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Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell (1847 - 1922)

Alexander Graham Bell © Bell was a Scottish-born American scientist and inventor, most famous for his pioneering work on the development of the telephone.

Alexander Graham Bell was born on 3 March 1847 in Edinburgh and educated there and in London. His father and grandfather were both authorities on elocution and at the age of 16 Bell himself began researching the mechanics of speech. In 1870, Bell emigrated with his family to Canada, and the following year he moved to the United States to teach. There he pioneered a system called visible speech, developed by his father, to teach deaf-mute children. In 1872 Bell founded a school in Boston to train teachers of the deaf. The school subsequently became part of Boston University, where Bell was appointed professor of vocal physiology in 1873. He became a naturalised U.S. citizen in 1882.

Bell had long been fascinated by the idea of transmitting speech, and by 1875 had come up with a simple receiver that could turn electricity into sound. Others were working along the same lines, including an Italian-American Antonio Meucci, and debate continues as to who should be credited with inventing the telephone. However, Bell was granted a patent for the telephone on 7 March 1876 and it developed quickly. Within a year the first telephone exchange was built in Connecticut and the Bell Telephone Company was created in 1877, with Bell the owner of a third of the shares, quickly making him a wealthy man.

In 1880, Bell was awarded the French Volta Prize for his invention and with the money, founded the Volta Laboratory in Washington, where he continued experiments in communication, in medical research, and in techniques for teaching speech to the deaf, working with Helen Keller among others. In 1885 he acquired land in Nova Scotia and established a summer home there where he continued experiments, particularly in the field of aviation.

In 1888, Bell was one of the founding members of the National Geographic Society, and served as its president from 1896 to 1904, also helping to establish its journal.

Signing, Alexander Graham Bell and the NAD

Most Americans know Alexander Graham Bell as the inventor of the telephone, but few are aware that the central interest of his life was deaf education or that he was one of the most prominent proponents of oralism in the United States. Like his father before him, Bell spent his life studying the physiology of speech, once said that &ldquoto ask the value of speech is like asking the value of life.&rdquo After emigrating from England to Canada in 1870 and to the United States a year later, Bell began to teach speech to deaf students using a universal alphabet invented by his father called &ldquoVisible Speech.&rdquo In 1872 he opened a school in Boston to train teachers of deaf children.

Bell&rsquos second chief interest was the study of heredity and animal breeding, and he became an early supporter of the eugenics movement to improve human breeding. Bell did not go so far as to advocate social controls on reproduction, as many eugenicists did. He did, however, decry the immigration into the United States of what he termed &ldquoundesirable ethnical elements,&rdquo calling for legislation to prevent their entry in order to encourage the &ldquoevolution of a higher and nobler type of man in America.&rdquo His views on immigration, deaf education, and eugenics overlapped and intertwined. He described sign language as &ldquoessentially a foreign language&rdquo and argued that &ldquoin an English speaking country like the United States, the English language, and the English language alone, should be used as the means of communication and instruction at least in schools supported at public expense.&rdquo He maintained that the use of sign language &ldquoin our public schools is contrary to the spirit and practice of American Institutions (as foreign immigrants have found out).&rdquo

&ldquoI think Alexander Graham Bell&rsquos greatest crime was keeping deaf people apart from each other. It wasn&rsquot so much that he thought speech was important. Worse than that was that he didn&rsquot want deaf people to marry each other. He didn&rsquot want them to be near each other. He wanted them to be apart.&rdquo

In 1884, Bell published a paper &ldquoUpon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race,&rdquo in which he warned of a &ldquogreat calamity&rdquo facing the nation: deaf people were forming clubs, socializing with one another and, consequently, marrying other deaf people. The creation of a &ldquodeaf race&rdquo that yearly would grow larger and more insular was underway. Bell noted that &ldquoa special language adapted for the use of such a race&rdquo already was in existence, &ldquoa language as different from English as French or German or Russian.&rdquo Some eugenicists called for legislation outlawing intermarriage by deaf people, but Bell rejected such a ban as impractical. Instead he proposed the following steps: &ldquo(1) Determine the causes that promote intermarriages among the deaf and dumb and (2) remove them. The causes he sought to remove were sign language, deaf teachers, and residential schools. His solution was the creation of special day schools taught by hearing teachers who would enforce a ban on sign language.

As oralism became the dominant method of instruction in schools for deaf students, the National Association of the Deaf and other community organizations rose to the defense of sign language in the classroom. They called it the &ldquonatural language of the deaf&rdquo and argued that a reliance on oral communication alone would be educationally disastrous for most deaf students. They took the debate to Deaf community newspapers, to journals of education, to teachers&rsquo conventions, to any forum accessible to them. The National Association of the Deaf began production of a series of films, in 1910, under the direction of its president, George Veditz. The NAD raised $5,000 to make eighteen films. The fear and the hope that animated the project was that the elimination of sign language and deaf teachers in the schools would lead to the deterioration of their beloved language and the hope was that the new technology of film could preserve examples of the &ldquomasters of our sign language&rdquo for future generations. Veditz&rsquos own contribution to the film series, an impassioned call for &ldquoThe Preservation of the Sign Language&rdquo denounced the damage caused by the &ldquofalse prophets.&rdquo These films provide us with an early glimpse of the language Deaf Americans created.

&ldquoSociety in general views Alexander Graham Bell as an American hero, as the inventor of the telephone. He was famous, wealthy, and influential. His own Mother was deaf. He was always associating with the Deaf community and he was a teacher of deaf children. He had his own day school in Boston. He was very familiar with the Deaf world.&rdquo

&ldquoWe American deaf are now facing bad times for our schools. False prophets are now appearing, announcing to the public that our American means of teaching the deaf are all wrong. These men have tried to educate the public and make them believe that the oral method is really the one best means of educating the deaf. But we American deaf know, the French deaf know, the German deaf know that in truth, the oral method is the worst. A new race of pharaohs that knew not Joseph is taking over the land and many of our American schools. They do not understand signs for they cannot sign. They proclaim that signs are worthless and of no help to the deaf. Enemies of the sign language, they are enemies of the true welfare of the deaf. We must use our films to pass on the beauty of the signs we have now. As long as we have deaf people on earth, we will have signs. And as long as we have our films, we can preserve signs in their old purity. It is my hope that we will all love and guard our beautiful sign language as the noblest gift God has given to deaf people.&rdquoGeorge W. Veditz, &ldquoThe Preservation of the Sign Language,&rdquo 1913, (translated from ASL by Carol Padden and Eric Malzkuhn)

Copyright © 2007 WETA. All rights reserved. Published March 2007
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The site features artifacts donated in 1955 from the Bell family's personal museum, located in the Kite House at Beinn Bhreagh. [1] The site also features memorabilia associated with Bell's experiments, including: the original hull of a hydrofoil boat, the HD-4, that set a world marine speed record in Baddeck by reaching speeds of over 112 km/h (over 70 mph) in 1919 a full-scale replica of that boat the AEA Silver Dart which in 1909 J.A.D. MacCurdy piloted up into the air over the ice of Baddeck Bay to become the first controlled heavier-than-air craft to be flown in the British Empire—plus many other exhibits and documents from Bell's years of research activities on the transmission of speech and sound by wire and by light, as well as his experiments with kites, planes and high speed boats. [1] The museum also features displays relating to Bell's work with in the field of deaf education and how it led to the invention of the telephone. The Alexander Graham Bell Historic Site was designed by Canadian government architect O. Howard Leicester, R.I.B.A. The architects for the Museum building were the Canadian architecture firm of Wood, Blachford, Ship (A. Campbell Wood, Hugh W. Blachford, Harold Ship).

In addition to its displays, the museum features an observation deck on the roof of the building offering a view of Bell's Beinn Bhreagh estate, across the bay. Beinn Bhreagh is a separate National Historic Site, still privately owned and occupied by Bell's descendants. It is not in the national park system and is not open to the public. (For more information, see Bras d'Or Lakes. [2] )

Intellectual Property

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. That was the foundation of the company that would become AT&T - a brand that is now synonymous with innovation in communications.

In 1984, the former AT&T agreed to divest its local telephone operations but retain its long distance, R&D and manufacturing arms. From this, SBC Communications Inc. (first known as Southwestern Bell Corp.) was born.

Twelve years later, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 drove major changes in the competitive landscape. SBC expanded its U.S. presence through a series of acquisitions, including Pacific Telesis Group (1997) and Ameritech Corp. (1999). In 2005, SBC acquired AT&T Corp, creating the new AT&T, a leader in global communications for businesses.

The acquisition of BellSouth in 2006 consolidated ownership of Cingular Wireless. And AT&T led one of the most significant transformations in communications since the invention of the telephone . the birth of the mobile Internet.

And we haven't stopped. In 2013, we bought Cricket to give customers in the growing prepaid market more access to mobile Internet services. In 2015, we completed our purchase of 2 Mexican wireless companies, lusacell and Nextel Mexico. Today, we're spurring smartphone adoption and on our way to becoming a leading wireless provider in that country, too. And our 2015 acquisition of DIRECTV makes us the world's largest pay TV provider.

This rich history supports our ongoing mission: Connect people with their world, everywhere they live, work and play . and do it better than anyone else.

Today, we're mobilizing video the way we mobilized the Internet . securing business communications from the smartphone to the cloud . and making cars, homes, machines, even cities smarter. And we're looking forward with anticipation to the future.

Alexander Graham Bell’s Aerial Experiment

At its outset, the Aerial Experiment Association might have seemed an unlikely venture. Launched in 1907 at the summer home of 60-year-old Alexander Graham Bell, this small group of youthful engineers and mechanics was originally organized to implement Bell’s theories of manned flight in multicellular tetrahedral kites. Funded by Bell’s wife Mabel (affectionately known as the AEA’s “little mother”), the enterprise quickly blossomed into a truly collaborative effort focused on powered aircraft. In just 18 months they would build four airplanes, conduct the first public flying exhibition in America and make the maiden flight in Canada.

Though Bell is best remembered today for his research in hearing and speech—which led to his invention in 1876 of the first practical telephone—flying had long fascinated the Scottish-born inventor. In 1896 he photographed Samuel Pierpont Langley’s 14-foot steam-powered drone in flight, and the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903 electrified him. Like the Wrights, Bell at first tested aeronautical ideas with kites. He experimented with donut-shaped and trapezoidal models, eventually constructing a structure he judged large enough to lift a man.

In 1907, when U.S. Army Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge consulted Bell about military applications for aircraft, the inventor asked his old friend President Theodore Roosevelt to assign the young serviceman to work directly with him on his kites. Bell also invited John A.D. “Jack” McCurdy and Frederick W. “Casey” Baldwin, recent graduates from the University of Toronto who were on his staff at Baddeck, to help.

Bell’s team still lacked one essential player. The aging inventor envisioned a powered kite, and to realize his dream he considered motorcycle racer and engine expert Glenn Curtiss “invaluable—and indeed necessary.” Curtiss, who hailed from upstate New York, had already met the Bells. Alexander called him “the greatest motor expert in the country.” Now he startled the motorcycle man by offering him a chance to fly.

The 3,400 tetrahedral cells of Bell’s giant Cygnet kite might have gotten it airborne, but it could never have been a practical flying machine. (Courtesy of the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum, Hammondsport, NY)

Unlike Selfridge, McCurdy and Baldwin, 29-year-old Curtiss was a married man running a successful business it was much harder for him to justify suddenly running off to Bell’s home in Nova Scotia to work on flying machines. On the other hand, given Bell’s reputation, it was a bit like having Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking ask you to help with their work. How could you turn them down? After some hesitation Curtiss agreed to join the group, which was officially founded in October 1907. Selfridge, who would serve as the AEA’s secretary, succinctly stated the newly founded association’s mission: “To get into the air.”

Bell’s kite was all of 60 feet across, incorporating 3,400 tetrahedral cells. Curtiss and the others instantly recognized that while it might fly, it would never be practical. The four younger men politely but firmly insisted that once they tried out the kite, they would be able to turn their hand to airplanes—or aerodromes, in their own terminology. Each man would take his turn as lead designer, with the others supporting him, and each aircraft would build on lessons learned from its predecessors. To put it into perspective, the four new planes would come close to doubling the number built in North America thus far. Unfailingly generous, Bell agreed to their terms.

On December 6, Selfridge crawled inside the framework of Bell’s giant kite, dubbed Cygnet, and prepared to make the first unpowered test flight. A steamboat towed the kite out onto Bras d’Or Lake near Cape Breton Island. As the towline tightened, Selfridge suddenly be – came airborne. Though the young lieutenant was doubtless tense— after all, he was learning his new job second by second—he and the rest of the team must have been thrilled as Cygnet, covered with red silk, sailed through the sky nearly 200 feet above the water’s surface. After seven minutes in the air, however, the kite plunged into the frigid lake and was destroyed.

The team quickly retrieved the lieutenant, who apparently was not much the worse for wear, then packed up the leftover silk and headed for Curtiss’ home in Hammondsport, N.Y. So much for the kite. “Bell’s Boys” were already dreaming up an airplane. Though Bell was disappointed, he continued supporting the group.

They started their New York experiments with a Chanute-type hang glider. That February locals watched them as they ran down a mountain slope, soared a few yards into the air, then slid through the snow. Meanwhile the team was also constructing an engine-powered aircraft, despite the fact that none of them had ever actually seen such a thing aside from in a photo. Even so, they finished building their airplane within eight weeks of putting pencil to paper.

Red Wing, whose wings were covered with silk left over from Bell’s kite, was Selfridge’s project—a pusher biplane with opposing dihedrals, equipped with skids for taking off on ice. Selfridge, however, had been called away on Army business by the time it was ready for testing, and Curtiss confronted the others with an uncomfortable truth: The ice wasn’t going to last much longer. So on March 12, 1908, they manhandled the aircraft aboard a coal barge and headed for frozen Lake Keuka. They gingerly slid Red Wing over the gunwales on planks onto the narrow beach. After Curtiss checked his engine one last time, they were ready for their first flight attempt.

With Selfridge away, the others had drawn straws to determine who would man the machine, and Baldwin won the honor. He clambered through the bamboo framework to straddle the pilot’s bench. They started its engine and hung onto the plane while Baldwin revved up the motor. When they let go, he lurched forward, skittering across the ice “like a scared rabbit,” as Curtiss later wrote. Red Wing flew straight and true, however, rising roughly 20 feet above the lake and settling back onto the ice 319 feet after it took off. That first flight was a spectacular success, especially considering that the machine was utterly untested, and that Baldwin had had no flying lessons.

Five days later they were back at the lake, with Baldwin wearing his lucky green tie in honor of Saint Patrick. He lifted off in Red Wing and flew 40 yards, then…horror. One wing dipped almost straight down, catching the ice with its tip. The aircraft started cartwheeling, with its youthful pilot still inside the birdcage framework.

Men raced forward, to be stopped by barked orders from Curtiss, who shouted that they would break the ice and send both machine and man to the bottom. The rescuers then cautiously advanced to where Baldwin was extricating himself from the wreckage. He escaped with only scrapes and bruises, but Red Wing had been destroyed.

The problem quickly became obvious even to the self-taught aeronauts. Baldwin could pitch Red Wing’s nose up or down with an elevator up front, and turn left or right with a rudder in back. But he had no means of controlling the roll of the wingtips Selfridge had counted on high inherent stability in his design. It was evident to all that they needed far more control in the air. Frustrating though this was, it fit right into the AEA’s plans—to create a series of planes, each building on what the designers had learned from its predecessors.

Now it was Casey Baldwin’s turn to serve as lead designer, and he already had some changes in mind. In May the team wheeled out its second aircraft. They’d salvaged the engine and tail from their previous effort, but since they were finally out of red silk, this one was dubbed White Wing. Fabric covered its nose, affording the pilot at least the psychological impression of shielding. It also had wheels (they experimented with three or four). More significant, White Wing marked what was possibly the first American use of ailerons. Triangular panels at all four wingtips provided the roll control that Red Wing had lacked.

Thanks to the AEA team’s trials, some of which attracted crowds, Hammondsport locals were becoming a techno-savvy bunch. That spring they were impressed to find a celebrity in their midst: Alexander Graham Bell had arrived to watch the next round of experiments. He stayed with the Curtisses, whose constantly ringing telephone reportedly disturbed the inventor’s sleep.

The flight tests now moved outside the village, to the Pleas ant Valley Wine Company’s grounds. Bell was on hand to see both Baldwin and Selfridge take White Wing aloft. On May 21 Curtiss celebrated his 30th birthday with a flight, first pulling Baldwin’s fabric shield off the plane’s nose (he insisted on a full range of vision). Taking off with ease, he flew more than 1,000 feet, bumping down just once. The other AEA men were impressed with his quick mastery of the controls the New Yorker’s 15 years of racing bicycles and motorcycles were clearly paying off.

Next McCurdy, who was then on crutches from a fall off his Curtiss motorcycle, took White Wing up. He wrecked the machine on his first try. No one minded too much, though, since they believed they had learned enough from their work to get started on a new design.

Curtiss pilots June Bug, displaying his design’s tricycle landing gear and innovative triangular wingtip ailerons, on the Fourth of July. (Courtesy of the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum, Hammondsport, NY)

This time Curtiss took the lead. Given his eighth-grade education, he sometimes felt a little awkward alongside his college-educated colleagues. But this was truly a team effort. For help he could count not only on the other AEA members, but also on Bell’s staff (which was used to experimenting) and his own staff (skilled at manufacturing). Nor did the list stop there. “Captain” Thomas Scott Baldwin (no relation to Casey), who manufactured airships in Hammondsport, sometimes resided with the Curtisses. In addition, other experimenters visited the town that summer in search of Curtiss engines, men working not only on airplanes and airships but also on helicopters and ornithopters. Everyone was looking over everybody else’s shoulder. Ideas percolated through the whole network, with the best ones bubbling to the top. It was a remarkably stimulating environment.

Curtiss’ project, christened June Bug by Bell, differed in looks only modestly from White Wing. Curtiss omitted the fabric shield and installed tricycle landing gear, with two rear wheels and a steerable nose wheel. He also stretched the airplane’s length and wingspan, and increased the square footage of the ailerons. As a result, the plane performed much better in flight tests, the first of which took place on June 21.

June Bug’s performance was so impressive that it prompted the team to wire the Aero Club in New York City, which was administering a competition for the Scientific American Cup, to be awarded for the first officially observed heavier-than-air flight of one kilometer with an unassisted takeoff and a safe landing. For a time the Aero Club officials stalled, hoping the Wright brothers would be the first to try. But Orville declined, pointing out how busy they were (Wilbur was in Europe at the time), and adding that it would require them to retrofit an airplane, since they preferred to use a catapult launch. Moreover, the Wrights thought of themselves primarily as scientists. Trophies, exhibitions, races and airshows were not high on their list of priorities.

So the Aero Club caved in, and Curtiss set a date for the AEA at – tempt: the Fourth of July. “Advertise it,” he told his teammates. “Invite everybody interested in flight. Draw a crowd to Hammondsport and prove to the world that we can really fly.” It would be America’s first exhibition flight.

A crowd is just what they got—more than 1,000 people, Selfridge figured, including a film crew. The morning of July 4 brought the threat of thunderstorms, and Curtiss didn’t like the air conditions. That meant everyone had to sit around and wait. Things started getting a little ugly around lunchtime, but then the winery invited everybody inside for a cold collation and impromptu tasting. The spectators decided they could wait a little longer.

By late afternoon, Curtiss was ready. He straddled June Bug’s seat wearing a tie but no jacket or cap. Warming up the engine, he rumbled forward, took off—and nearly came to grief. The tail had been set at the wrong angle. He shot off into a steep climb, and it took all his strength to control the plane and bring it back to earth. Eager hands helped wheel the aircraft back to the starting line and readjust the tail.

As Curtiss later described the scene to Bell, he was readying for his second takeoff when he spotted a photographer setting up just short of the kilometer mark. By his own admission, this provoked a sharp reaction in Curtiss, who had already suffered murmurings from the crowd because of the delays, then been embarrassed by his abortive takeoff. Now this annoying shutterbug was positioning himself for a photo of Curtiss failing to reach his mark.

This time the takeoff was perfect. With considerable satisfaction he sailed past the offending photographer and over the kilometer mark as the crowd roared in approval. To everyone’s surprise, Curtiss kept going. Just to spite the photographer, he hummed on down the valley in the bright blue sky. Winery workers snatched bottles from shelves and raced them out to the delirious crowd. June Bug would cover 5,085 feet at an average speed of 39 mph that day, setting new records for distance and time in the air during America’s first airshow.

Following June Bug’s successful demonstration, Bell asked Casey Baldwin to accompany him back to Cape Breton, where they worked on hydrofoils and the tetrahedral kite. McCurdy stayed on with Curtiss, working on his design for airplane number four. By that time, however, Curtiss and Selfridge were increasingly occupied with the U.S. Army’s plans for an embryonic air force.

Glenn Curtiss serves as flight engineer and elevator operator up front while Tom Baldwin mans the rudder of the SC-1, whose prop and elevator were developed by the AEA. (Courtesy of the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum, Hammondsport, NY)

Tom Baldwin had won a contract for the government’s first powered aircraft, a 100- foot airship bigger than anything that had ever flown in America. Curtiss was creating the liquid-cooled engine under subcontract. Baldwin borrowed a propeller design from Selfridge and adapted McCurdy’s biplane elevator design from the upcoming AEA plane. That August Baldwin and Curtiss constructed the dirigible at Fort Myer, Va., and spent two weeks conducting acceptance tests (it required two pilots). When the Signal Corps accepted the aircraft, designated SC-1, Bald win taught a group of officers to fly it, including Selfridge and future Air Corps chief Benjamin Foulois.

Selfridge stayed on in the Washington, D.C., area, since he was slated to serve as a member of the acceptance board for trials of the Wright Military Flyer in September. Orville Wright wasn’t happy about his involvement. The AEA was obviously a potential competitor, but the lieutenant was far and away the Army’s preeminent aviation expert.

On September 17, 1908, Orville took Selfridge up in the Military Flyer on a demonstration flight. After four circuits around Fort Myer, the right propeller split, resulting in a terrible crash. The Flyer was destroyed, and Orville seriously injured. Twenty-six-year-old Selfridge became the first man to be killed in an airplane crash.

The Army, the Wrights and the AEA were all staggered by the tragedy, but their work continued. Curtiss and McCurdy even rigged up floats on June Bug and rechristened it Loon. They made fruitless seaplane tests on Keuka Lake until McCurdy unwittingly damaged a float, sinking the aircraft at the dock. “Vaudeville performance by moonlight,” he wired Bell. “Submarine test most successful.”

None of this distracted McCurdy or Curtiss from completing Silver Dart, as McCurdy dubbed their next airplane. “She certainly is a beauty,” he wrote Mrs. Bell. Silver Dart had rubberized silk fabric, borrowed from Tom Baldwin’s work on the Signal Corps dirigible. It also featured large ailerons, a huge biplane elevator in the nose and—another first for American airplanes—a liquid-cooled engine. McCurdy boasted that the new plane had been built “like a watch.”

Following trials at Hammondsport, McCurdy and Curtiss dismantled Silver Dart for shipment to Baddeck. On February 23, 1909, they wheeled the biplane out onto the ice-covered Bras d’Or, in a scene reminiscent of Casey Baldwin’s first flight in their crude Red Wing 11 months earlier. A big crowd, mostly on skates, turned out to watch.

McCurdy in the driver's seat of the "Silver Dart." Un­like its predecessors, Silver Dart’s engine was mounted low, using a chain drive to turn the propeller. (Courtesy of the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum, Hammondsport, NY)

The dignified Dr. Bell jumped up in his sleigh as McCurdy and Silver Dart soared into the air for the first powered flight in Canada. But the flawless performance turned into near-tragedy when two little girls skated directly in front of McCurdy as he was landing. (Five years later Curtiss would still be complaining that the public, equating airplanes with balloons, did not realize how long it took a plane to stop.) Selfridge had designed the original Red Wing for maximum stability, but McCurdy had enlarged the control surfaces and deliberately sacrificed stability for maneuverability in Silver Dart. McCurdy calmly turned the aircraft aside, comfortably avoiding the girls and bringing it down for a gentle landing. The man who had wrecked White Wing and deep-sixed Loon, who could not be trusted to handle his motorcycle properly, was emerging as one of the finest pilots of the age.

That brilliant exhibition ignited the nation’s enthusiasm. Film footage of Silver Dart’s flight was seen in movie houses everywhere. “The whole country,” one Canadian paper reported, “had become flying-machine crazy.”

On March 31, 1909, the AEA was disbanded, with commercial rights to the designs and patents its members had initiated assigned to Curtiss. For the surviving AEA members and their associates, it had been a wild 18-month ride. They had built four increasingly sophisticated flying machines, along with a hang glider and a giant kite. They had heightened interest in aviation in the United States and Canada, and contributed to the birth of military air power. In the process, they had pioneered or advanced several key aeronautical innovations, including ailerons, tricycle landing gear and the liquid-cooled aero engine.

They had also buried a friend in Arlington National Cemetery. But as they did so, they did not forget Tom Selfridge’s vision for the AEA: “To get into the air.”

Bell, McCurdy and Casey Baldwin went on to build several more planes at Baddeck. McCurdy would take the lead in Canadian aviation production during World War II. Tom Baldwin, seeing the future in heavier-than-air flight, designed and commissioned his own fleet of exhibition aircraft.

Glenn Curtiss began building aircraft that were dramatically different from the AEA designs and the Wright machines. There is some evidence that his highly successful ideas originated from the AEA’s forgotten stepchild, the hang glider. Comparisons of the dimensions of contemporary aircraft suggest that he essentially added an engine and control surfaces to the hang glider when he developed his famed Curtiss pusher.

Curtiss, of course, became a colossus of American aviation, controlling perhaps three-quarters of the U.S. industry (plus more in Canada) by the end of World War I. He later turned to automotive work, but remained a director at his company, its Curtiss-Wright successor and several smaller firms until his death in 1930.

Casey Baldwin, who worked with Bell for years, left aviation behind in 1910. He served in the Nova Scotia legislature and died in 1948.

Alexander Graham Bell continued experimenting with kites and hydrofoils until his death in 1922, followed not long afterward by Mabel, the AEA’s financial angel.

John McCurdy flew extensively, including hops in a smaller powered version of Bell’s kite. He manufactured airplanes, headed up Curtiss Canada during World War I and served as a director of the parent Curtiss Company. McCurdy was also president of Curtiss-Reid until 1939, then served as Canada’s supervisor of purchasing and assistant director of aircraft production during World War II, and was made a member of the Order of the British Empire. He served as lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia from 1947 to 1952, dying in 1961.

As the last surviving member of the AEA, in 1959 McCurdy was flown to Baddeck, the group’s first home, for the golden anniversary of his flight in Silver Dart. Looking out the window while his airplane was on final approach that day, he saw a reproduction of Silver Dart flying below him—a fitting salute to an experiment begun more than 50 years earlier.

Lt. Thomas Selfridge and Orville Wright stepping into the Wright aeroplane at Ft. Myer, Va. on a fateful September day in 1908. (Courtesy of the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum, Hammondsport, NY)

Kirk W. House, former director-curator of the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, N.Y., has written extensively on aviation history. For further reading, he recommends his book Hell-Rider to King of the Air: Glenn Curtiss’s Life of Innovation Glenn H. Curtiss: Aviation Pioneer, which House co-authored with Charles R. Mitchell and Glenn Curtiss: Pioneer of Flight, by C.R. Roseberry. Note that you can see a flying reproduction of June Bug, as well as a Silver Dart replica on static display, at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum (www.glennhcurtissmuseum.org).

Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.

Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) on an antique print from 1899.

Bell’s Childhood and Family Background

Alexander Bell was born in 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland, to mother Eliza Grace Symonds and father Alexander Melville Bell. He was the middle of three children, between elder brother Melville James (born 1845) and younger brother Edward Charles (born 1848). Unlike his brothers, Alexander was not given a middle name at birth, but added “Graham” in 1858.

Both his father and grandfather were experts in speech and elocution (the skill of clear, expressive speech, focusing on pronunciation and articulation). His grandfather — also named Alexander — had done pioneering work in speech impediments and in 1835 published The Practical Elocutionist, which used symbols to indicate word groupings. This would be the basis of a system of “visible speech” developed by Alexander Melville Bell, which he (and later his son) would use in teaching the deaf.

The Bell children received their early schooling at home from both their father and their mother, an accomplished painter who was partially deaf. As a teenager, Alexander Bell attended the Royal High School in Edinburgh. Although Bell loved both music and science, he was an indifferent student and prone to daydreaming. Outside school, however, he demonstrated a keen mind. In 1858, at age 12, he invented a process to remove the husks at a flour mill owned by his friend’s father, adding wire brushes to an existing machine.

At age 15, Bell was sent to London, where he lived for a year with his grandfather. Around this time, Bell met telegraph researcher Charles Wheatstone, who had produced a version of Wolfgang von Kempelen’s Speaking Machine, an instrument that mechanically produced human speech. This inspired Bell and his brother Melville to develop their own “talking larynx” —an artificial windpipe that produced a small number of recognizable words when air was blown through it.

Bell began teaching elocution at age 16, while also researching the physiology of speech. His work so impressed phonetician Alexander John Ellis, that he invited the young man to join the Philological Society in 1866. The following year, he began teaching his father’s “visible speech” method to deaf students in London, where the family was then located. Sadly, Bell’s younger brother Edward died the same year of tuberculosis. Bell took anatomy and physiology at University College in London from 1868 to 1870, but didn’t finish his degree.

In May 1870, his older brother Melville died of tuberculosis, and his parents decided to leave Britain, fearing that their remaining son would succumb to the illness as well. In August 1870, he and his parents (and his widowed sister-in-law) moved to Canada and settled in Brantford, Ontario. Not long before they left, the family dined with Alexander Ellis, who pointed Bell towards the work of German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz — work that inspired Bell’s interest in electromagnetism and electricity and his belief that people would soon be able to “talk by telegraph.”

Alexander Bell and party at the home of the telephone, 1906, Brantford, Ontario (courtesy British Library).

Teacher of the Deaf

In 1871, Bell accepted a position teaching at a school for the deaf in Boston, Massachusetts, beginning a long career as an educator of the deaf in the United States. He spent summers with the family at Brantford, Ontario, retreating there to rest when his tendency to overwork left him exhausted.

Around this time, many American experts believed that deaf people (then referred to as “deaf mutes”) could not be taught to speak. The oldest school for the deaf, the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb (later the American School for the Deaf) in Hartford, Connecticut, exclusively taught sign language. There were others, however, who believed that the deaf could and should be taught oral skills. This included Gardiner Greene Hubbard, who founded the Clarke Institution for Deaf-Mutes (later the Clarke School for the Deaf) in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1867.

Bell (like his father) taught "visible speech" to the deaf by illustrating, through a series of drawings, how sounds are made, essentially teaching his students to speak by seeing sound. He helped them become aware of the sounds around them by feeling sound vibrations. One teaching aid was a balloon— by clutching one tightly against their chests students could feel sound.

In the spring of 1872, Bell taught at the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb in Hartford and the Clarke Institution for Deaf-Mutes in Northampton. That fall, he opened his own School of Vocal Physiology in Boston, and in 1873, he became a professor of vocal physiology and elocution at Boston University. The same year, he began tutoring Mabel Hubbard, a deaf student who was the daughter of Clarke School founder Gardiner Greene Hubbard. Bell was quickly captivated by the young Mabel, who was 10 years his junior (they married in 1877).

When Bell was not teaching, he spent much of his free time researching the electrical transmission of sound, eventually leading to the development of the telephone (see below). Yet while he is best known for his inventions, he remained committed to education of the deaf throughout his life. In 1887, for example, he established the Volta Bureau for research, information and advocacy for the deaf in Washington, DC. He was also president of the American Association for the Promotion of the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf (now the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing), which was founded in 1890.

Bell also had a close relationship with Helen Keller, whom he met in 1887 the two communicated frequently and Keller visited Bell’s home several times. Keller’s The Story of My Life (1903) was dedicated to Bell, “who has taught the deaf to speak and enabled the listening ear to hear speech from the Atlantic to the Rockies.”

The Multiple Telegraph

Much of Bell's work can be described as a series of observations leading one to another. His combined interest in sound and communication developed his interest in improving the telegraph, which ultimately led to his success with the telephone.

When Bell began to experiment with electrical signals, the telegraph had existed for more than 30 years. Although it was a successful system, the telegraph was limited to receiving and sending one message at a time, using Morse code. By the early 1870s, a number of inventors (including Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray) were working on a telegraph that that could transmit simultaneous messages.

Even before coming to Canada, Bell had been intrigued by the idea of using a well-known musical phenomenon to transmit multiple telegraph messages simultaneously. He knew that everything has a natural frequency (how quickly something vibrates) and that a sound's pitch relies on its frequency. By singing into a piano he discovered that varying the pitch of his voice made different piano strings vibrate in return. His observations led to the idea of sending many different messages along a single wire, with identical tuning forks tuned to different frequencies at either end to send and receive, a system he called the "harmonic telegraph."

By October 1874, Bell's research had been so successful that he informed his future father-in-law, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, about the possibility of a multiple telegraph. Hubbard resented the Western Union Telegraph Company's communications monopoly and gave Bell the financial backing he needed. Hubbard was joined by leather merchant Thomas Sanders, who was also the father of one of Bell's deaf students in Boston. Bell worked on the multiple telegraph with a young electrician, Thomas Watson. At the same time, he and Watson were exploring the possibility of a device that would transmit speech electrically.

Development of the Telephone

According to Bell, inspiration struck on 26 July 1874 during a summer visit to Brantford. While watching the currents in the Grand River, Bell reflected on sound waves moving through the air and realized that with electricity, "it would be possible to transmit sounds of any sort" by controlling the intensity of the current. Based on his new insight, he sketched a primitive telephone.

The first major breakthrough occurred on 2 June 1875. Bell and Watson were preparing an experiment with the multiple telegraph by tuning reeds on three sets of transmitters and receivers in different rooms. One of Watson's reeds, affixed too tightly, was stuck to its electromagnet. With the transmitters off, Watson plucked the reed to free it, and Bell heard a twang in his receiver. They had inadvertently reproduced sound and proved that tones could vary the strength of an electric current in a wire. The next step was to build a working transmitter with a membrane that could vary electronic currents and a receiver that could reproduce the variations in audible frequencies. Within days Watson had built a primitive telephone.

Bell continued research on the telephone, and on 14 February 1876 Hubbard submitted an application to the US Patent Office on his behalf for an undulatory current, variable resistance liquid transmitter. Hours later, Elisha Gray’s attorney submitted an application for a similar transmitter. On 7 March, Bell received Patent No. 174,465, “Improvements in Telegraphy.” Although he hadn’t yet succeeded in building a working telephone (neither had Gray), the patent established intellectual and commercial rights to the technology. He and Watson continued their work, and on 10 March 1876, Bell spoke into the first telephone, uttering the now-famous instruction to his assistant: "Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you."

Bell's work culminated in not only the birth of the telephone, but the death of the multiple telegraph. The communications potential of being able to "talk with electricity" overcame anything that could be gained by simply increasing the capacity of a dot-and-dash system.

Bell, Hubbard, Sanders and Watson formed the Bell Telephone Company on 9 July 1877. The following day, Bell gave his father, Melville, most of his Canadian rights to the telephone. On 11 July, he married Mabel Gardiner Hubbard (1857–1923) and embarked on a yearlong honeymoon in Europe. Over the next several years, the Bell company fought and won hundreds of telephone patent lawsuits in the courts, making Bell rich by age 35. By that point, however, he had largely withdrawn from the business and turned to other interests.

Alexander Graham Bell at the opening of the long-distance line from New York to Chicago (Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection, Library of Congress).

Volta Laboratory

Bell might easily have been content with the financial success of his invention. His many laboratory notebooks reveal the depth of the intellectual curiosity that drove him to learn and create. In 1880, Bell received the Volta Prize from the French government, in recognition of his achievements in electrical science (particularly the invention of the telephone). Bell used the prize money to found the Volta Laboratory Association with his cousin, Chichester A. Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter. Based in Washington, DC (where the Bell family now lived), the laboratory was dedicated to acoustic and electrical research.


In 1880, Bell and Tainter developed a device they called the "photophone," which transmitted sound on a beam of light. In February, they successfully sent a photophone message nearly 200 metres between two buildings. Bell considered the photophone "the greatest invention [he had] ever made, greater than the telephone." Although the photophone was not commercially viable, it did demonstrate that one could use light to transmit sound. Their invention is therefore considered to be the forerunner of fibre optics and wireless communications.

Metal Detector

In July 1881, Bell and Tainter developed an electrical bullet probe, in an effort to save the life of US President James A Garfield, who had been shot. The probe was unable to find the bullet and Garfield eventually died of infection. However, Bell continued to tinker with his device, and demonstrated it a few weeks later in New York. The device was commercially produced by a Dr. John H. Girdner and used by military surgeons during several wars over the next few years.


Bell, his cousin Chichester A. Bell, and Tainter also developed the graphophone, improving on the phonograph patented by Thomas Edison in 1878. Edison’s phonograph had a cylinder covered in tinfoil, upon which a rigid stylus cut a groove. Bell and his colleagues used waxed-coated cylinders, which produced a better recording, and a floating instead of a rigid stylus they also added an electric motor instead of a manual crank. The group received patents in 1886, and founded the Volta Graphophone Company with James Saville and Charles J. Bell. The following year, the American Graphophone Company was established to manufacture the graphophones, one of which became popular as a dictating machine. In 1888, Jesse Lippincott licensed the patents, with Bell using his share of the proceeds to found the Volta Bureau.

Aerodromes and Hydrodromes

From the mid-1890s, Bell’s primary research interest was aviation and flight. In 1907, Bell and his wife co-founded the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) in partnership with J.A.D. McCurdy, F.W. Baldwin and a few other young engineers, such as Glenn H. Curtiss, an American builder of motorcycle engines, and Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, who acted as observer from the American army. The team split their time between the United States and the Bell estate at Baddeck.

The association's first experimental flight was conducted on 6 December 1907. The test aircraft, the Cygnet I, was a large, tetrahedral kite placed on pontoons that attained a height of 51 metres and stayed in the air for seven minutes. In 1908, the association built and flew several aircraft, with varying success. They achieved a record on 4 July 1908 when Curtiss flew the June Bug to become the first aircraft to fly one kilometre in the western hemisphere, for which the association was awarded the Scientific American Trophy.

On 23 February 1909, McCurdy flew the Silver Dart at Baddeck — what is generally accepted as the first powered, heavier-than-air flight in Canada (the first such flight in history was achieved in 1903 by American inventors Orville and Wilbur Wright at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina).

J.A.D. McCurdy flew the Silver Dart in Baddeck, Nova Scotia on 23 February 1909, the first flight of an aircraft in Canada

Although the AEA disbanded in 1909, Baldwin and McCurdy continued to work as the Canadian Aerodrome Company (CAC) for another year, supported by Bell. The CAC hoped to convince the Canadian government to invest in their airplanes, demonstrating both the Silver Dart and the Baddeck No. I at Camp Petawawa. However, the government lost interest and the CAC dissolved in 1910. (See also Alexander Graham Bell, Aviation Pioneer.)

The hydrofoil was the creation of Alexander Graham Bell, his wife Mabel Bell and the engineer F.W. Casey Baldwin. On September 9, 1919, on the tranquil waters of the Bras d'Or, the hydrofoil raced across the surface of the lake faster than any person had ever travelled on water. At a time when the greatest steamships of the world made less than 60km/h, the HD-4 hydrofoil vessel was clocked at 114km/h.

Bell and Baldwin continued work at Baddeck, focusing on “hydrodromes” or hydrofoils (the Bell team had begun work on hydrodromes in 1908). In 1919, one of their hydrofoils, the HD-4, set a world water-speed record of 114.04 km/h, at a time when the world's fastest steamships travelled at only 48 km/h. That record was not approached by any other boat for more than a decade.

Commitment to Scientific Research

Bell worked on a number of different inventions, including the audiometer and a “vacuum jacket” (a precursor of the iron lung) following the death of his infant son in 1881. He also researched the desalination of seawater and attempted to breed a "super race" of sheep at Baddeck. Bell supported the experiments of others as well, funding the early atomic experiments of A.M. Michelson, among other projects. He also supported the journal Science, which would become America’s foremost journal of scientific research.

Bell helped found the National Geographic Society in 1888 and was its second president (1898–1903). The first president of the society was his father-in-law, Gardiner Greene Hubbard. Bell wanted the society’s magazine to appeal to the general public, not just to professional geographers and geologists, and promoted the use of photography in the magazine. In 1899, he hired Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, who would become editor-in chief in 1903 and president of the society in 1920. Grosvenor (who married Bell’s daughter, Elsie May, in 1900) was a pioneer of photojournalism. Under his leadership, the National Geographic Magazine became widely popular, increasing its circulation from under a thousand readers to more than two million.

Dr. and Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell in their motorboat Ranzo at Beinn Bhreagh (20 August 1914)


Bell married Mabel Gardiner Hubbard (1857–1923) in July 1877. Mabel Bell shared her husband’s scientific interests, and was co-founder (and funder) of the Aerial Experiment Association. She also undertook her own horticultural experiments. They enjoyed a close relationship with both sets of parents. Bell worked closely with his father-in-law, while his own parents moved to Washington, DC, to be close to their son and his family.

The Bells had two daughters — Elsie May Bell (1878–1964) and Marian Hubbard “Daisy” Bell (1880–1962) — and two sons, Edward (1881) and Robert (1883), who both died in infancy. Elsie married Gilbert Grosvenor, who would become editor-in-chief of the National Geographic Society Magazine, and had seven children. Daisy married botanist David Grandison Fairchild, whom she met through the National Geographic Society the couple had three children.

Death and Significance

Bell died in 1922 at Beinn Bhreagh, due to complications from diabetes. Best known as the inventor of the telephone, he spent much of his life teaching the deaf and considered it his most important contribution. Moreover, the telephone was only one of Bell’s many inventions and innovations. In fact, he refused to have one in his own study, as he found it intruded on his scientific work. Fittingly, all telephones in North America were silenced for a brief time at the conclusion of his funeral. His wife, Mabel, died in January 1923, just five months later. Both were interred in Nova Scotia, on a hill overlooking Baddeck Bay. The Beinn Bhreagh estate is still owned by descendants of the family and in 2015, it was declared a provincial heritage property.

Dr. Graham Bell's Laboratory near Baddeck, N.S.

The Story of Alexander Graham Bell

The Story of Alexander Graham Bell is a somewhat fictionalized 1939 biographical film of the famous inventor. It was filmed in black-and-white and released by Twentieth Century-Fox. The film stars Don Ameche as Bell and Loretta Young as Mabel, his wife, who contracted scarlet fever at an early age and became deaf.

The first half of the film concentrates on the hero's romantic, financial, and scientific struggle.

Henry Fonda is notable in a supporting role as Mr. Watson who hears the first words ever spoken over the telephone. In a pivotal scene, Bell (Don Ameche), while working on the telephone, accidentally spills acid onto his lap and shouts in pain, “Mr. Watson, come here! I want you!”. Watson, barely able to contain his own excitement, rushes into the room and stammers out the news that he heard Bell calling out to him over the telephone receiver. Bell has Watson repeat his own words to him to confirm it, and the two men begin hopping around the room, with Watson yelling out a war whoop.

The last part depicts the legal struggle against Western Union over patent priority in the invention of the telephone, ending with a courtroom victory. The final scene has the hero contemplating manned flight, under his wife's adoring gaze.

Alexander Graham Bell - HISTORY

A first love is never easily forgotten.
and coming face to face with that person again can be awkward when the heartstrings are still holding on to the “what ifs.”

In settings from 1865 to 1910, nine couples are thrown back on the same path by life’s changes and challenges. A neighbor returns from law school. An heiress seeks a quick marriage. A soldier’s homecoming is painful. A family needs help. A prodigal son returns. A rogue aeronaut drops from the sky. A runaway bridegroom comes home. A letter for aid is sent. A doctor needs a nurse. Can love rekindle despite the separation of time and space?

Heartfelt Echoes by Jennifer Uhlarik
1875—Virginia City, Nevada: A short, urgent letter mentioning his childhood love, Millie Gordon, forces deaf Travis McCaffrey to turn to his estranged birth father for help rescuing the woman he can’t forget.


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