March 10, 2010
One hundred and thirty-four years ago today, Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call. “Mr. Watson,” he said into a transmitter, “Come here. I want to see you.” And Watson, in the next room, heard the words through a receiver.
Later, in his life Alexander Graham Bell would become a Smithsonian Institution regent and he would make a peculiar and bizarre journey to Genoa, Italy, to retrieve the remains of the Smithsonian’s founder, James Smithson, to bring them to the United States. (In life, the Englishman had never visited the States.)
It is the “proper thing to do,” Bell insisted in 1903, when he made the case to go get Smithson’s bones. The burial ground where Smithson was interred after his death in 1829 was being over run by a nearby stone quarry and the graves were being removed.
So the inventor of the telephone left promptly to recover the bones of the man who had given the United State $508,418 (about $10 million today) to create an institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”
Bell got back to Washington in January 1904 and Smithson’s casket was brought to the Smithsonian from the Washington Navy Yard by a cavalry detachment traveling along Pennsylvania Avenue.
The crypt, where the founder was laid to rest, can still be seen inside the Smithsonian Castle’s north entrance vestibule.
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