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Thursday, March 7, 2019

Alexander Graham Bell and the St. Denis Hotel


On March 7, 1876, the US Patent Office granted Alexander Graham Bell the patent for his brand-new telephone or "harmonic telegraph." Bell was in a race to secure a patent with Elisha Gray, who'd essentially invented the same device; there's been controversy ever since as to which person should get credit. At least one reason Bell received the patent is that his lawyer showed up at the patent office first.

Some in Bell's corner argue that the patent itself is less important than the fact that he was the first to get a telephone to actually work, on March 10, 1876, when Bell was able to summon his assistant by saying "Watson, come here" into a working phone.



It was also Bell who successfully demonstrated the telephone was more than just a novelty. Of particular importance was his demonstration at the St. Denis Hotel in Greenwich Village in early May 1877 was instrumental in getting the technology adopted.

The St. Denis was opened in 1853, just across from Grace Church. Both buildings had been designed by James Renwick, who would later go on to build St. Patrick's Cathedral. (James wrote a story about Renwick's buildings in the Village for The New York Post, which you can read at https://nypost.com/2018/06/06/the-secret-legacy-of-the-architect-behind-st-patricks.)

Billed as the "most centrally located hotel in the city," the St. Denis was within walking distance of most of New York's prime theaters, restaurants, and department stores, many of which lined Broadway south of Union Square. The hotel quickly developed a celebrity clientele, including first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who stayed there during one of her frequent trips to the city. Ulysses S. Grant worked on his memoirs at the hotel and, when he was stuck with writer's block, his publisher, Mark Twain, moved in for three months to get him over the hump.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
Though [Alexander Graham Bell] had already patented the device and made public demonstrations of its efficacy—[including a call from Boston to] Providence, Rhode Island, 43 miles away—he hadn’t yet found a market for it. At the St. Denis a crowd of about 50 filled the drawing room on the second floor where Bell made telephone calls to the A and P Telegraph office in Brooklyn, using wire strung across the not-yet-completed Brooklyn Bridge. In the audience were potential financial backers, such as Cyrus Field, the president of the company that 11 years earlier had successfully laid the first transatlantic telegraph cable. 
At least one observer at the St. Denis, telegraph pioneer Walter P. Phillips, derided the invention as “a toy, if not an absolute humbug.” But it is clear that others were impressed. Later that year, the first telephone was installed—connecting J.H. Haigh’s home on John Street to his factory in Brooklyn. By 1878, the first telephone directory was published: it contained 252 listings: 235 businesses and 17 people who had telephones installed at home.
Alas, the St. Denis hotel -- converted into an office building in the early part of the 20th century -- is now slated for demolition, so that it can be replaced with a 12-story glass tower.

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