On March 7, here at The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal marked the 135th anniversary of Alexander Graham Bell's patent for the telephone by reproducing Bell's quirky sketch of the device, submitted as part of the patent application. Later, Alexis linked to more of Bell's "delightfully weird sketches," which he found in a Library of Congress online archive of the Bell family's papers.
Bell was 29 when he received the patent, which made him a wealthy man. He spent much of the next half-century pursuing eclectic interests in aviation, sheep genetics, and water desalination at Beinn Bhreagh, a gorgeous estate a few miles across the Bras d'Or Lake from my home. Bell is still a big deal around here, and Parks Canada operates a museum in his honor at nearby Baddeck, Nova Scotia.
Alexis's posts prompted me to explore the LOC's online database, where I turned up a curious episode in which Bell wrote President Theodore Roosevelt, asking him to intercede in the case of a black employee's Jim Crow treatment at the hands of Nova Scotia hoteliers. The story provides a rare glimpse into the Bell family's surprisingly progressive social attitudes.
Charles F. Thompson was nominally Bell's butler, but biographer Robert Bruce more aptly describes him as the absent-minded inventor's "chief proxy in coping with the gritty details of domestic life." Thompson was 18 and living in a Washington rooming house when he met the Bells in 1887. Fire had broken out in the Bells' nearby home, and while quickly extinguished, it left Bell's papers in disarray and suffering water damage. A housekeeper recruited the rooming house residents to help clean up. Thompson proved adept at the rare skill of deciphering Bell's scrawled handwriting, and this led to a permanent position.
Like Bell, Thompson eventually became a frequent seasonal resident of Baddeck. On a visit to nearby Sydney in late November, 1904, he and his wife tried to check into the Grand Hotel, but were turned away. In a severe downpour, they were rejected at four other hotels, before finding refuge at a sixth.
When Thompson returned to Baddeck with a serious cold, Bell and his circle of friends in the town were outraged. The inventor wrote first to the U.S. Consul in Sydney:
I know Mr. Thompson very well as he has been in my employment for about twenty years, if not more," he wrote the consul. "He is an upright, conscientious man in whom I have the highest confidence. He has traveled with me in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, France, Italy and Great Britain, as well as in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and never outside of his own country has he been discriminated against on account of his color except in Sydney, Cape Breton Island -- at least so far as I know.
However one may deplore the existence of the color line in certain parts of the United States, we have hotels there specially for colored people, so that the exclusion of a respectable colored man from a public hotel in our country does not work the hardship it does in Sydney. Exclusion from six of the hotels of Sydney resulted in turning these people out into the cold and wet, during one of the most severe storms of the season without a place where they could lay their heads...
Mr. Thompson is now lying ill in my house here as the result of the exposure, and his wife also is far from well. I propose to call the attention of the State Department in Washington to the necessity of providing protection for colored citizens of the United States in Canada -- so as to prevent the possibility of the repetition of another such outrage as this. There is nothing in the appearance of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, or in their manners or characters to justify exclusion from any hotel. There is so little of the negro in Mr. Thompson's appearance that he has often -- in foreign countries -- been taken for a Japanese, while his wife might well pass for Spanish.
Click on the image above for a full-sized copy of Bell's subsequent letter to the president, requesting a state department investigation. There is no indication of a reply. The Bells' Baddeck neighbors convened and delivered a letter of apology to the ailing Thompson:
We do not understand why a respectable couple (as we all know you to be) although colored, should be turned away from any Hotel, and we sincerely hope that you and Mrs. Thompson may long be spared to spend many summers on Canadian soil and receive treatment from the hands of the public that a gentleman of your esteem so well deserves.
Further poking around the Bell's online papers turned up Mabel Hubbard Bell's reflections on a farewell dance she staged for Thompson two years earlier, as he was preparing the leave Baddeck for Washington, where he was to be married. Mrs. Bell, a redoubtable figure in her own right, wrote:
I realized last night how impossible it would have been to have given an entertainment like that in Washington. The farmers and farm help might have been invited, buttheywouldnothavecome -- to greet a colored man -- and associate on equal terms with him -- the white girls would not have danced with a colored man like Charles -- even though -- as in this case -- he might have been gentlemanly in appearance and better educated than themselves.
[Mrs. Bell's emphasis. Click on ther image to view the entire journal entry.]
Alas, the Sydney episode was probably more typical of racial attitudes that prevailed in Nova Scotia at the time. Nova Scotia was a terminus for the Underground Railway, and more recent history is replete with examples of racism (here and here). Thompson's close association with the revered AGB undoubtedly played a key role in his acceptance by the Baddeck community.
Thanks to Baddeck historian and Bell buff Jocelyn Bethune for help piecing together the background of the story.
Parker Donham, a writer and consultant who lives on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, blogs at Contrarian.ca.
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
Some spoiler-y speculation on the final three episodes
With only three episodes left to go, Game of Thrones looks as though it once again has a lot of ground to cover before wrapping up a season. And so, for the curious and impatient among you, I’ll do my best to offer some quasi-informed speculation about what we might reasonably expect in these final weeks.
Note: I haven’t seen any of the remaining episodes, but I have read the books. The first five items below are spoiler-y, but the predictions in them do not derive from the George R. R. Martin novels. Rather, they’re guesswork based on what’s already happened on the show and on tidbits scattered across the web: a behind-the-scenes photo here, a close-read of a trailer there. (They could all, of course, turn out to be completely wrong.) The last four items, however, are based at least in part on events that take place in A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, so non-book-readers may want to skip them. And obviously anyone, book-reader or not, who’d prefer to go into these final episodes without preconceptions—who doesn’t want to know at least some of what will (probably) happen—should stop reading now.
A challenge based on four words of the law amounts to little more than politics dressed up as a legal argument.
The Supreme Court is about to decide another blockbuster case arising under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The specific issue is whether federal-tax subsidies are available to people who purchase health insurance from exchanges operated by the federal government or instead whether such subsidies are available only from exchanges established by the states. A decision in favor of the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell would most likely cripple the ACA in over thirty states and deprive millions of people of health insurance.
That the Supreme Court even agreed to hear the case is the result of an improbable conjunction of events. Two committed opponents of the ACA seized upon four words of the law out of almost 1000 pages, and through their persistent and energetic work, created a powerful soundbite that appealed to die-hard opponents of the ACA. They then took that sound bite and dressed it up in highly technical arguments about statutory interpretation that might well change how healthcare is paid for in the United States. But the soundbite is inaccurate, and the technical window dressing shouldn’t obscure the fact that the argument is based on a faulty reading of the text of the entire law as well as a misleading account of how and why the law was passed. At bottom, King v. Burwell is a political challenge to the ACA dressed up in legal garb.
People look to Amy Schumer and her fellow jokers not just to make fun of the world, but to make sense of it. And maybe even to help fix it.
This week, in a much-anticipated sketch on her Comedy Central show, Amy Schumer staged a trial of Bill Cosby in “the court of public opinion.” Schumer—her character, at any rate—played the role of the defense. “Let’s remind ourselves what’s at stake here,” she argued to the jury. “If convicted, the next time you put on a rerun of The Cosby Show you may wince a little. Might feel a little pang. And none of us deserve that. We don’t deserve to feel that pang.”
Her conclusion? “We deserve to dance like no one’s watching, and watch like no one’s raping.”
Ooof. This is the kind of thing that gets Inside Amy Schumer referred to as “the most feminist show on television,” and her act in general called, in a phrase that reveals as much about her craft as about Schumer herself, “comedy with a message.” But while Schumer’s work is operating at the vanguard of popular comedy, it’s also in line with the work being done by her fellow performers: jokes that tend to treat humor not just as an end in itself, but as a vehicle for making a point. Watch like no one’s raping.
We're all going to die and we all know it. This can be both a burden and a blessing.
In the heart of every parent lives the tightly coiled nightmare that his child will die. It might spring at logical times—when a toddler runs into the street, say—or it might sneak up in quieter moments. The fear is a helpful evolutionary motivation for parents to protect their children, but it's haunting nonetheless.
The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised parents to indulge that fear. “What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?”he wrote in his Discourses.
Some might say Epictetus was an asshole. William Irvine thinks he was on to something.
“The Stoics had the insight that the prospect of death can actually make our lives much happier than they would otherwise be,” he says. “You’re supposed to allow yourself to have a flickering thought that someday you’re going to die, and someday the people you love are going to die. I’ve tried it, and it’s incredibly powerful. Well, I am a 21st-century practicing Stoic.”
To be far from home in a major, diverse metropolis such as New York or Los Angeles is one thing. But those who have landed in small cities across the Midwest face a whole other sort of isolation.
CINCINNATI—When they were deciding where to settle down and raise a family, Lorena Mora-Mowry, a lawyer from Venezuela, and her husband Paul, a mechanical engineer from California, performed extensive research. Based on reports they read in magazines and brochures, they decided that Cincinnati, with its low cost of living, access to arts and the outdoors, and strong schools, would be a good place to live. They moved here in 1995.
It was a difficult transition from (relatively) open-minded, Latino-heavy Southern California to Cincinnati, where just about everybody was either white or black, and where immigrants were a rarity. Mora-Mowry tried to speak to people in stores, but they could never understand her accent, and she hated the long, cold winters.
The former speaker of the House is charged with lying to federal agents and evading financial reporting requirements in what appears to be a case of blackmail.
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert has been indicted on charges of lying to FBI agents and evading federal financial-reporting requirements.
Hastert, an Illinois Republican, was speaker from 1999 to 2007. BuzzFeed’s John Stanton, who first reported on the indictment, notes that there were several high-profile congressional scandals in those years. Illinois is also a notorious hotbed for political corruption, as Roland Burris, Rod Blagojevich, George Ryan, and Jesse Jackson Jr. can attest.
But reading between the lines of the indictment against Hastert suggests a darker story than political corruption. In or about 2010, according to the indictment, Hastert—a former high-school teacher and coach—met with an unnamed individual from Yorkville, Hastert’s hometown. They “discussed past misconduct by defendant against Individual A that had occurred years earlier.” In effect, Hastert fell victim to blackmail, the indictment alleges: He “agreed to provide Individual A $3.5 million in order to compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct against Individual A.” (Since leaving the House, Hastert has become a highly paid lobbyist.)
Can a political system be democratically legitimate without being democratic?
The flaws in China’s political system are obvious. The government doesn’t even make a pretense of holding national elections and punishes those who openly call for multiparty rule. The press is heavily censored and the Internet is blocked. Top leaders are unconstrained by the rule of law. Even more worrisome, repression has been ramped up since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, suggesting that the regime is increasingly worried about its legitimacy.
Some China experts—most recently David Shambaugh of George Washington University—interpret these ominous signs as evidence that the Chinese political system is on the verge of collapse. But such an outcome is highly unlikely in the near future. The Communist Party is firmly in power, its top leader is popular, and no political alternative currently claims widespread support. And what would happen if the Party’s power did indeed crumble? The most likely result, in my view, would be rule by a populist strongman backed by elements of the country’s security and military forces. The new ruler might seek to buttress his legitimacy by launching military adventures abroad. President Xi would look tame by comparison.
The danger of uploading one’s consciousness to a computer without a suicide switch
Imagine a supercomputer so advanced that it could hold the contents of a human brain. The Google engineer Ray Kurzweil famously believes that this will be possible by 2045. Organized technologists are seeking to transfer human personalities to non-biological carriers, “extending life, including to the point of immortality.” My gut says that they’ll never get there. But say I’m wrong. Were it possible, would you upload the contents of your brain to a computer before death, extending your conscious moments on this earth indefinitely? Or would you die as your ancestors did, passing into nothingness or an unknown beyond human comprehension?
The promise of a radically extended lifespan, or even immortality, would tempt many. But it seems to me that they’d be risking something very much like hell on earth.
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life.
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life. We've grown more adept at shaping these underground shelters and passages over the millennia, and today we dig for hundreds of reasons. We excavate to find both literal and cultural treasures, digging mines and unearthing archaeological discoveries. We use caverns for stable storage, for entertainment, and for an effective shelter from natural and man-made disasters. And as the planet's surface becomes ever more crowded, and national borders are closed, tunnels provide pathways for our vehicles and for smugglers of every kind. Collected below are more recent subterranean scenes from around the world.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.