Alexander G. Bell
The father of early aviation innovation with kites and aircraft
This page is dedicated to Bell`s work with kites and aviation.
Alexander G. Bell played a huge role in the development of aviation in Canada. During his early aviation work Bell created an unique kite called a Tetrahedral. His work with the Tetra kites was inspired by his good friend Lawrence Hargrave. Hargrave was working on man-lifting box kites at that time. This simple, strong and light-celled Tetra kite was put into mass production at the Kite House on the Bell Estate in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. Thousands of cells were built and joined together in various configurations to test his aviation theories. Bell fine tuned and improved his Tetra-celled designs with the ultimate goal of creating an actual flying aircraft. Bell's first attempt at manned flight was called the Cygnet. It was made up of 3393 Tetra cells. On December 6, 1907 the Cygnet piloted by Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge flew for several minutes while being pulled by a tow rope fastened to a steam ship. The flight itself was a success but they had forgotten to release the tow line for landing. The Cygnet was pulled down and crashed into the water. the craft was destroyed. Thankfully, Selfridge the pilot survived. Several people in Bell's camp did not believe that using kites as a base building block was the best way to build flying aircraft. Still, Bell was determined to create safe motorized flight with his Tetrahedral based aircraft. Ultimately, it was his wife Mabel Bell who convinced Alexander that he needed some new people to help with this project. Bell was fantastic with developing ideas but needed help putting his plans into motion. Mabel already knew that having a group of skilled people around her husband would help focus his great creative mind. Bell's dreams of powered flight would become a reality with Mabel's help.
The Aerial Experiment Association and a new direction
Silver Dart 1909
Under Mabel Bell's guidance and financial backing the Aerial Experiment Association was formed. The group was formed with a goal of creating a flying aerodrome within a two year time frame. Bell preferred the term aerodrome to describe his aircraft or aeroplanes. The AEA members included Alexander G. Bell, Casey Baldwin, Douglas McCurdy, Glen Curtiss and Lt. Thomas Selfridge. Using Octave Chanute's and Samuel Langley's early work on flight as a starting point, each of the four young AEA members designed and created their own motorized craft. All of them flew with great sucess. The first three Aerodromes were all built, tested and flown in the United States. Each aerodrome taught them something new about flight. They implemented all new ideas into each successive craft. The 4th aerodrome in the series was called the Silver Dart. Alexander strongly felt that the new Silver Dart should be test flown in Canada. The AEA group agreed with Bell. On Feb 23, 1909 the Silver Dart piloted by Douglas McCurdy flew its first powered flight on a frozen bay in Baddeck Nova Scotia, Canada. The AEA, having accomplished all of its goals soon ended it's pursuit of powered flight. The Dart itself made at least 200 more flights during demonstrations for the public. It flew in various cities all over Canada and the USA. It finally crashed and was destroyed during testing for the Canadian miltary.
Back to where it all began with kites
Motorized Cygnet II December 1909
Following the success of the AEA and the Silver Dart, Bell felt he still had unfinished business with his original kite based aircraft. He created his own "Bell" version that some call Aerodrome #5. Bell called it the Cygnet II. It was similar to the Cygnet in design but also had several Silver Dart components and a motor mounted at the rear. During testing in December of 1909 the Cygnet II was not able to generate enough power to lift the craft off the ice.
Bell's Oionos March 1910
The Oionos was Bell's final compromise between kite and plane. It was based mostly on the Silver Dart but still used Cygnet Tetrahedral cells in the wings. It was the first and only triplane that Bell ever made. During the test flight in March of 1910 the plane never left the ground. Some felt it would have flown with a larger motor. Alexander came to the conclusion that Powered flight was already well proven with the AEA and its 4 Aerodromes. This marked the end of Bell's days with aviation pursuits. Rest assured Bell never retired and constantly worked on other projects such as the Hydrofoil HD4.
What ever became of those four young AEA members?
A lot of people know Bell's life story quite well. However, some might wonder what ever happened to the four youngest members of the AEA? Did any of them pursue a future in aviation? Sadly, Thomas Selfridge died at a young age. He became best known as the first passenger ever killed in an airplane crash. Selfridge died during a test flight on the Wright Brothers airplane in September of 1909. This tragic death in part rekindled Bell's pursuit of safer flight with Tetrahedral designs. Douglas McCurdy and Casey Baldwin attempted to manufacture airplanes with their newly formed Canadian Aerodrome Company. They built the Baddeck I & II aerodromes. Crashing their craft during testing and demonstrations made attracting the government or other financial backers impossible. McCurdy continued on with life as a test pilot and plane designer in the United States. Later on in life he also became a politician in Nova Scotia. Casey Baldwin along with Bell worked together for many years developing the Hydrofoil in Baddeck. Ultimately, it was Glen Curtiss that encountered the greatest success designing and building aircraft in Hammondsport NY. In 1911 Curtiss created the Curtiss Aeroplane Company. He designed and built many aircraft for the US navy.
Voices from the past
Listen to Silver Dart pilot Douglas McCurdy talk about his first flight - 1949 CBC radio interview
Listen to Alex Bell's daughter Mariam talk about her father - 1947 CBC radio interview
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Web based: Best Breezes - Bob White's Historical Web Site, Parks Canada Alexander G. Bell Baddeck Museum - Future home of the Silver Dart Replica, Bell Homestead Brantford Museum - Alec's Brantford home. Baddeck Kite workshop - 100 years of flight Celebration, National Geographic - The magazine that Bell helped form, - Wikipedia - Tons of bio info on everything and everybody, CBC Radio - historic audio clips, American History in Video - Over 5000 titles, Books: Alexander Graham Bell The man that Contracted Space by Catherine Mackenzie, Aerial Experiment Association Aviation Pioneers by Judith Tulloch Alexander Graham Bell - The Spirit of Invention by Jennifer Groundwater, Kites and Kite Flying by Ambrose Lloyd & Nicolette Thomas Personal accounts: Some of the info was gathered from my own observations during my visits to Baddeck in 2007 for the Cygnet Centennial and again in 2009 for the Silver Dart Centenntial. I was lucky enough speak to several of the Bell descendants, Parks Canada Bell Museum staff and management and the Silver Dart Centennial Association members. Photos: Parks Canada Bell Museum, Alexander Graham Bell The man that Contracted Space by Catherine Mackenzie