Right to the Source
How do you learn about new scientific discoveries? In America, during the 19th century, one popular way people obtained new scientific information was through traveling lectures and science demonstrations, sometimes held in large halls called “lyceums.” Before the advent of radio and television, these were large public events designed to both educate and entertain. Often, such scientific demonstrations were great spectacles—as much or more about marketing and entertainment as they were about education.
The featured newspaper illustration, “Professor Bell in Lyceum Hall, Salem, addressing a party of scientific men in Boston,” shows a trial exhibition of Alexander Graham Bell’s recently invented telephone, with Professor Bell in Salem and his partner Watson in Boston. (Available online at www.loc.gov/item/2014645960/.) Bell first publically exhibited a long distance telephone call in Lyceum Hall, Salem, on February 12, 1877 (though interestingly, the caption to this picture provides a date of March 15).
Contemporary press accounts such as this one from the March 1, 1877, Eaton Democrat illustrate the degree to which showmanship played a part in the proceedings: “At one time Watson brought an organ into use, and ‘Should Auld Acquaintance’ and ‘Yankee Doodle’ were heard and heartily applauded in Lyceum Hall. Then a speech was called for, and the Salem people heard Mr. Watson say he was glad of the privilege of addressing them, although he was eighteen miles away.”
Invite your students to analyze both this illustration and related newspaper articles, making observations and reflecting on any insights that might be gained regarding communication and dissemination of scientific information to the public at different points in history. Their analysis might also serve as a springboard to reflect on how scientific information is disseminated, spread and understood today.
About the Source
The illustration of “Professor Bell in Lyceum Hall, Salem,” is available free online from the Library of Congress at: www.loc.gov/item/2014645960/. The Library also holds the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers. Nearly 5,000 items from the collection, including correspondence, scientific notebooks, and more are available online at www.loc.gov/collections/alexander-graham-bell-papers/about-this-collection/. The Eaton Democrat newspaper article is also available free online at: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88077272/1877-03-01/ed-1/seq-4/ within the Chronicling America Newspaper archive (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/). Both the Library of Congress and Chronicling America are searchable. Chronicling America also provides a topic page on “The Invention of the Telephone” with curated newspaper coverage at: www.loc.gov/rr/news/topics/telephone.html.
Related Student Explorations
Michael Apfeldorf (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an educational resources specialist at the Library of Congress.