Crowdfunding a Museum for Alexander Graham Bell in 1922

Long before the age of Kickstarter, Hugo Gernsback used his magazine to garner interest for a monument devoted to the inventor of the telephone

Hugo Gernsback’s 1922 proposal for a monument to Alexander Graham Bell
Hugo Gernsback’s 1922 proposal for a monument to Alexander Graham Bell Public Domain

Crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are great for bands trying to finance an album or independent filmmakers hoping to shoot a movie. But it’s interesting to see these alternative finance tools being used more and more for projects that are often associated with large public institutions — namely, monuments and museums.

Last year, a group in Detroit raised over $67,000 to build a Robocop statue. And as of this writing Matthew Inman of the popular webcomic The Oatmeal has raised over $700,000 (of his $850,000 goal) to build a Tesla Museum. Trevor Owens, a digital archivist with the Library of Congress, had an interesting post on his personal blog last week about why cultural heritage organizations should be paying close attention to these new methods of funding.

But crowdfunding a monument isn’t an entirely new idea. In 1922, Hugo Gernsback hoped to build a monument and museum in New York dedicated to the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell. Gernsback’s magazine, Science and Invention, was especially popular with amateur inventors so he brought his appeal directly to them in the October 1922 issue, just two months after Bell’s death in August.

“It is thought that if every inventor in the United States would subscribe only $1.00, the monument could be built,” Gernsback wrote. Readers of Science and Invention were encouraged to send in a coupon which could be clipped from the bottom of the page, expressing whether they’d support such a monument. Inventors weren’t asked to send money right away, but instead were asked to pledge support. If enough support was shown it’s assumed that Gernsback would then solicit donations in a future issue. In a similar way, sites like Kickstarter ask for people to pledge money and that money is only taken if a project’s funding goal is met.

From the October 1922 issue of Science and Invention magazine:

This illustration depicts a proposed monument to Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the Telephone, who died recently. The idea of a monument was proposed by Mr. H. Gernsback, Editor of this magazine, and the idea is as follows:

Somewhere alongside Riverside Drive, New York, or some other prominent point, a monument in the form of a telephone receiver, from 200 to 250 feet high, should be erected, somewhat along the lines of the design show. The Monument would be built entirely of black marble or dark granite.

The interior would be hollow, with the exception of the foundation on which the imitation telephone receiver rests. This bottom section could be fitted out as a museum with all the historical models of Dr. Bell’s inventions, which could be houses here for the benefit of visitors and students.

It would seem proper that the American inventors should get together and build a lasting monument of this kind by popular subscription. A voting coupon is printed on the bottom of this page, where readers may vote as to their opinion on the plan outlined. It is thought that if every inventor in the United States would subscribe only $1.00, the monument could be built.

This, if you recall, wasn’t the only monument Gernsback wanted to build. Also in 1922 Gernsback proposed building a 1,000 foot tall monument to electricity. He hoped the monument would stand as a testament to future civilizations, explaining precisely what technological breakthroughs had been accomplished in the early 20th century. Sadly neither monument was ever built, though Bell does have his own monument in Brantford, Ontario, Canada which was completed in 1917, well before his death in 1922. Bell also has his own museum in Baddeck, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The United States does have the Volta Laboratory and Bureau in Washington, D.C., though it was built by Bell himself in 1893.

Listen to long-lost recordings made by the Volta Laboratory, the studio of Alexander Graham Bell: