The Norwood Society

E T Bell

Eric Temple Bell was born in Peterhead, Scotland, in 1883, but lived in Norwood as a child. Most of his life was spent in America where he became a leading mathematician and early science fiction writer using the pseudonym John Taine. He died in 1960. Throughout his life, even with his wife and son, he was always very secretive about his early years. It had always been believed that he emigrated to California at the age of 19. Constance Reid, herself an American mathematician, manages to uncover a totally different version of events.

Eric evidently spent most of his 13 years in San Jose, California, where his father, James, owned an orchard. In 1896 his father died – some mystery surrounded this, as no reference to the death can be found in official records although it was reported in two San Jose newspapers. Even more strangely, the body was then transported all the way to the West Norwood Cemetery for burial.

The link with Norwood was that E. T. Bell’s grandfather, James Sr., owned a house called Penybryn, still standing, at the junction of Fox Hill and Tudor Road (the house at the top of the Hill in Pissarro’s painting of Fox Hill). James Sr. is also buried at West Norwood. His gravestone, unlike that of his son, remains standing. Eric and his mother, brother and sister returned to Britain in 1896 and for a time were at Penybryn. Eric saw the models of dinosaurs in the Crystal Palace Park and was fascinated by dinosaurs for the rest of his life. In ‘Before the Dawn’ (1934), which he rated his favourite amongst all the science fiction books he wrote, he attributed a group of dinosaurs with human characteristics. They are viewed across time by modern-day scientists through a device called a ‘televisor’. The obvious comparison is with H. G. Wells. An American critic, Elmer Davis, likened ‘Before the Dawn’ to Wells’ early fantasies and considered it ‘as good as all but the very best of them’. Arthur C. Clarke was a great admirer of the John Taine novels.

After attending school in Bedford, Eric left England and his family to return to California at the age of 19. There is an account of his personal recollections of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. The remainder of the book describes his career as a mathematician specialising in number theory, mainly in West Coast universities such as the California Institute of Technology. This will be unusual biographical territory for most English readers, but it is surprisingly interesting as it recalls Bell’s relationship with his American wife and son, friends and academic colleagues. Fortunately, no specialised knowledge of mathematics is required.

Constance Reid describes her visits to record offices and numerous locations in both Britain and California as she gradually unravels some, but not all, of the mystery surrounding Bell. There are many useful hints here for anyone attempting biographical research. There should be sufficient references to Norwood to interest those who are keen on local history. We discover for example that Eric’s father married his first wife (not Eric’s mother) Ellen Temple, at All Saints’ Church, Upper Norwood, in 1865. The clergyman was G. Rockford Gull, B.A. Ellen had lived with her orphaned brothers and sisters on Crown Hill in ‘the Grecian Cottages’. She and an infant daughter are buried with Eric’s father at West Norwood.

The Mathematical Association of America, who have donated a copy of the book to the Upper Norwood Library, hope there will be a revival of interest in Bell on both sides of the Atlantic.

The search for E.T. Bell, also known as John Taine
Constance Reid. Mathematical Association of America. 1993.