When Alexander met the Queen. The ingenious Mr Graham Bell

6th October 2016
Queen Victoria had an inquisitive and inquiring mind, always keen to keep up with the latest developments in technology. So when, in January of 1878, she had an opportunity to participate in a demonstration of the newly invented telephone in her own home - and by none other than its inventor, Mr Alexander Graham Bell - she was suitably impressed. And, as you shall see, also 'amused.'
photo of elderly Victorian lady, the Queen, smiling
Queen Victoria.

Alexander Graham Bell - a brief history

Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), the celebrated scientist and inventor was Scottish by birth. But by the time of our story, he had already made his home in the United States. He seems almost to have been born to the business of helping people communicate. His father and grandfather were both involved in the teaching of elocution. And Bell himself, in the US, pioneered a system of visible speech that could be used to teach deaf-mute children.

In 1872 he founded a school in Boston to train teachers of the deaf. This eventually became part of Boston University. Bell himself became professor of vocal physiology there in 1873. And among his students was the famous and thoroughly remarkable Helen Keller, who was both deaf and blind.
Victorian gent, Alexander Graham Bell, half profile photo, beard and moustache
Alexander Graham Bell.

Vocal Communication

It's easy to forget that the Victorian era, despite its reputation for organisation and reliability, was without vocal communication of any kind over distance. People communicated by post, or by telegraph with all the inevitable delays that these methods entailed. By 1875, however, Alexander Graham Bell had developed (as had others) a means of transmitting voice instantly by electronic means.

He was granted the patent in 1876 for a new-fangled invention called the ‘telephone.’ Subsequently, he began setting up a network of exchanges between individual phones, establishing the Bell Telephone Company. His visit to England in 1878 included a demonstration of his invention at the Queen’s island residence of Osborne House.
old Illustration of Italianate building, Osborne House
Victoria's principal royal residence Osborne House.
banner image of queen victoria face with red text, black background
19th century man with beard and early form of telephone
Movie actor portraying Bell with his invention.
As you can see, the early telephone was a lot different in design and relatively primitive in appearance even by early 20th century standards a few decades later. But it developed very quickly. The model shown to the Queen was already more sophisticated than the one in the above picture.


Victoria was intrigued and saw the potential for the invention straight away. At the time, Britain was embroiled in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78. This was a conflict between the Ottoman Empire and a coalition of Russia and the Balkan states. Telegrams and letters were pouring in for the Queen’s consideration. The sheer quantity of these - in which she invariably took a lively interest - had become almost overwhelming, as one of her journal entries for the month of Bell's visit demonstrates:

20th January 1878
‘…there is such constant telegraphing and writing, and receiving telegrams and letters, that one gets quite bewildered.’
Elderly Victorian lady, Queen Victoria, seated at writing desk
Victoria at her writing desk.

The Demonstration

Bell’s visit had taken place just a few days earlier. The demonstration itself was recorded in the Queen’s journal for Monday 14th January 1878.

'After dinner we went to the Council Room and saw the Telephone. A Professor Bell explained the whole process, which is most extraordinary. It had been put in communication with Osborne Cottage, and we talked with Sir Thomas and Mary Biddulph, also heard some singing quite plainly. But it is rather faint, and one must hold the tube close to one's ear. The man, who was very pompous, kept calling Arthur Lord Connaught! which amused us very much.'

Osborne cottages, where a second telephone was placed, were on the same estate but still a fair distance from the Queen’s Residence. So the phone call would have been an impressive undertaking. Apparently, a certain Miss Kate Field was situated at the cottage, as well. And from here she gave a rendition on piano and sang 'Comin thro the Rye' into the mouthpiece.
piece of Victorian electronic telephony of antique appearance

The Osborne Cottage terminal.

Prince Arthur

The ‘Arthur’ referred to in the journal, by the way, is Victoria’s seventh child, Prince Arthur. He was Duke of Connaught by title rather than a mere ‘Lord.’ (Presumably the unfortunate man described in the journal as ‘very pompous’ would not have been Mr Bell himself but rather his assistant at the cottage and one unfamiliar with the complex hierarchy of English titles.)
young Victorian man, seated, smiling
Duke of Connaught, for Heaven's sake, man! Not Lord Connaught.
Apart from that little slip, the event does seem to have gone off well. A triumph of publicity and salesmanship. But Bell was not done yet. Later that evening, he was able to take advantage of the already rudimentary phone network in England. He connected the Queen and the Duke to, firstly, nearby Cowes - from where they came a selection of four-part songs. This was followed by a call to Southampton - where a bugle retreat was sounded (which particularly excited the young Duke). Finally, he connected them, over a whopping distance of 74 miles, to London. Here, the national anthem 'God Save the Queen' was played down the line on an organ! With each connection there was also a clear and fluent conversation possible.

An Exchange of letters

The very next day, the then Keeper of the Privy Purse, Major Biddulph sprang into action. He had, as we have seen, been stationed at the cottage with Lady Biddulph during the initial experiment. He wrote to Bell on behalf of the Queen, requesting whether her Majesty might keep the telephones. His letter, in the BT archives, really does provide a delightful glimpse into the graciousness of the age.
facsimile of letter
Bell replied straight away. And his response, also by letter was no less gracious. It shows that he was, indeed, a shrewd business-man as well as a clever inventor.

Dear Sir
I feel highly honoured by the gratification expressed by Her Majesty, and by her desire to possess a set of Telephones. The instruments at present in Osborne are merely those supplied for ordinary commercial purposes, and it will give me much pleasure to be permitted to offer the Queen a set of Telephones to be made expressly for Her Majesty’s use.
I am, dear Sir,
     Yours very respectfully,
         Alexander Graham Bell.
From that day forth, the telephone would become a valuable fixture at the royal residence of Osborne. And many places elsewhere. An ingenious piece of marketing in an era of courtesy and refinement.
old advertisement for telephony, lady on phone
Another glimpse at the early design.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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