JF Ptak Science Books Post 2323
Alexander Graham Bell was already mega-famous by the time he unveiled what he considered to be one of his greatest inventions. Working at his L Street lab as well as from his home (which was just a few blocks away from my store in Georgetown, which was at the 34th & Volta Place, also just a few doors away from Alger Hiss' old place, and a few doors the other way from Warren Christopher's house where he slipped and fell on his last day in DC on the snowy steps and sidewalk that he never shoveled, and so on) he developed the photophone. In the day, in 1880, when it was completed he considered the work so substantial and filled with so much potential that he left his plans on deposit in a sealed something-or-other until he announced the results for real, which came at a public lecture on August 27, 1880. (This perhaps for the big taste of legal trouble he got into with his telephone--troubles and contentiousness that would continue for years. Also there was something in the air about this, so to speak, with an article in Nature attesting to rivals of the ingenious invention coming in the 23 May issue of the same year.) In any event, he found this invention to surpass his telephone and phonograph--except that few people today recall the instrument, much less what it did1.
It was a fantastic thing, an elegant device utilizing his discovery of the photoacoustic effect--basically, transmitting wireless telephone conversations, transmitting speech on light rays, a feat that would not be utilized until the last two decades of the 20th century, a precursor to fibre-optic communication--it was just decades away from practical application.
In his article in Nature of September 23, 1880, electrical pioneer Sylvanus Thompson writes (opening that weekly issue) that "sounds can be transmitted from one station to another wherever a beam of light can be flashed; ...we may expect the slow spelling out of words in flashing signals of the heliograph to be superceded by the more expeditious whispers of the photophone" (page 481). Actually it seems that this paper beat the sponsor organization of Bell's August address into general print, though The Electrician seems to have bested them both with an article on September 18.
Bell was happy. According to Ben Richmond at Motherboard, Bell wrote a lovely note to his father on his success:
“I have heard articulate speech by sunlight! I have heard a ray of the sun laugh and cough and sing! ...I have been able to hear a shadow and I have even perceived by ear the passage of a cloud across the sun's disk.”
1. Wiki quotes Donald J.C. Phillipson and Neilson, Laura, entry on Bell in the Canadian Encyclopedia online. "Of the 18 patents granted in Bell's name alone, and the 12 he shared with his collaborators, four were for the photophone, which Bell referred to as his 'greatest achievement', telling a reporter shortly before his death that the photophone was "the greatest invention [I have] ever made, greater than the telephone." Wiki and Philipson/Neilson.