Kites and Aerodromes -
From Tethered Flight to Aviation

Section 2: Preliminary Work on Flight - Alexander Graham Bell


Alexander Graham Bell is known to most of the world as the inventor of the first practical telephone. He achieved a United States patent for the device in 1876 and helped to create the modern world of instant communication.

Born and raised in Scotland, Bell emigrated with his family to Brantford, Ontario, Canada where he pursued work with elocution, speech and educating the deaf. His work experimenting with hearing devices led him along the path to his discovery of the science that let to the invention of the telephone. In addition, his work with the deaf introduced him to the woman who was to become his wife and life long partner, Mabel Hubbard, who had lost her hearing at an early age.

Bell's invention of the telephone and his family's shares in the Bell telephone group of companies made him a very wealthy man.

Always an inventor and man of science, Bell turned his attention to other pursuits and investigations once his earnings provided him an opportunity to do so. He was instrumental in the success of The National Geographic Society and National Geographic Magazine, founded by his father-in-law Gardner Hubbard. Bell also was heavily involved in the development of the prestigious journal Science. He served as a member of the editorial board after its founding in 1880 with seed money from Thomas Edison.

Bell pursued inquiry in a wide number of areas. Over his life he was granted 18 patents in his name alone and shared patents with others for 12 additional inventions. Topics of study and invention included: the photophone, the phonograph, selenium cells, the audiometer, impressing data in magnetic fields on records (the precursor to recording tape and hard drives), the metal detector, hydrofoils and the field of eugenic research.

All of these pursuits produced what is, in retrospect, ground breaking insights and developments. However none of the areas of endeavour excited him as much as his pioneering work in the field of aviation. The study of flight, the creation of a new form of kite construction and work with colleagues on powered "aerodromes" captivated and excited his mind.

Bell was always intriqued by the flight of birds and on trips with Mabel he would often point out to her the soaring capabillities of birds and make mention of how some of their secrets would lead to understanding of how men would some day fly.

Bell was a friend of fellow Washingtonian Samuel Pierpont Langley, a highly respected scientist. Langley became the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1887 and later founded the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. That such a noted scientist would be engaged in the study of flight with the goal of creating a machine that could fly was impressive to Bell.

On June 15, 1891 Bell was invited by Langley to witness some of his model flying machines as he ran them through experimental flights. Among Langley's models were gliders and rubber powered, propellor driven models.

Bell began to seriously ponder on the issues to be solved in order for succesful manned flight to occur. In June of 1892 Bell published an article entitled Flying Machines of the Future. In it, he described passenger carrying machines capable of long-distance flight that he believed would be possible once some of the problems of flight were solved.

By 1893 Bell began to build small kites and whirling propellor devices as he mused on some of the issues and principles of flight. With every experiment or idea tested he made notes and often illutrated them with diagrams to help record his thought process and record what he learned.

Much of this work was done at Beinn Breagh, his beloved summer estate, in Baddeck Nova Scotia. During the winter he would work in smaller quarters in his Washington home.

Bell turned more and more energy to kites as time went by. His kite structures became larger and he required staff to assist him with the constuction. Eventually he had a large building erected where all the work could be done and where the kites could be stored between flights. The "Kite House" as it came to be called was a hive of activity where several workers from the nearby village of Baddeck would assist in the building of Bell's designs.

Since Bell was a famous person, it was only natural that his work in this field would arouse curiousity and attract attention. When in Washington, he often spoke of his experiments and devices at social gatherings. He always attracted the press who published a variety of stories on his experiments. The press attention was fueled by the heightened interest of the general public in all of the activity that was going on in the fledgling field of aviation.

Bell held continued discussions with Samuel Pierpoint Langley. These conversations occurred both in Washington and at Beinn Breagh when Langley visited for an extended period in the summer of 1903. These extended discussions fueled Bell's desire to know more about flight.

Langley invited Bell to witness experiments with his largest machine, designed to carry a man. Bell was present at the spectacular crashes into the Potomac of Langley's full sized, manned glider on October 7 and December 8, 1903. The press treated Langley's experiments and the very public failures with much derision. Langley's work had been funded by the United States government so there was a general outcry about his failure to produce a successful machine. Langley was devastated by the public humiliation.

The treatment of Langley by the press had a profound effect on Bell. From that time forward he proceeded with a great deal of caution in his work, recognizing that published opinion could tarnish reputations and slow innovation.

Bell turned to mathematics and geometry as he looked to strengthen his kites and make them larger. He wanted a form that would allow him to build kites large enough to lift a person and later to add a motive power source to his kite structures. He turned to the tetrahedron as the solution. A tetrahedron is a polyhedron composed of four triangular faces, three of which meet at each vertex. This four four sided triangular shape proved to be light and strong. Bell was elated and began constructing tetrahedral kite frames which he flew regularly.

Bell's pioneering work with the tetrahedral form led to a number of applications. His experimentation with the tetrahedron was used in construction projects (a tower on his property at Beinn Breagh in Cape Breton, N.S. and other structures) as well as in kite framing. Some of the sketches in his notebooks of tetrahedral design ideas show how enamored he was with the utility and strength of the tetrahedron as a three dimensional structure.

As work progressed on his kites, he often mused on getting an engine of sufficient power to lift one of his kite structures with a flyer on board.

In 1903 the National Geographic Magazine published his article on tetrahedral kites1. This gained him much favourable attention from the press. In 1904 he demonstrated his tetrahedral kites at the St. Louis World's Fair in the special competions held there. On that occasion he met Captain Thomas Baldwin who was powering his dirigibles with engines made by young Glenn H. Curtiss and up and coming motorcycle manufacturer from Hammondsport New York.

By 1905 Bell had constructed his largest tetrahedral kite yet. Known as "The Frost King" it produced powerful lift and on at least one occasion lifted one of Bell's staff several feet into the air as the assistant clung to the rope. Fortunately, the wind gust was brief and the kite was successfully anchored.

In 1906 he was asked to exhibit his kites at the Automobile Show in New York City. Here he visited with Glenn Curtiss at the Curtiss Motorcycle Company booth and discussed engines with Curtiss.




1. "The Tetrahedral Principle in Kite Structure". National Geographic Magazine, June 1903. p219-251.