Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Team Meucci

Antonio Meucci and Alexander Bell.

Antonio Meucci and Alexander Bell.

I’m filing this one under, “Better Late Than Never.”

It’s a Tom Ayers story that appeared in the Chronicle Herald on March 22 and about which I keep meaning to say something.

On the surface, it’s a story about the descendants of Alexander Graham Bell disputing the $885,200 tax assessment on Beinn Breagh, the ancestral pile in Baddeck. But really, it’s about who invented the telephone (and the the alleged anti-Graham Bell bias of an adjudicator on the Nova Scotia Assessment Appeal Tribunal.) It’s fantastic.

That adjudicator, Raffi Balmanoukian, is a real estate lawyer who teaches at Mount Saint Vincent University and has a love-hate relationship with airlines. (Don’t look at me, it’s in his MSVU bio.) In his ruling on the Beinn Breagh case, he said the appellants had failed to present sufficient evidence that the assessment was too high. But he didn’t stop there. In fact, he didn’t even start there, according to Ayers, he led off with a little rant against Alexander Graham Bell:

If Antonio Meucci had renewed his patent office caveat for his ‘sound telegraph’ this appeal may not have been before me today.

Instead, the name Dr. Alexander Graham Bell is forever associated with the telephone, making everything ever connected — if I may be forgiven the use of ‘connection’ — with his name sacred writ to historians and aficionados.

I confess I am not a fan of his claim to fame. I do however give him his full due to that great contribution to global communication and understanding, a small magazine of magnificent photography and an iconic yellow border — National Geographic. I understand the . . . family still holds property in the region. If I remember my high school escapades into Trivial Pursuit correctly, Baddeck at one time was the smallest town depicted on NatGeo’s global maps.

This mille-feuille of weirdness sent me scuttling all over the web to learn more about Meucci (apologies to those of you long familiar with his tragic story). He was (I read in the Guardian), an “impoverished Florentine immigrant” who was born in 1808 and studied design and mechanical engineering at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence:

[A]s a stage technician at the city’s Teatro della Pergola [he] developed a primitive system to help colleagues communicate.

In the 1830s he moved to Cuba and, while working on methods to treat illnesses with electric shocks, found that sounds could travel by electrical impulses through copper wire. Sensing potential, he moved to Staten Island, near New York City, in 1850 to develop the technology.

When Meucci’s wife, Ester, became paralysed he rigged a system to link her bedroom with his neighbouring workshop and in 1860 held a public demonstration which was reported in New York’s Italian-language press.

Ester was so grateful, she “sold his machines for $6 to a secondhand shop,” forcing him to develop a more sophisticated prototype which he patented. But he couldn’t afford a “definitive patent” ($250) so in 1871 opted for a $10, one-year renewable patent (or “caveat”) which, three years later, he could not afford to renew.

Bell patented his own telephone in 1876 but according to Team Meucci members like John LaCorte, a former president of the Italian Historical Society of America, he did so in a most nefarious way. LaCorte told the New York Times in 1978:

The curator of the patent office was a drunkard. Bell brought him a bottle of whisky, and he was allowed to go through the files. Meucci’s original papers were never found after that. Bell never even attended a school of electricity. How can he have had the knowledge needed?

German stamp featuring Philip Johann Reis with a later (but not particularly more practical) version of his telephone.

German stamp featuring Philip Johann Reis with a later (but not particularly more practical) version of his telephone.

Interestingly, a similar conspiracy theory involving an alcoholic patent clerk arose to explain how Bell beat another rival — Elisha Grey — to the telephone patent. Bell denied having bribed anyone or stolen any ideas, but both Meucci and Grey remain contenders for the title “inventor of the telephone” (as do Thomas Alva Edison and Johann Philipp Reis).

For what it’s worth (rough estimate: not much), the US Congress declared Meucci the inventor of the telephone on 11 June 2002 and the Canadian Parliament declared Bell the inventor of the telephone on 21 June 2002.

My research (read: “fevered googling”) suggests that the telephone, like most inventions, was based on the work of a number of people and the most common claim now made for Bell is that he invented the first “practical” telephone. (Reis’s first phone, for example, which involved a carved wooden ear, knitting needles and a violin was many things but “practical” was probably not one of them). Bell is also widely credited for his work with the deaf and sometimes gets a nod for his interest in aviation, although his involvement with National Geographic doesn’t seem to have impressed other commentators as much as it did Balmanoukian. (And is a little awkward, anyway, given National Geographic’s recent apology for decades of racism.)

My heart, though, always goes out to the underdog and I can’t help but sympathize with Meucci, who lost his patent for want of $10 and died broke, over Bell, who died in a mansion having spawned a company that once billed me for digging a ditch to lay a cable across the back yard of an apartment I was renting.

But what I kept thinking while reading Ayers’ article was “What would happen to the Alexander Graham Bell Museum if Balmanoukian had his way?” Presumably, it would either be turned into a large National Geographic kiosk or be renamed the Antonio Meucci Museum (although there already is one of those in Staten Island and there’s also an Antonio Meucci Centre in Montreal). Meucci’s story is so fascinating (I’ve only scratched the surface here) it would certainly make for a good side exhibit at the Bell Museum (apologies to the Bell Museum if it already is).

Oh, and the other thing I kept thinking was: I wonder who Balmanoukian thinks wrote Shakespeare’s plays?



Tim Bousquet of the Halifax Examiner often wonders how newspapers like the Chronicle-Herald expect to sell ads when they’re giving the stuff away in the form of puff piece “business” stories.

Mrs Beasley

Mrs Beasley

I’ve been noticing the same trend at our own beloved Cape Breton Post, which is not surprising, given both the Herald and the Post are SaltWire publications.

I think the “news” story in Thursday’s Post about the online shopping service at Atlantic Superstore is one of the more egregious examples of the genre. What should have been a big Superstore ad telling people they can now order their groceries online, have a “personal shopper” assemble them, then pick them up without leaving the comfort of their vehicles was instead treated as “news,” even though it’s actually a slightly inferior version of the kind of grocery delivery service I’m told most stores on the island used to offer 50 years ago, when you could phone in your “order” and have it delivered.

The funny thing about this type of story is that the reporter writing it inevitably throws all pretense of that much-vaunted mainstream news value, “objectivity,” out the window. The business at the heart of the story, no matter what kind of business it is, is presented as a positive thing because BUSINESS.

The Superstore article is probably no worse than any of the other business “stories” we’ve been treated to lately, but it makes the unforgivable (to me) error of ending with a quote incorporating the word “hubby.” (Although how great is it that the woman preparing the groceries for pickup is named Pickup?):

One of the personal shoppers at the Sydney River store says her daughter lives in Halifax with a husband and two young children, who take advantage of the service all the time.

“She loves it,” said Atlantic Superstore employee Margaret Pickup.

“The hubby picks up the groceries after work and can be home an hour-and-a-half early.”

On the bright side, it sent me searching the Onion archives for an appropriate Jean Teasedale quote. For those of you unfamiliar with Jean, she’s been a regular columnist at the Onion for years, inevitably refers to her husband as “hubby Rick,” and never disappoints: she was writing about online shopping in 1999 (when it was, arguably, news):

I first heard about eBay this past Friday from Sharon, one of my co-workers at SouthCentral Insurance. She told me she’d gotten a rare Star Wars action figure for her husband’s birthday through eBay for just a few bucks. “It’s like this big flea market where you bid for things like an auction,” Sharon said, “only it’s all done through cyberspace!”

 It didn’t take me long to put two and two together. “Do you think they would have Mrs. Beasley dolls for sale?” I asked.

Jean (whose mother had given her original Mrs. Beasley to St. Vincent de Paul) ends up spending $200 on a mint condition replacement.

“Hubby Rick” is not impressed.


Where’s Cecil?

On Wednesday, in my regular weekly “Where’s Cecil?” feature, which tracks CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke’s campaign for the provincial PC leadership in terms of how much time he’s taking off his day job to conduct it, I had only one entry — a meet-and-greet in Baddeck on Tuesday afternoon.

But Clarke also attended the Preston-Dartmouth PC Association annual meeting in Lake Echo Wednesday night. He just didn’t make a public announcement on Facebook until after the fact.

In his defense, Preston-Dartmouth PC Association AGMs apparently have a certain Brigadoon quality to them — this was the first one in five years. (I believe the correct term, in that case, is Quinquennial General Meeting, but let’s not be pedantic.)

If Clarke was in Dartmouth Wednesday night, then he presumably took Wednesday off to get there and Thursday off to return to the CBRM (if, indeed, he did return to the CBRM).

As for the meeting, Clarke claims “many people are excited about rebuilding this association,” and he was there so I guess we have to take his word for it.