Who put the Graham in Alexander Graham Bell?

Middle names and the stories behind them

This weekend saw the anniversary of the first ever telephone call, made by Alexander Graham Bell on March 10th 1876. Leaving aside the tricky issue of who actually invented the device (others claim the patent), I was fascinated to learn recently that until the age of 10 the appropriately-named Mr Bell was just plain ‘Alexander'. But he felt left out - his two brothers had middle names. So he asked his father if he could have one too. Told that he could, he chose ‘Graham', and received the name for his 11th birthday.

Who put the Graham in Alexander Graham Bell?

This is similar to George Osborne's story. Except there the child chose a first rather than a middle name. Christened Gideon, he confessed to his mother at the age of 13 that he didn't like his name. She said that actually she didn't, either. So he chose George, in tribute to his war hero grandfather, and the offending ‘Gideon' got shunted into middle-name territory, along with the existing ‘Oliver'.

They're tricky things, these middle names, with all sorts of stories behind them:


The weird ones

Quincy Jones's middle name is Delight. Michael Portillo's are Denzil and Xavier. Michael Heseltine's are Ray and Dibdin. Elton John was famously born Reginald Dwight (with the middle name Kenneth), but when he changed to his stage name (inspired by saxophonist Elton Dean and blues singer Long John Baldry) he also included the middle name Hercules. Not as a nod to the classical mythology hero, but to Steptoe and Son's horse.


The ones that become other names

A middle name can become a surname, as with the singer born Ray Charles Robinson, who dropped the last bit to avoid confusion with the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. Or it can become a first name, as with the musician James Paul McCartney. Macca's real first name was the same as his father's. (Jim McCartney once urged his son to sing ‘she loves you, yes, yes, yes', as ‘yeah' sounded too American.) 

Someone else christened with that first name was Gordon Brown. Yes, our ex-Prime Minister is really James Brown. Can you think of two more different men than him and the Godfather of Soul?


The ones that don't exist

Ever wondered what the ‘S' in Harry S Truman stands for? It doesn't. One of his grandfathers was called Solomon, the other had the middle name Shipp, so to keep them both happy the future President's parents christened him with just a letter in the middle. Another reason for inserting just an initial is the Screen Actors Guild, the US equivalent of the actors' union Equity. They told would-be star Michael Fox that there was already a member with that name - so he added the ‘J' in tribute to Michael J Pollard, star of Bonnie and Clyde. Over this side of the pond, meanwhile, Harry H Corbett (back to Steptoe and Son again) invented his ‘H' to avoid confusion with Sooty's sidekick. He used to joke that the letter stood for ‘hanything'. 




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Big Ben

On a visit to Big Ben, I was told that if you stand at the bottom of the tower with a portable radio and listen to the chimes on Radio 4 (they still transmit them live), you hear them on the radio before you hear them ‘for real’. I couldn’t believe it – but was intrigued enough to try it for myself. And you know what? It’s absolutely true. The bongs come out of the radio a fraction of a second before they reach your ears from the top of the tower. It’s something so silly, so counter-intuitive, that you have to tell people. (Well, I did.) Researching the explanation, I found that it’s because radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) rather than the 700 or so miles per hour at which sound waves travel. The signal travelling down the wire from the microphone to the BBC goes at the speed of light too. Hence the radio version overtaking the real one.

I realised that this would be the perfect way to teach the principle in school physics lessons. Instead of a boring teacher droning on that ‘radio waves travel at the speed of light’, illustrate it with this beautiful and quirky little fact. The kids will remember it then. I certainly would have done if my physics teacher had taken this approach. As it was I had to wait until I heard a piece of so-called ‘trivia’ in my thirties.