Did you know that James Murray… was called ‘the grandfather of the telephone’?
2015 marks the centenary of the death of James Murray, the first Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Murray’s work as a lexicographer is well known, but there was a great deal more to him than lexicography. We are therefore marking the anniversary with an occasional series of articles highlighting other aspects of his life and achievements.
Did you know that James Murray was called ‘the grandfather of the telephone’—by the man who is often credited with inventing it? In 1861, fifteen years before he patented his ‘apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically’, the teenage Alexander Graham Bell received his first lesson in electricity from Murray, who was then in his twenties. Murray had become friends with Bell’s father, the elocutionist and phonetician Alexander Melville Bell, after attending one of his lectures. One day, while visiting Melville Bell’s house near Edinburgh, he was asked by the young Alexander to teach him something about electricity. Murray was an enthusiastic teacher—he was headmaster of a school in nearby Hawick—and the boy and the young man together constructed an electric battery, using halfpennies and discs of zinc.
The budding scientist never forgot this early lesson. In fact the two men became good friends, and in 1867 Bell (still only twenty) was best man at Murray’s wedding. (He slipped up in the same way that many best men have done: he told Murray over forty years later that he would ‘never forget the search for the ring’.) Few people got to know Murray well enough to get past his formal exterior, but Bell was apparently one of them: he later referred to him as ‘one of the kindest and gentlest men I ever met’.
It has even been suggested that the first ever working telephone was given to Murray by Bell in recognition of their friendship. Sadly the present occupant of Murray’s house in Oxford, the anthropologist Desmond Morris, searched for it in vain, and believes that if it ever was in the house, it may have been used as firewood by soldiers who were billeted there during World War Two.