Today in History

Today in History: June 3

Bell's Photophone

Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Graham Bell (detail),
Timoléon Lobrichon, artist,
photoprint of 1882 painting.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

On June 3, 1880, Alexander Graham Bell transmitted the first wireless telephone message on his newly invented photophone from the top of the Franklin School in Washington, D.C.

exterior of Franklin School
Franklin School, Wash., D.C.
Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographer,
Photographic print, [ca. 1900].
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Bell believed that the photophone was his most important invention. The device allowed the transmission of sound on a beam of light. Of the eighteen patents granted in Bell's name alone, and the twelve that he shared with his collaborators, four were for the photophone.

Bell's photophone worked by projecting the voice through an instrument toward a mirror. Vibrations in the voice caused similar vibrations in the mirror. Bell directed sunlight into the mirror, which captured and projected the mirror's vibrations. The vibrations were transformed back into sound at the receiving end of the projection. The photophone functioned similarly to the telephone, except that the photophone used light as a means of projecting the information and the telephone relied on electricity.

Although the photophone was an extremely important invention, it was many years before the significance of Bell's work was fully recognized. Bell's original photophone failed to protect transmissions from outside interferences—such as clouds, that easily disrupted transport. Until the development of modern fiber optics, technology for the secure transport of light inhibited use of Bell's invention. Bell's photophone is recognized as the progenitor of modern fiber optics.

The Library of Congress has a multitude of information related to Bell's life. Search the following collections:

Battle of Cold Harbor

Group portrait of soldiers
Cold Harbor, Va. Gen. Burnside and his staff at 9th Corps headquarters,
Engraving from a photograph by Mathew Brady,
July 23, 1864.
Selected Civil War Photographs

On June 3, 1864, the second battle of Cold Harbor began. After securing a costly victory at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Union General Ulysses S. Grant encountered Confederate troops as he made his way to Richmond. The Confederates, under command of General Robert E. Lee, were entrenched behind earthworks at Cold Harbor, a crossroads ten miles northeast of the Confederate capital. Over the course of the next nine days, the Union lost 7,000 men while the Confederates suffered 1,500 casualties. Grant moved on toward Petersburg and began the last major siege of the war. Confederate forces finally abandoned Petersburg and Richmond on April 2, 1865.

The first battle of Cold Harbor, also called the battle of Gaines' Mill, took place on June 27, 1862. It was part of the Seven Days' Battles (June 25-July 1) that ended General George McClellan's Peninsular Campaign -- an early attempt to capture the Confederate capital.

Learn more about the Civil War in American Memory: