January 25, 2023

Alexander Graham Bell

The year of hope                                                                                 

On this day in 1945, fluoride was first added to a public water system in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the first city in the world to ever do so. This was the culmination of a life-long quest of Frederick McKay, a dentist who moved to Colorado Springs in 1901 to open his dental practice.  When he arrived, he was surprised to find most of the residents afflicted with mottled, brown teeth, a condition so prevalent in the region that it was known as “Colorado brown stain” and considered a deformity for life.

However, he was fascinated that the condition was not present in some neighboring towns and embarked on a 30-year investigation before discovering the cause – extremely high levels of fluoride in the city water supply which caused brown, but cavity-free teeth resistant to decay. Once he made the discovery in 1931, research began on flouridation’s effect on teeth, and how it protected teeth but did not turn them brown at lower levels of concentration.

Researchers convinced the City Commission of Grand Rapids to add fluoride to its water supply for a health study.  11 years into the 15-year trial, the results were stunning, with cavity rates declining 60%, marking an enormous breakthrough in dental care by transforming tooth decay to a preventable disease. Today, community water fluoridation has been implemented in nearly three quarters of the nation’s public water supply and is estimated to cost only $1 per person per year – a remarkable example of public health benefits and economic returns on public infrastructure investment.

On this day in 1881, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison merged their respective companies to form the Oriental Telephone Company. Two of the greatest inventors in history were both born in 1847 and were responsible for two seminal inventions involving sound – the telephone and the phonograph.  Notably, Edison was partly deaf and Bell was a teacher to the deaf, including to Helen Keller.

Bell had earlier approached Western Union to sell his telephone patent for $100,000, but was rejected by its president who considered the telephone as nothing but a toy. Ultimately, the value of Bell’s telephone patents can be measured by the degree to which they were contested, with nearly 600 court challenges, including 5 that reached the Supreme Court, with Bell prevailing.

34 years after the formation of the Oriental Telephone Company, also on this day, in January of 1915, Bell made the first transcontinental telephone call over a 3,400 mile wire – from the AT&T head office in New York City, to Thomas Watson stationed at 333 Grant Avenue in San Francisco. 

Today, the address at 333 Grant appears to house a Lululemon store, but is situated directly in front of the iconic Dragon Gate entrance to San Francisco’s Chinatown. Our nation’s first permanent ceremonial gate was originally a gift from Taiwan and dedicated the year before I arrived here from Taiwan.

It sits just off the path of the famous Chinese New Year parade, recognized as one of the top ten parades in the world.  Sadly, this year’s festivities will take place under a cloud of despair, in recognition of the mass shootings in Monterrey Park and Half Moon Bay that coincide with this time of celebration.

We welcome in the Year of the Rabbit, also considered the year of hope. The rabbit is a symbol of peace, and we all must hope for the end of gun violence in our communities and for peace around the world.

Scott Wu

S. Wu Signature