The Assassination of President Garfield

          On July 4, 1881, the country should have been happily celebrating Independence Day, but instead the citizens were reeling from the news of the shooting of President Garfield, just 16 years after President Lincoln’s assassination. Examination of the President revealed that the bullet was lodged somewhere in the abdomen. Initial reports indicated that the wound was not fatal and physicians decided to make no attempt to extract the ball. In Boston where he was visiting his in-laws,

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Alexander Graham Bell read the accounts in the newspaper with interest and dismay. He realized that physicians trying to locate the bullet with their bare fingers or metal probes could be life threatening. True to his character, he wanted to help. He remembered recording in his journal some experiment results that could give him insights about what he could do. He found these notes:

 June 27, 1876   Difficulty with the interference of certain audible whistles within the telephonic circuit.  When connection wires are twisted, metallics seem to exacerbate problem. Perhaps experimentation with the current balance… . A.G. Bell 

After initial communications with other scientists and further thinking and writing, Bell sent directions to Tainter, his assistant in his Washington DC laboratory. He directed Tainter to set up a current balance that he thought would detect metals. It was ready when Bell’s train arrived in DC. Late into the night they tinkered with connections, attached cells, and moved a lead ball near the coils.  With each new modification, the distance they could hear a tone increased until finally they were able to detect lead at 3 ½ inches.  Bell thought that might be strong enough for finding a bullet inside a body.

Part 2

By July 24, talk about the necessity of finding the bullet had begun. Garfield’s wound oozed with yellow pus and his fever spiked to 104 degrees. Bell’s equipment was ready and the doctors requested him to try to locate the bullet. On July 26th, Tainter and Bell arranged the system, now called an induction balance, by Garfield’s bedside in the executive mansion. Even though it had worked perfectly in the lab, in the president’s bedroom it made a sputtering noise. The doctor urged them to hurry as he was worried about tiring the President.

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Bell wrote in his journal:  July 26.  He …is of an ashen gray color which makes one feel for a moment that you are not looking upon a living man. It made my heart bleed to look at him and think of all he must have suffered to bring him to this. I feel woefully disappointed and disheartened–However, we go right at the problem again tomorrow. A.G. Bell

Bell thought the problem might have been loose connections so they put the whole apparatus in a wooden box and made other refinements. They worked on the President again on August 1. The second try was a disappointment as well.  Instead of sharp clear sounds they could detect only weak tones over a large area. From Bell’s perspective, the information was of little use. He wondered if metal in the president’s bed had interfered with the test.  The doctors, however, thought the test confirmed their ideas about the location of the bullet and gave out positive reports to newspapers. Bell and his team continued to refine the device until they were sure it worked. Bell again asked for permission to locate the bullet but he was not allowed to try again.

President Garfield died on September 19 of infection from his wound. Bell wrote in his journal:   Sept. 20, 1881.  Poor Garfield has gone. I hope indeed that there may be an immortality for that brave spirit. A.G.Bell


Even though Bell’s induction balance did not save the life of President Garfield, it did become the prototype of all future metal detectors. His revised design saved many lives as it was used for decades by battleground surgeons to find bullets in wounded soldiers. Metal detectors were also used to locate land mines and unexploded bombs.

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