DALLAS – Alexander Graham Bell is a name that is synonymous with the invention of the telephone, but not many people know that he was also a pioneer in aviation.
Bell was an inventor, scientist, and engineer who had a deep inquisitiveness about the world of flight. His contributions to the field of aviation may not be as widely known as his work on the telephone, but they were just as significant.
Aviation on Bell’s Mind
While Bell is best known for his work on the telephone, he also made significant contributions to the field of aviation. The inventor had been interested in flight from a young age and had a deep fascination with birds and their ability to fly.
In 1891, Bell started experiments to produce a heavier-than-air aircraft that a motor could power. He believed that he could devote the principles of flight to the development of aircraft.
The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands in prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space, at full speed, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air.Alexander Graham Bell
His interest and work in aviation covered three and half decades and more than 1,200 experimentations. It became his primary scientific and breakdown movement for a good portion of his life.
Bell’s home at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, afforded ideal conditions for his scientific curiosity in flying kites. It is here, over the next three and a half decades, that Bell digs profoundly into the frivolous and futuristic – projectiles, heavier-than-air flying machines, water distillation, tetrahedral towers, sheep breeding, hydrofoil boats, and more.
The Tetrahedral Kite
He was particularly interested in the idea of vertical flight, or the capability to take off and land vertically like a bird. This led him to devise a series of experiments with different types of flying machines, including kites and gliders.
Between 1898 and 1910, Bell focused his work on the tetrahedral kite, a multicelled rigid box kite comprised of tetrahedrally shaped cells to form a kind of tetrahedral truss. Bell derived the design after expanding the design of the popular rectangular-celled box kite which Hargrave of Australia invented.
Bell’s tetrahedral kite is a predecessor to modern-day hand gliders. The Tetrahedral kite consisted of interlocking wooden or metal rods forming a pyramid-like structure to make it sturdy and big enough to accommodate a person and a powered motor.
One of his contributions to extending the design of the tetrahedral kite was his introduction of diagonal cross bracing, which improved the kite’s strength and solidity. This arrangement is still used in modern-day hang gliders, enhancing the craft’s capability to resist windy conditions.
The Cygnet, a kite with 3393 cells that Bell invented, managed to lift an individual 50 meters (164 feet) above the surface for approximately 7 minutes. Bell remarked on his discovery of this concept in the June 1903 issue of National Geographic magazine; the piece was titled “Tetrahedral Principle in Kite Structure.”
Bell stated, “I have been continuously at work on experiments relating to kites. Why I do not know, except perhaps because of the intimate connection of the subject with the flying-machine problem.”
He further added, “I have had the feeling that a properly constructed flying machine should be capable of being flown as a kite; and conversely, that a properly constructed kite should be capable of use as a flying machine when driven by its propellers. I am not so sure, however, of the truth of the former proposition as I am of the latter.”
The Aerial Experiment Association
Following his experiments with kites, Bell met Glenn H Curtis, an American aviation and motorcycling pioneer and later a founder of the U.S. aircraft industry. Bell also had a friendship with Samuel Langley, 3rd Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, which greatly influenced his work.
Bell would later meet other inventors of his time experimenting to maneuver and power the first manned heavier-than-air flight, an endeavor coalesced in what would become the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA).
The AEA came into existence after John Alexander Douglas McCurdy and his friend Frederick W. “Casey” Baldwin, Canadian engineers met Bell at his house. During their discussions on problems in aviation, Mabel Bell (Graham Bell’s entrepreneur wife) suggested they initiate a formal research group to exploit their collaborative ideas.
“For many years past, in fact from my boyhood, the subject of aerial flight has had a great fascination for me and I was therefore much interested in the researches of Langley.”Alexander Graham Bell
On September 30, 1907, the world’s first aeronautical research group included like-minded inventors and engineers. Mabel Bell became the first woman in history to propose, establish and fund a research group.
She provided a total sum of US$35,000 (equivalent to US$1,060,000 in 2021) to fund the AEA, selling her property to finance the association that included the following members responsible for the design and development of the aircraft:
- JAD McCurdy, Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Toronto (U of T).
- Frederick ‘Casey’ Baldwin – a mechanical engineering student at U of T and JAD McCurdy’s companion.
- Glenn Curtiss – A manufacturer of motorcycles in America.
- Thomas Selfridge – U.S. Army Lieutenant and a young aviator with a passion for aviation.
The first aileron-controlled aircraft, the AEA White Wing, which was flown by engineer and aircraft designer Frederick Baldwin on May 18, 1908, as a member of the Aerial Experiment Association led by Alexander Graham Bell, was later imitated by American aeronautical pioneer Glenn Curtiss with the AEA June Bug that same year.
Bell would say, “The aileron was the first successful application of the principles of flight to a machine intended to carry human beings.”
“We breathed an atmosphere of aviation from morning till night and almost from night to morning…I may say for myself that this Association with these young men proved to be one of the happiest times of my life.”Alexander Graham Bell
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“I have no doubt that a machine will be driven from the Earth’s surface at enormous velocities by a new method of propulsion – think of tremendous energies locked up in explosives – what if we could utilize these in projectile flight!”Alexander Graham Bell in 1915
Feature Image: Aerial Experiment Association members Casey Baldwin, Tom Selfridge, Glenn Curtiss, Alexander Graham Bell, John McCurdy, and Augustus Post served as an observer from Aero Club of America. Photo: Unknown author – Aero Club of America early records, Public Domain