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The Bettini-Hall Connection
Dr. Alexander Wilford Hall

On the afternoon of May 22, 1886, John W. Keely demonstrated the vibra-phone-liberator, a motor he had constructed that was purportedly powered by sound amplifications. Among the observers who gathered in Keely’s Philadelphia workshop was an eccentric inventor-writer-editor-publisher-philosopher-theologian named Dr. Alexander Wilford Hall. Just as Keely ran a violin bow over a tuning fork to “activate” his device, Hall shouted: “It doesn’t seem relevant or essential to the working of the machine! Are you willing to have a test of scientific men to show that the tuning fork is necessary?”

“Yes, any time,” Keely replied.

But Hall was just warming up: “I was sent here from New York to investigate this. I believe this tuning fork business is for show. The papers all call this a fraud.”

At that, Keely’s lawyer intervened: “Dr. Hall, if you’re not satisfied, you can leave the room!”

Hall triumphantly asked Keely: “Do you want me to leave?”

The latter, who was so upset he stopped the demonstration, somewhat regained his composure and said: “No, you’ve treated me badly, but I wouldn’t treat you so badly as to put you out.”

Keely demonstrating his motor (ca. 1886)

He then primed the vibraphone-liberator, which successfully fired bullets into plates. There were cheers from the assemblage. All those present cheered, with the exception of Dr. Alexander Wilford Hall.

Undoubtedly, Hall wanted the experiment to fail and hoped to expose Keely as a charlatan. Hall was an often contentious and intolerant character, much given to jealousy. And that was especially true in his attitude toward other inventors. He had many enemies. For example, M. J. Thompson, Professor of Sciences at Garfield University, in Wichita, Kansas, critiqued a book written by Hall in, Evolution of Sound Evolved– A Review of the Article Entitled ‘The Nature of Sound’ In The Problem of Human Life: “The Doctor’s vanity is astounding … His personality has utterly crushed out independence of thought … The spirit in which The Problem of Human Life is written is abominable. Eliminate the abuse and the volume would shrink to half its size.”

John Worrell Keely

But Hall could be flexible at times, and after a return visit to Keely the following July 24th, he apologized and became his ardent supporter, remarking in the July 1886 edition of The Scientific Arena, a journal he both edited and published: “… Mr. Keely has made startling discoveries, both in a new and undreamed-of motor’s power and its mechanical application to machinery, as astonishing as they are novel. Mr. Keely justly complains that the Scientific American editors who keep up the hue and cry of humbug and fraud against him have refused the most urgent invitations to come to Philadelphia and witness the operations of his discoveries before ridiculing them.”

Hall again revisited Keely and wrote in the issue of November 1896: “Upon the 24th of September, the editors of The Arena, in company of ten other gentlemen, accepted Mr. Keely’s invitation to witness some experiments at his shop, of a character to illustrate the line upon which his investigations have run all of these years … We were assured by those familiar with the work, and in the confidence of the inventor, that the end is at hand when the reality of the process will be established beyond controversy by the perfect and public utilization of the power in doing great and continuous work.”

There was no further mention of Keely in additional Scientific Arena numbers, nor was there any in The Microcosm, Hall’s later scientific and philosophical publication. And I do not know if Hall invested in The Keely Motor Company. If he had, he would have lost money, as did all the other stockholders, among whose number was multi-millionaire J. P. Morgan. At the time of Keely’s death in 1898, his motor was still in the experimental stage, and had never been brought to market. To this day there is debate as to whether Keely was a technical genius in the mold of Nikola Tesla, or a skillful bunko artist.

Lieutenant G. Bettini

One inventor that Hall had a surprisingly cordial relationship with was Lieutenant Gianni Bettini. However, to some extent, Hall may have praised Bettini’s phonographic achievements in order to minimize those of Thomas A. Edison. On the surface, Hall and Bettini did have much in common. Both shared a fascination with talking machines, for one thing. But the Lieutenant, while quite an emotional individual, who was occasionally driven to deep anger, was generally affable and well-liked, in contrast to the argumentative Dr. Hall.

When Hall began working on his talking machine remains unknown, but he filed a patent application for it on November 29, 1878. U.S. Patent No. 219,939 (erroneously listed as No. 219,739 in the earlier editions of From Tin Foil to Stereo, but corrected in the more recent volume) was granted to Hall on September 23, 1879, making him the second phonograph patentee in the United States.

His machine was quite unique, employing a two-pointed needle placed between identical mandrels, which rotated in opposite directions. Both sides of sound waves were utilized to produce two recordings, a half phase apart. These could be played back in a synchronized fashion so that the resulting sound was of much greater volume than the Edison phonograph. Still too, Hall’s device was ahead of its time because it used horns rather than listening tubes. A working prototype is owned by the Smithsonian Institute, which kindly photographed it for me in the 1970s.

Hall’s U.S. Patent No. 219,939
Hall’s phonograph diaphragm patent

Hall’s double-mandrel instrument was the only complete phonograph he ever patented. But Allen Koenigsberg’s Patent History of the Phonograph, 1877-1912 includes Hall’s telephone diaphragm (U.S. Patent No. 413,782), patented on October 29, 1889. This invention was also devised for use in phonographs and its radial design was very similar to the micro-diaphragm patented by Bettini on August 13, 1889.

Photo of Hall's phonograph
courtesy Smithsonian Institute

The fact that they were independently working on almost identical projects did not at all hinder the mutual admiration that developed between Bettini and Hall. On January 8, 1892, the Lieutenant wrote Hall a laudatory letter which, in part, said: “Allow me to congratulate you … It seems to me very strange that both of us, nearly at the same time, should have the same thought … you, in describing a theory absolutely new and me in working out a machine based on the same, without either of us knowing the work of the other. My application for my machine gave manifest proof of the correctness of this theory in 1888.”

Dr. J. Mount Bleyer

In his writings, Hall accurately asserted that sound waves, rather than air waves, enable phonographs to record. He further postulated that they hit different sectors of a diaphragm, depending on the pitch and timbre of the sound, thus causing the vibrating stylus to indent a surface in a winding pattern.

Lieutenant Bettini’s close friend, Dr. Julius Mount Bleyer, the physician to many stars of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, and himself the designer of an unpatented phonograph diaphragm, was also very much impressed by Hall. Within his widely-circulated article, published in The International Medical Magazine of October 1892 and Journal of the American Medical Association of November 1892, entitled: “The Edison Phonograph and Bettini Micro-Phonograph, The Principles Underlying Them and the Fulfillment of their Expectations,” Dr. Bleyer wrote: “And while it is no disparagement to the great inventor [i.e. Bettini] that he fails to solve the mystery of mysteries in acoustical science [i.e. why a phonograph is able to record and reproduce sound] it is but just to history here to place on record the fact that one writer alone of all contemporary scientific and philosophical investigators has been able to accomplish this task. I here refer to Dr. Wilford Hall.” Dr. Bleyer’s article then quoted from Hall’s writings regarding the nature of sound.

Hall had several piano patents

Sometime in late 1891 or early 1892, Hall visited Bettini’s Judge Building laboratory. As a result of these contacts, the February 1892 issue of The Microcosm published a feature article which described Bettini’s micro-phonograph as an invention: “… of marvelous power and perfection and stamps its inventor as a man of surpassing mechanical genius.” This praise was followed by an unequivocal putdown of Thomas A. Edison’s work: “Compared with this, the latest and grandest of talking machines, the Edison phonograph, even as perfected, be- comes a second-rate device.”

The February 1892 issue of The Microcosm

I do not know if Bettini and Hall continued to be in contact during the years after 1892.

The end of Dr. Alexander Wilford Hall’s life was especially tragic. On the evening of March 7, 1902, the ferryboat “Buffalo” travelling from Weehawken, New Jersey, was docking at Manhattan’s 42nd Street pier. Several deckhands aboard a nearby tug saw an elderly man jump into the water and immediately told their skipper to head for him. He was wedged between ice floes and was about to disappear beneath the surface of the freezing Hudson River, when the tug crew literally fished him out with boathooks. Half-drowned, the man was bitter: “What did you save me for? I only wanted to die. I swallowed enough water to make me sink and let the waves wash over me,” he told his rescuers. The elderly man was charged with attempted suicide and an ambulance transported him to Roosevelt Hospital, where his condition was listed as “serious.” The distraught and frozen would-be suicide was Dr. Alexander Wilford Hall.

A reporter from The New York Daily Tribune went to Hall’s residence at 259 West 130th Street in Manhattan, and was met by a servant who said that Mrs. Hall had been informed of the incident, but would not go to Roosevelt Hospital. However, she and a nephew, one A. P. Riedinger, of the same address, later did visit him. Riedinger told the reporter that Hall’s mind was “weak,” and that five months earlier he had: “… wandered away from home and was gone for something over a day.”

Hall never recovered and died the following April 23rd. When asked why he committed his rash act, Hall answered that he had quarreled with his wife!