Article: Transforming the Nation's Capital into a Place of Invention :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Amanda Murray, Project Assistant, Lemelson Center

Detail from a view of Pennsylvania Avenue with the U.S. Capitol in the background, 1870–1900. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Had your train rolled into the District of Columbia around 1870, you might not have thought it a particularly innovative place. Or even a particularly pleasant place. You might have been too distracted by the smell.

The Washington City Canal, part of Pierre L'Enfant's plan, fell into disuse in the late 1850s and became a stagnant open sewer. By 1870, the District was home to over 130,000 people who lacked basic sanitation. Things began to change with the Organic Act of 1871. A new city government took on the formidable task of modernizing the nation's capital. Alexander Shepherd, director of D.C.'s Board of Public Works, spent over $20 million to improve the city. Railroad tracks and streets were graded, sidewalks paved, bridges built, a water and sewer system installed, and trees planted. The squalid Tiber Creek section of the Washington City Canal was covered over and a new street--the future Constitution Avenue--was built in its stead.

Joseph Henry, first Secretary of the Smithsonian. From the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Washington's Reconstruction-era status as a swampy, undeveloped town belied the visionary activity brewing there. Federal agencies like the U.S. Patent Office made the city a science hub, where inventors and entrepreneurs convened and organizations sprouted to support invention, discovery, and economic development. At the helm of the Smithsonian Institution as its first Secretary, Joseph Henry made extraordinary contributions to the organization of American science, in addition to his own pioneering research in electromagnetism. In 1871, Henry founded the Philosophical Society of Washington, based on the Saturday meetings he hosted at his home for prominent men interested in science. The Society advanced science and learning, and fostered open debate among its members.

Another, perhaps surprising, participant in the city's transformation was Alexander Graham Bell. His connections to a growing network of science advocates and institutions reveal the capital as a burgeoning hot spot of innovation at the end of the 19th century.

In 1879, Bell moved with his family from Boston to Washington, where later he founded the Volta Laboratory with his Volta Prize winnings for the invention of the telephone. Bell envisioned that the lab would rely chiefly on his cousin Chichester Bell and colleague Charles Sumner Tainter, but also host a variety of revolving specialists. Complementing the lab was a special annex at Bell's home devoted to gatherings of the city's intellectual elite, including politicians, government officials, scientists, artists, writers, and musicians.

This network of connected individuals reflected the growth in formal, institutional support for Washington's scientific community. By 1900 there were ten scientific societies in Washington with a total membership exceeding 4,000. Congress founded the National Academy of Sciences in 1863; the Academy elected Bell as a member in 1883. The Cosmos Club, a gathering place for men of science and letters, began in 1878 in the home of geologist John Wesley Powell, director of the Smithsonian Bureau of Ethnology. The Anthropological Society was organized in 1879, the Biological Society in 1880, and the Chemical Society in 1884. Alexander Graham Bell's father-in-law, Gardiner Hubbard, founded the National Geographic Society in 1888, and Bell became its president in 1897. In 1898, Bell was elected to the Smithsonian's governing Board of Regents. He befriended Samuel Langley, then the Smithsonian Secretary, and the two men collaborated on aeronautical experiments.

For all this growth, one must remember that efforts to organize science in the second half of the 19th century did not extend equally to all practitioners. For example, in 1870, Dr. Nathan Smith Davis, founder of the American Medical Association (AMA), deliberately excluded the racially integrated National Medical Society from admission to the AMA. Ultimately, in 1884, a separate medical society was organized by a biracial group of physicians: the (still vital) Medico-Chirurgical Society of the District of Columbia.

Alexander Graham Bell Grosvenor, age 9, and Charles G. Abbot, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Science Service photo, October 1937.

Bell and fellow inventors at the Volta Laboratory made cutting-edge advances in recorded sound. In 1880 and 1881, Bell and Tainter deposited sealed boxes at the Smithsonian as insurance against competitors, proof of their inventions' precedence. The boxes went unopened until 1937. Inside were descriptions and illustrations of the Volta Lab's earliest successful sound-recording inventions, plus the devices themselves: the photophone, progenitor of modern fiber optics, which enabled the transmission of sound on a beam of light; and the graphophone, a "talking machine" to rival Thomas Edison's phonograph. The Smithsonian's Volta Laboratory collection grew in 1947, when Tainter's widow donated ten volumes of his Home Notes, detailed accounts of daily projects at the Volta Laboratory during the 1880s.

The Bell story sheds light on a historic network of individuals and organizations--both private and federal--dedicated to supporting revolutionary technologies and their inventors. Bell's work and connections in Washington augment our understanding not only of his inventive career but also of the city's evolution, and offer a unique lens through which to view the rebuilding of a capital city, and indeed, a nation.

From Prototype, February 2010

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