Mohawk fingerprints on Bell’s telephone

TUTELA HEIGHTS – It would easy to know whose voice was transmitted in first recorded telephone call between Tutela Heights and Brantford’s downtown telegraph office, an amazing two miles away. That, of course, was the voice of a young Alexander Graham Bell speaking to Walter Griffin, the Dominion Telegraph Company. A historic plaque near Harmony Square marks the Colborne Street location. But not many people know that the other voice on the line that day along with Bell was his neighbour and close friend, Mohawk Chief George Johnson, the father of famous poet and lecturer, E. Pauline Johnson.

Hard to believe today, but in the 1870’s the Bell family of Tutela Heights and the Johnson family of Chiefswood considered each other neighbours and visited one other often. There is actually a picture of Bell and Johnson wearing each other’s best suit – Johnson in Bell’s business suit and Bell in Johnson’s best buckskins.

Chief Johnson was fascinated by Mr. Bell and his work, not only his work on the telephone, but also with the deaf. Johnson helped Bell with his invention by stringing barn-wire along the fenceposts at various distances to test his new invention. He is said to have strung the two miles of wire from the Bell Homestead to the Brantford office. He also worked with Bell on creating a written phonetic language based the Mohawk language.

When the big day was set for the unveiling of his new telephone, Bell made sure Johnson was among those media and industrialists gathered at Tutela Heights to witness the occasion.

News reports from that day recorded the Aug. 4,1876 historical event in great detail.

Once the invited guests arrived and were settled, and with silenced drama, Bell spoke into a cone connected to a box with wires running from it. There was no response. Bell tried again but this time Griffin responded, saying, “I can hear you splendidly.”

There were a few other words exchanged before Bell pulled off what was, no doubt, the first prank phone call in history. Giddy with excitement, Bell called Chief Johnson to the “talking machine” and told him to say something in Mohawk. Johnson leaned over and spoke into the funnel microphone saying, “Sago gatchi, ska na ka,” meaning, “good greetings cousin, how are you.”

Thinking there was a glitch in the system, Griffin responded, “What’s that? I can’t hear you now.”

Chuckling behind him, Bell told Johnson to say it again, which he went along with twice more times, totally confusing Griffin.

“Something is wrong professor,” he said. “Everything sounds all mulled up.”

Bell and his guests could not contain the joke any longer and broke out in laughter causing those in the Colborne Street telegraph office to ask if they were all drunk.

Bell took back the telephone and laughed, “You have insulted Chief Johnson. He’s been speaking to you in Mohawk.”

The Bell and the Johnson family were lifelong friends with Johnson teaching Bell to speak the Mohawk Language, which he became proficient at, often using it in his work with the deaf.

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