When the Wright brothers made the first heavier-than-air manned flight in 1903, the world was amazed.
Because there were quite a few people out there who had been working on the problem for some time, and some of those saw that first flight at Kitty Hawk and thought: “Meh, could’ve been better.” And one of those folks was Alexander Graham Bell.
Today, we mainly remember Bell for inventing the telephone, but he was basically one of those people who would apply his genius to whatever caught his interest. Medical devices, clean-burning fuels (what we would today call “green energy), sound recorders and players, hydrofoils, the list goes on and on.
Bell even created the photophone, a wireless telephone that used beams of light to send a signal so that one person could talk to another over distance without cables. And it worked! Bell and his assistant demonstrated it 1880 – twenty years before the first voice radio transmission.
But amongst all the many interests that Bell pursed throughout his life, one of the most persistent was the dream of aviation. He once said that:
And for Bell, the main focus was in kites. He experimented over many years with different styles and planforms, all exploring how to achieve the maximum amount of lift for the weight, and all with the idea of creating a kite capable of carrying a man. This led him to building experimental tetrahedral kites of great complexity and also led to Bell concluding that the Wright brothers biplane design was not the most efficient wing planform.
Bell recognised that the huge lift potential of the tetrahedral kite meant that, theoretically, it would need less engine power to get airborne with people on board. He was to soon get a graphic demonstration of the lifting capabilities of his designs in 1905 when one of his kites, the Frost King, lifted its handler 10 metres (c.30 feet) into the air when it caught a gust of wind of only 10mph (16km/h).
Then in 1907 Bell did a couple of things that really sparked his impact on aviation. Working from his workshop and laboratories at his estate in Canada, in December of that year he saw his first true man carrying kite take to the sky – the Cygnet. This was a steerable tetrahedral kite that’s wings were composed of 3,393 cells.
On the 6th December 1907, the Cygnet was towed across Bras d’Or Lake in Nova Scotia by a motorboat for propulsion and piloted by Lt. Thomas Selfridge of the US Army. Unfortunately, the aircraft would prove somewhat tricky to control and was effectively destroyed when it crashed into the lake on landing.
Fortunately, Lt. Selfridge wasn’t hurt, though that maybe didn’t work in his favour as he was killed the next year when flying with Orville Wright, making him the first person to die in an aircraft crash.
But as for the Cygnet, despite the issues Bell decided to rebuild it to improved design with an engine, effectively his first aeroplane design. Rechristened as the Cygnet II this aircraft, equipped with a specially built V8 that produced 50hp and a skid undercarriage, was ready for a test flight attempt in February 1909.
But despite Bell’s high hopes for the lift potential of the tetrahedral “wing” the Cygnet II never managed to get into the air, the engine just not being powerful enough.
The failure led to Bell switching his attention to a new design, the Oionus I.
This was a tetrahedral triplane that was powered in a pusher configuration, with the standard for the time forward control planes. This attempted to fly in 1910, but ultimately the same result ensued and the aircraft never got off the ground.
There was a slight delay in Bell’s personal aviation endeavours for a couple of years as he went travelling and became deeply interested in the potential of the hydrofoil, another area that he would soon be putting his considerable energies into. But in March 1912 he returned once more to aerial interests with a rebuilt Cygnet, now designated as the III, which was engined with a Gnome Gamma rotary engine that produced 70hp and with a much smaller wing than the previous versions.
With this Bell hoped to finally get a viable version of his tetrahedral aircraft flying but was once again disappointed. Several attempts were made in March 1912 to get the Cygnet III airborne, but it never managed to get the wheels more than a couple of feet off the ground.
It then suffered a major structural failure during what ended up being its last flight and came apart, fortunately not killing the pilot, John McCurdy, who would go on to set a number of aviation records and played an instrumental part in founding the Canadian aero industry.
But with the failure, Bell seems to have given up on the idea and began to devote himself to other endeavours. However, that is not to say that the legendary inventor’s aviation efforts went to waste, far from it.
Remember how I said in 1907 he had made a couple of impacts on aviation history?
The first was flying the Cygnet. The second, and far more important one, was his cofounding of the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA).
The organization was a meeting of some of leading minds in infant aviation, all committed to working together to work out solutions to the problems with aircraft design, an attitude very much different from that of the Wright brothers, who made a very determined effort to monopolise the rights to aircraft manufacture and usage.
The AEA, funded by Bell’s wife, would produce a range of different designs by various builders in a remarkably short two year period, adding considerably to the knowledge that would soon make aircraft truly viable.
It would also give an introduction to the aviation business for one talented engine builder who was bought in to create the special lightweight and powerful powerplants that were recognised as being necessary if the new aircraft designs were to succeed; Glenn Curtiss. Indeed, it was his V8 engine that was used on the Cygnet II, as well as on many of the other, more successful aircraft built by the AEA members.
Curtiss would go on to found his own aircraft company, and many of the other AEA member also played parts in the new aircraft industries.
And this is Bell’s biggest, and largely overlooked contribution to aviation. His designs might not have worked, though I personally would be intrigued what results a computer model of his tetrahedral wing would show with the use of modern materials, but his vison of bringing together the brightest minds interested in the new field and encouraging them with financial, industrial and organizational assistance, as well as throwing in his considerable reputation to back up their endeavours, makes Bell one of the unsung early contributors to aviation.