One hundred years ago, on December 6, 2007, Alexander Graham Bell launched his largest tetrahedral kite, the Cygnet II, over the waters of Bras d'Or lake in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Towed behind a steam powered boat and carrying Lieut. Thomas Selfridge as passenger and to some degree pilot, the Cygnet was a milestone in the history of the development of flight and one of the most significant events in Canadian kite history.
A great deal of attention is being paid to the tetrahedral kites of Dr. Bell during this centennial celebration year marking the historic flight of the huge Cygnet. It certainly is a time to pause and remember the amazing ingenuity of the era as humans searched for the best ways to lift people into the sky in a safe and controlled manner.
Bell's intention was to use the inherently strong tetrahedron as a building block for an 'aerodrome' (aircraft) that would eventually be powered by a gasoline engine and achieve independent flight under the control of a pilot.
The Halifax Chronicle Herald ran a feature story on the work of Bell's Aerial Experiment Association, a group of five engineer-scientist fellows. The group was funded with a $30,000 investment provided by Mabel Bell, Dr. Bell's wife, who acted as the group's Secretary-Treasurer.
Uplifting dream was born century ago
Within 18 months, Bell-led group had Silver Dart in Baddeck sky
By TERA CAMUS Cape Breton Bureau
The ChronicleHerald.ca October 1, 2007
BADDECK — It was 100 years ago today when it all began.
High on the hill overlooking Baddeck Bay, Alexander Graham Bell invited four men to his estate to begin working on a dream that would literally take flight 18 months later, in 1909.
Backed with $30,000 from Mr. Bell’s wealthy socialite wife Mabel, five creative minds forged a partnership known as the Aerial Experiment Association after the famous, aging inventor convinced them they could take flight in an aircraft after experimenting with large kites on and over his Baddeck estate.
"It’s amazing to think that for thousands and thousands of years, we couldn’t fly and within 18 months, bang, we’re flying among the stars," Mr. Bell’s great-grandson, Hugh Bell Muller, told The Chronicle Herald inside the Kite House where the five men constructed the aircraft.
Mr. Muller and his wife still walk on the original floorboards of that former barn, now renovated into a comfortable home, where Alec Bell, as he was known locally, worked with British immigrant Douglas McCurdy, a resident of Baddeck, and Toronto’s Casey Baldwin, both expert engineers. He also invited United States Lt. Thomas Selfridge and Glenn Curtiss, a New Yorker who built engines.
All five men lived in "the big house," better known as Beinn Bhreagh, which now is only open in summers for Mr. Bell’s direct descendants.
"In Bell’s time, he knew all the scientists," Mr. Muller said. "As a kid, he dreamed about flying while watching the birds."
The Wright Brothers, who had proved an aircraft could lift off using a catapult method, were busy in the United States trying to understand how to maintain flight.
"Bell was concerned with two things, the first was safety and the other was stability of controls to maintain a flight," Mr. Muller said. "Ms. Bell told him: ‘The five of you get an airplane in that air’ and it took 18 months to get the Silver Dart."
The first aircraft built in the Kite House in 1907 was the Cygnet, but it had no engine. It carried Selfridge for seven minutes and 51 metres and "flew beautifully" before it crashed into the water below Mr. Bell’s estate.
Moving on from the Cygnet, Bell and the five members of the AEA built four powered airplanes that were stable and reliable in flight. The culminating aircraft was the famous "Silver Dart" which was the first airplane to fly in the British Commonwealth of Nations when it lifted off the frozen waters of Bras d'Or Lake on February 23, 1909.During this centennial celebration year of the massive Cygnet kite, a special commemorative kite fly was organized by the Canadian Kite Federation/Federation Canadienne du Cerf-Volant amd the Drachen Foundation of Seattle WA. The event was held on the Bell estate at Beinn Bhreagh overlooking Bras d'Or Lake in Baddeck, Nova Scotia on August 21, 2007.
Gary Mark of CKF/FCCV and Scott Skinner of the Drachen Foundation were instrumental in putting together the kite fly tribute to Bell's work with the Cygnet kite. More information can be found in an excerpt from the web site of the Drachen Foundation. A terrific video of interviews with Gary Mark, principal organizer of the event, and Hugh Muller, great-grandson of Alexander Bell is found on a special video clip at YouTube. Another interesting video clip is the CBC-TV Newsworld live broadcast of the event, also at YouTube.
In the autumn of 2004, CBC ran a television series entitled: The Greatest Canadian. Alexander Graham Bell was one of the featured candidates for the title of the greatest Canadian. I had the privilege of working on the production of that television show along with my good friend Gary Mark. To read about that story you can see an earlier posting in the Best-Breezes blog that detailed Bell's tetrahedral kites and see how a kite was included in the video taping for the show.
In the web site section of Best-Breezes, you can find more detailed information on Bell's Cygnet kite, the aerodromes of the Aerial Experiment Association, and a variety of other references on Bell's work with kites and aircraft. Be sure to check out the article entitled: Alexander Graham Bell: After the Telephone - Tetrahedral Kites, Airplanes and Hydrofoils.
One hundred years later the memory of Alexander Graham Bell's giant tetrahedral kites still lifts the imagination and makes the spirit soar!