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Alexander Bell

Bell, Alexander Graham

Enshrined 1965 1847-1922

In 1915 Bell said, “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!” He was very close to foreseeing today’s rocket-powered space craft.

  • Invented the telephone.
  • He developed the tetrahedral cell with aerodynamic lift and tested a variety of kites formed with these cells.
  • His “Cygnet” kite flew for seven minutes at a height of 168 feet with a man on board in 1907.
  • He was a member of a group that formed the Aerial Experiment Association in 1907.
  • His Aerial Experiment Association’s June Bug
  • Won the scientific American Trophy in 1908.


Alexander Graham Bell made outstanding contributions to aviation through his development of tetrahedral kites, the investigation of their application to personnel carrying aircraft, and his enlistment of talented associates who aided significantly in the progress toward accomplishing powered flight.

Although his greatest scientific accomplishment was the invention of the telephone, Dr. Bell deserves wide recognition for his promotion of aeronautics. His a summer home at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, afforded excellent conditions for his scientific interest in flying kites. Expanding upon the design of the rectangular-celled box kite that Hargrave of Australia invented, Dr. Bell developed a three-sided triangular form of cell which he adapted to various multi-cellular shapes. This research led to a large kite in which on December 6th, 1907, his associate, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, flew to a height of over 160 feet.

Believing that the substitution of an engine and propeller attached to the kite might permit free man-carrying flight, dispensing with the tethering line, Dr. Bell and Lt. Selfridge secured the services of Glenn H. Curtiss. Curtiss helped them to construct a proper engine, and they also engaged the assistance of J. A. D. McCurdy and F. W. Baldwin. These five men formed the Aerial Experiment Association for the stated purpose of “getting into the air”.

Beginning with a parallel-surfaced biplane glider, this group developed successively improved airplanes whose flight performances advanced from a few hundred feet in 1908 to twenty miles in 1909. These airplanes achieved several feats, including the winning of the Scientific American Trophy for a flight of over a kilometer, the first flight in Canada, and a total flight distance of over a thousand miles. The group was also responsible for the development of the aileron.

Although Dr. Bell’s powered and manned tetrahedral aircraft did not fly, his place in aeronautics remains prominent due to the accomplishments of the group of which he was a vital part and an inspiring counsel.

Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in the mid-nineteenth century. As a young man he moved to Canada and then came to Boston where his specialized knowledge of the human voice led to numerous inventions that would bring him world-wide fame. His interest in aeronautics spanned almost all of his mature life. In 1877 he studied the flight of crows. In 1885 he studied a heavier-than-air machine. In 1892 he described “The Flying Machine of the Future” which had the same basic features as the helicopter, developed 40 years later. He explored numerous rotor blade shapes and ingenious “winged flywheels”, which often flew to heights of 200 feet under their own power. Some used mechanical power, others used rockets and one even was jet powered. He even experimented with gunpowder to provide propulsion for his flying devices. He had tremendous faith in Man’s ultimate conquest of the air. Bell once said, “The problem of aerial navigation will be solved within 10 years.” This prediction proved correct when the Wright Brothers eventually did solve it at Kitty Hawk.

Bell’s friendship with Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian Institution greatly influenced Graham Bell. He once said, “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.” He witnessed Langley’s large steam-powered model aerodrome experiments in which, for the first time in the history of the world, a man-made device flew and preserved its equilibrium without the aid of a guiding human intelligence. Afterwards he wrote, “The sight of Langley’s steam aerodrome circling in the sky convinced me that the age of the flying machine was at hand.”

Now, after 30 years of aeronautical experimentation, he developed a sense of urgency about his work. He tested numerous structures for lift and stability. His final solution was the tetrahedral cell, composed of four triangular faces, two of which were covered by silk to form a lifting surface. These cells lent themselves to endless proliferations that resembled a vast honeycomb. Graham Bell developed and flew a fantastic number of tetrahedral kites. Soon seamstresses were turning out thousands of silk-covered cells and workmen were assembling these into kites of many sizes. His “Frost King” kite lifted a man, clinging to its rope, off the ground in 1905. Once, he even tied his kite to a galloping horse and hauled it aloft. It worked well as long as the horse lasted.

He had two talented Canadian engineers, John McCurdy, and “Casey” Baldwin, working on his kites at his summer home at Baddeck, Nova Scotia and they helped him exhibit his kites at the first New York Aeronautical Show. He asked Glenn Curtiss, a young engine manufacturer, to come to Baddeck and install one of his engines in a kite. Also, he invited Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge to visit him at Baddeck. Now he had assembled a team of splendid young men to work on the problems of flight, in fact, the group’s enthusiasm was so high that his wife offered to finance an association to conduct aeronautical experiments. As a result, the Aerial Experiment Association was formed and he was elected President.

The Association first built a large tetrahedral kite called the “Cygnet I,” with a wing span of over 42 feet. As a steamer towed it across the lake, the kite became airborne and carried Selfridge to a height of 168 feet, remaining aloft for seven minutes. The Association next built a glider and all but he learned to fly. At this point Bell had to return to his laboratory in Washington and before he left he gave the group a thorough grounding in his aeronautical researches, his analyses of the works of Octave Chanute, Langley and the Wright Brothers, and some of his own conclusions.

Bell had implicit faith in his group’s ability as it proceeded to build its first airplane, the Red Wing. Later the group took this biplane out on the ice and flew it even though it lacked means for controlling lateral stability. This was the first public airplane flight in America. Lateral stability was, of course, imperative for the achievement of controlled flight. After he studied the problem at length, Bell proposed that the wing tips be made movable so when one tip was depressed, the other would be elevated. The group immediately recognized his suggestion as the solution to the problem and proceeded to build the White Wing, the first airplane in America to have hinged ailerons, and also the first to have a tricycle landing gear.

Spurred on by their success, the Association designed and built its third airplane, the June Bug, in which Curtiss won the Scientific American Trophy for the first flight in America of more than one kilometer. Although Bell could not be present, he telegraphed exuberant congratulations: “Hurrah for Curtiss! Hurrah for the June Bug! Hurrah for the Aerial Association!” Construction began on the fourth airplane, the Silver Dart. Meanwhile, Selfridge went to Washington to serve on the board testing the Army’s first airplane, and was subsequently killed. When the Silver Dart was complete it was shipped to Baddeck and accomplished the first successful airplane flight in Canada. The Association built one large tetrahedral kite “Cygnet II” and this time added an engine to it, but it failed to get into the air and the group did not pursue this concept any further. Bell’s Aerial Experiment Association now dissolved and he was gratified by the progress the group had made. It had built four airplanes, developed the hinged aileron concept, and the group had received wide public recognition for its contributions.

Next, Bell financially backed the Canadian Aerodrome Company, which became the first airplane company in Canada, and built several airplanes. The first, the Baddeck I, flew in a demonstration for the Canadian Army, but unfortunately crashed upon landing. For two more years they tried to further interest the Canadian Army but it refused to support their work and the company disbanded.

Now Bell focused his efforts on air propeller driven boats. To free the hull from the water, he developed hydrofoils. These were wing-like elements which lifted the boat from the water so it flew on the water, supported only by the bottom-most foils. His work reached its pinnacle when Bell built a huge torpedo-shaped craft powered by two air propellers which could skim over the water at 70 miles an hour. However, the development of his hydrofoil concept was not to be realized until after World War II. As a Regent of the Smithsonian he was most influential in a drive for a National Aeronautical Laboratory. After several years of lobbying, Congress finally established the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics which was to serve aviation well for the next forty-three years.

In 1915 he said, “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 looked up in explosives. What if we could utilize these in projectile flight!” Bell came close to foreseeing today’s rocket-powered space craft. After World War I, at the government’s request, Bell studied and outlined a policy for military aeronautics. He said, “Air power will prove to be the decisive factor in future wars.” He said, “We may conclude that neither our Army nor our Navy can defend the United States from attack through the air. This requires the addition of a third arm to our system of national defense, a National Air Force, quite distinct from the Army and Navy, capable of cooperating with both, and also capable of acting independently of either. Also, it should be provided with a special college upon the model of those at West Point and Annapolis.” The prophetic ideas that Bell expressed in this statement would not be adopted until after World War II.

In the spring of 1922, at the age of 75, Bell died and was buried in a simple but moving ceremony. In fitting tribute to his memory, every telephone in America remained silent for one minute during the services. Perhaps his legacy to aeronautics will never be seen as being of the same magnitude as his other accomplishments. However, Graham Bell without a doubt left an indelible mark upon aviation, not only through his own research, but more importantly by his stimulation of interest in scientific aeronautical research by others.