneys in protecting Bell's inventive rights and the monopoly of the telephone company. Pollok, a prominent figure in the capital city, was a partner in Pollok & Bailey, located near the patent office at 635 F Street NW.

Franklin School
925 13th St NW Washington, D.C., 20005

Black and white photo of building with turrets and trees in front

One of eight schools built to upgrade free public education in the city after the Civil War, the Franklin School served as a site for some of Bell's experiments with transmitting sound on light beams in 1880. Instrument maker Charles Sumner Tainter and Bell exchanged transmissions between the school and their first laboratory in Washington, D.C., nearby at 1325 L Street NW.

The Volta Laboratory
1221 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, D.C., 20036

After Bell received the patent for the telephone, he won the Volta Prize for achievement in electricity from the French government. With the prize money (about $10,000 in today's dollars), he funded a research laboratory in Washington to experiment with sound. His associates in the enterprise, which lasted from 1880 to 1885, were his chemist cousin Chichester A. Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter, an instrument maker he had known in Boston. The Volta Associates patented a new kind of sound recording and playback device called the graphophone and a new sound recording medium, the cylinder record.

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, D.C., 20500

Black and white photo of white house with black decorations around windows and wreaths hanging on columns

Charles J. Guiteau, gunned down President James Garfield at the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Station (on the southwest corner of 6th & Constitution NW) on July 2, 1881. The injured Garfield was transported to the White House, and his doctors began his protracted treatment. They probed his body for the bullet, but could not locate it. With the help of astronomer Simon Newcomb and Charles Sumner Tainter, Bell devised a metal detector, called an "induction balance," to help with the search. Although Bell tried twice to find the bullet lodged in the President, his efforts failed. Because the equipment tested successfully on Civil war veterans with bullets still lodged in their bodies, it's likely the president's mattress, a new type with coiled metal springs, interfered with the instrument's readings. (Garfield at first seemed to be recuperating, but died from an infection and internal hemorrhage on September 19, 1881.)

Tainter's Laboratory
2020 F Street NW, Washington, D.C., 20006

The Volta Association—Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester A. Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter—submitted patent applications in 1885 for their work together and dissolved shortly thereafter. Charles Sumner Tainter continued work on sound recording and oversaw the group’s products—the graphophone and the cylinder recording—into commercial production. For this effort he relocated to a new laboratory space. His residence was at the same address.

The Volta Bureau
1537 35th St NW, Washington, D.C., 20007 (also 3417 Volta Place, NW, Washington, D.C., 20007)

With the profits from his share of the Volta Laboratory's successes, Alexander Graham Bell established the Volta Bureau, an organization "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the Deaf." The bureau's first home was Bell's father's house at 1527 35th Street. When the institution outgrew their quarters, Bell constructed a neoclassic yellow brick and sandstone building across the street in 1893.

Ironically, although Bell called Washington his home, he traveled frequently and established a second residence in Nova Scotia. And four countries where he lived—Scotland, England, Canada and the United States—claim him as their own. But to me, he's a Washingtonian, and there is something completely absorbing about imagining the inventor working nearby 130 years ago, walking the same streets I do nearly every day. 

For more about the Volta Laboratory's sound experiments, see "Hear My Voice:" Alexander Graham Bell and the Origins of Recorded Sound, at the National Museum of American History until January 31, 2016. You can also explore the exhibition online.