Alexander Graham Bell's FLIGHTS of FANCY

By M. Robinson

Kite HistoryAlexander Graham Bell was one of us, or more precisely, one who most of us would like to be. I truly believe he would have been an active member of the AKA had he been alive today. He had the true heart and spirit that embodies the AKA membership. Aleck, as he was called as a boy, would lie atop a favorite hill in Edinburgh, Scotland (where he was born in 1847) so he could be close to the sky and watched with envy and wonder as the birds flew above him. As a true original thinker, Bell was not the best of students. If he was alive today, I am sure they would have labeled him as having Attention Deficit Disorder and probably have medicated him! To the end of his life Bell maintained the pure delight of a child exploring the world. Those who knew and loved him worried about his lack of concentration. Bell was a great generalist during the birth of the specialist. Bell's future father-in-law chided him once about his inclination "to undertake every new thing that interests you & accomplish nothing of value to any one". That was five months before the telephone was patented. It still holds the record for the most financially profitable patent ever issued. Bell was 29 years of age and the year was 1885. He was reported to have answered the phone saying, "Hoy, hoy" - never hello; and that he told his grandchildren, "It's for calling out, not for calling in". And that was all!

A single set of triangular cells constituting a hexagonal figure with 6 interior radial wings
A single set of triangular cells constituting a hexagonal figure with six interior radial wings.

What seemed to save Bell from his own fickle nature and aimless meandering through life was his ability to have laser like focus on his project of the moment. He wasn't all that comfortable with the fame the telephone had brought him. An avid writer, he once wrote to his wife Mabel early in their marriage, "Oh! Mabel dear - please, please, PLEASE (that's copied from you) make me write. Make me describe and publish my ideas that I may at least obtain credit for them and that people may know that I am still alive and working and thinking. I can't bear to hear that even my friends should think that I stumbled upon an invention and that there is no more good in me". Alexander Graham Bell was not a man to rest on his laurels. At the time this letter was written Bell was deeply entrenched in his work on the photophone; a contraption that made use of a focused beam of sunlight to transmit the spoken word. Bell always contended that this was his great discovery, outranking in potential importance even the telephone. No one believed him. The sun does not always shine, the photophone was deemed impractical. Bell and his associates turned their attention to the pioneering and development of the wax phonograph record and securing valuable patents with it. But Bell was right and the photophone's day did arrive. In 1957 Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow developed the laser for Bell Laboratories and in 1977, the Bell System, using the amplified light of the laser and the technology of fiber optics, installed under the streets of Chicago the first communication system to carry phone calls, computer data, and video signals on light pulses.

Experiments with kites having 2 sets of cells in the superstructure
Experiments with kites having two sets of cells in the superstructure... superstructure over second and fourth body cells

His writings were remarkable and they comprised Bell's daily train of thought and activities. As well as being prolific in letter writing he had his own in-house newsletter, the Beinn Bhreagh Recorder, which was circulated among family, friends, and associates. Many of Bell's personal journals have been scanned and they are generously posted on-line by his family for all the world to read. Bell's notebooks reveal that after his telephone and communication achievements he also made contributions in medicine, genetics, eugenics, aviation, marine navigation, and even how to build a composting toilet! His writings also indicated that he foresaw and predicted the need for inventions that were later made by others. Speculations by Bell brought him close to the television and tape recorder, as well as provocative thoughts about solar heat, air conditioning, birth control, and energy conservation.


Experiments with kites having 2 sets of cells in the superstructure... just rising into the air
Experiments with kites having two cells in the superstructure... just rising into the air

After the death of his second son from respiratory ailments, Bell invented the "vacuum jacket"; the forerunner of the iron lung. Also, in 1903, he was the first to publish the idea of treating deep-seated cancers with radium. In an effort to locate an assassin's bullet in President's James Garfield's abdomen (July 2, 1881), Bell developed a metal detector! Unfortunately the device was tested August first and was too late to save Garfield's life. But the telephonic probe Bell had invented was successfully used for decades to locate deeply implanted bullets, until the x-ray was perfected over twenty years later.

Bell's longest running experiments involved sheep breading while he was in Baddeck, Nova Scotia; location of the family's summer home. Other long-term research projects included work on desalination and condensation of water from the atmosphere; a practice he thought would benefit shipwrecked sailors.

Bell was one of the founders of National Geographic and is largely responsible for its present day format. His son-in-law, Dr. Gilbert H. Grosvenor was the first editor.

Compound radial design in flightCompassion was always first and foremost in Bell's mind. When he invented the dial phone around 1911 he worried about the 'girls' that would be put out of work because of it. "800 in the DC area alone", he said unhappily. All of his manned kite experiments on flight were performed over water and were piloted by men who could swim. Alexander Graham Bells' true-life long passion, and fervent interest was educating the deaf. He was the third generation of his family to study the voice and it's projection. Both his mother and wife were deaf. Bell's father had developed a phonetic alphabet that was universally applicable and internationally sought. It was to demonstrate the usefulness of this system that originally brought him to Boston. After inventing the telephone, Bell realized one of his many dreams when he opened a school for the deaf in Washington, DC. When filling out an application a couple of years before his death, Bell was asked his occupation… "Teacher of the deaf" he replied. Helen Keller, the deaf and blind child who was terribly angry and confused with her inability to communicate, was brought to Bell by her father seeking his advice when Helen was six years old. It was Bell who found Helen's remarkable teacher Anne Sullivan and brought them together. Helen dedicated her autobiography The Story of My Life "to Alexander Graham Bell who taught the deaf to speak". He was the door that led her from darkness to light, from isolation to friendship.

Helen Keller made many visits to the summer home in Canada called Beinn Bhreagh. She participated in his kite experiments that were always going on there. "I helped him fly some kites and was almost carried up by one", she told a reporter from the Boston Transcript. Helen did bead work and was able to tell by feel whether a kites wire strings would hold or not. "One day I said to Dr. Bell, 'won't this string break?' 'Oh, no,' he said, confidently; but in a few moments my fears were realized…the string snapped and off went the kite, and poor Dr. Bell stood forlornly looking after it."

Dr. Bell flys a 64 cell tetrahedral kite
Dr. Bell flys a 64 cell tetrahedral kite

Bell touched many lives. Paul Garber told Valerie Govig of a boyhood memory during an interview for the Spring '77 issue of Kitelines. Paul's family lived on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC near the home of Alexander Graham Bell. "He would walk by, six feet tall, with a white beard, black coat, very imposing. One day I was out front-we had a big yard-flying a kite. Well, Dr. Bell came along and said, 'That kite isn't bridled properly'. He pulled it down and had me hold the kite while he rebridled it, and sure enough when he launched it again it flew better. Then he patted me on the head."

The story of Bell's pioneering experiments on flight is also the story of the first discovery of the space frame. Bell was 49 years old when he turned to kites (1896). He joined numerous experimenters that, before and since, have used kites to pursue aerial flight. Bell's interest in flight was life-long. His famous assistant, Watson, remembered how he was anxious to move on to the flying machine while working on the telephone. In 1877, while on his honeymoon in England, Bell scribbled notes on bird activity and paid particular attention to their tails. The heading of the notes was "Aerial Aviation" and he sketched a crude design of a flying machine…ten years before the Wrights, Bell began actively working on flight.

Bell called kites "lighter than air machines" and motor-controlled crafts "heavier then air". Kites enticed him because they permitted experiment without risk to human life. As Bell wrote on September 2, 1901 "The great difficulty in developing an art of aerial locomotion lies…in the difficulty of profiting by past experience…a dead man tells no tales…"

Bell originally worked mostly with Hargrave's box kite that was developed in 1892. He thought it was a very sound design. In 1898, Bell had a Hargrave type kite built in his laboratory. This craft, named Jumbo, measured 15 feet long, almost 11 feet wide, and 5 feet deep. It was big enough to carry a man. Jumbo did not fly.

Front view of the Cygnet showing the manhole in the center

Simon Newcomb, an astronomer from Nova Scotia and Bell's friend, wrote an article entitled "Is the Air-ship Coming? ". Published in McClure's Magazine in September 1901, He said, "Let us make two flying machines exactly alike, only make one on double the scale of the other in all its dimensions. We will know that the volume, and therefore the weight, of two similar bodies are proportional to the cubes of their dimensions. The cube of two is eight: hence the large machine will have eight times the weight of the other. But the surfaces are as the squares of the dimensions. The square of two is four. The heavier machine will therefore expose only four times the wing surface to the air, and so will have a distinct disadvantage in the ratio of efficiency to weight". Bell wrote Mabel that "Newcomb's Law" had come as a shock, and had cast doubt on the possibility of configuring flying machines unless "a new principle of support - momentum-was introduced". It did not take long…by the end of the month; in Bell's 55th year he got around "Newcomb's Law" and had found a solution. Bell had begun the process he was best at…problem solving. He discovered the tetrahedral cell.

It started with the idea that, for greater lifting power, he should fly more kites instead of bigger kites. The kites he was working with at the time were his favored triangular box-types with cells of triangular section. The next step was to compound the kites, removing the extra stick where support sticks came together so that the compound kites had the same lifting power as the individual kites but actually less weight. Bell's notes of September 30, 1901 state "…Do not increase the size of the cell, but compound small cells into a large structure, and where the two sticks come together omit one, and in this way the larger kites will have less weight relatively to their surfaces than the smaller kites, and yet be equally strong." There was one more great idea needed, and Bell came through. It was pure Bell genius. The concept of a fundamental engineering structure basic to construction today all over the world…the idea of the tetrahedral cell and with it the mechanism to unite the cells together at the vertexes…today's universal connector…had struck him. He wrote on March 15, 1902 "Avoid rectangular elements-let everything be built up of equilateral triangles. Terminal surfaces will then be at the proper angle to make connection with other frames. Whole thing could be built up into a solid compact form of almost any desired shape…"

The manhole in th CygnetSummer and fall of 1902 found the laboratory at Beinn Bhreagh experiencing it's greatest period of creativity and excitement. Workers constructed tetrahedral skeletons to cover cells and the connecting devices Bell sketched in his notebook. The construction of the large tetrahedral kites, true space frames, began. There were daily problems as well as daily solutions. Bell's notes from November 18, 1902 read "Two great successes today, both a result of suggestions from Mabel". "First suggestion. Instead of waiting for wind, attach kite to galloping horse. Tried it yesterday with small kites. So promising that we tried three of our large kites today in same way. Found I could study their mode of flight in the air as well as if I had wind…or nearly so…and could judge of their way of falling better than with wind." Mabel's second suggestion involved hairpins and sealing wax for linking tetrahedral skeletons, which Bell exclaimed was "just the thing". His notes are an unbelievable treasure.

In October of 1903 Bell switched his spar material for his kites from black spruce to strong but light aluminum tubing. The large kites became much more buoyant and were maneuvered about with great ease. They also flew in a lot less wind.

Bell continued to keep exemplary records of his experiments and kept a photographic record of all the laboratory activities. There was always someone from the lab who was assigned the job of "snapshotting". Although he may have been passionate about keeping scientific records he certainly loved the drama and impact his tetrahedral kites provided. He loved to watch them fly, especially on a clear sunny day, late in the afternoon as the sun was setting, 'Beautiful','Beautiful' he would say to himself. One day during the height of Bells' kite flying experiments he asked Mabel what she thought about a book composed solely of photographs of kites?

Bell with Helen Keller
Helen Keller and Dr. Bell kiteflying in Beinn Bhreagh meadow, August 1901

Over the years Bell developed a variety of tetrahedral kite shapes. One of Bell's favorite kite shapes was named the Oionos, (named after the soaring birds from which the ancient Greeks drew their auguries). Bell began work on this kite shape which combined oblique and horizontal surfaces in 1903 and continued for years because of the stability and lifting power it provided. An impressive but unsuccessful experiment he did was the ring kite, a flying circle that tended to sideslip and crash. As the work progressed the kites became enormous in size.

The Aerial Experiment Association was formed in 1907 to build a flying machine of each member's design. Members of the association were Glenn H. Curtiss, Casey Baldwin, Alexander Graham Bell, Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, and Douglas McCurdy. In 1909, McCurdy's Silver Dart flew half a mile at 40 mph; the first airplane flight in Canada.

Alexander Graham Bell was said to have been a wonderful character that had a sarcastic streak. He loved to swim and sunbathe in the nude. He was very nocturnal and worked until four in the morning and then slept till eleven. They say waking him for an early appointment was not for the faint of heart! Ya gotta love this guy…I wish I could invite him to my next festival.


National Geographic January 1908
National Geographic June 1903
National Geographic July 1903


Web Sites

M. Robinson, 2001
Reprinted by permission of KITING, The Journal of the American Kitefliers Association, Fall 2001, Volume 23, Issue 4