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Alexander Graham Bell
1847 - 1922

Alexander Graham Bell (3 March 1847 - 2 August 1922) was a Scottish scientist, inventor and innovator. Throughout his early life, Alexander Graham Bell was a British subject but in 1915, he characterized his status as: "I am not one of those hyphenated Americans who claim allegiance to two countries." Despite this declaration, Bell has been claimed as a "native son" by Canada, Scotland and the United States. Born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland, he emigrated to Canada in 1870, and then to the United States in 1871, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1882. Bell would spend his final, and some of his most productive years in residence in both Washington, D.C. and Beinn Bhreagh (Gaelic: beautiful mountain), a summer retreat he built in Nova Scotia, Canada. Recognized as an eminent scientist and inventor, Alexander Graham Bell is most often associated with the invention of the telephone. In later life, Bell considered his most famous invention was an intrusion on his real work and refused to have a telephone in his study.

Alexander Graham Bell was called "the father of the deaf". His father, grandfather and brother had all been associated with work on elocution and speech, and both his mother and wife were deaf, profoundly influencing Bell's life's work. His research on hearing and speech further led him to experiment with hearing devices that eventually culminated in the invention of the telephone. Bell was awarded the first U.S. patent for the invention of the telephone in 1876. Although other inventors had claimed the honor, the Bell patent remained in effect. Many other inventions marked Bell's later life including groundbreaking work in hydrofoils and aeronautics. In 1888, Alexander Graham Bell was one of the founding members of the National Geographic Society. Upon Bell's death, all telephones throughout the United States stilled their ringing for a silent minute in tribute to the man whose yearning to communicate made them possible.

Early years

Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh Scotland on 3 March 1847. The family home was at 16 South Charlotte Street, Edinburgh and has a commemorative marker at the doorstep, marking this as Alexander Graham Bell's birthplace. He had two brothers: Melville James Bell (1845-1870) and Edward Charles Bell (1848-1867). Both of his brothers died of tuberculosis, Edward in 1867 and Melville in 1870. His father was Professor Alexander Melville Bell, and his mother was Eliza Grace (nee Symonds). At age ten, he made a plea to his father to have a middle name like his two brothers. For his 11th birthday, his father acquiesced and allowed him to adopt the middle name "Graham" chosen out of admiration for Alexander Graham, a Canadian being treated by his father and boarder who had become a family friend. To close relatives and friends he remained "Aleck" which his father continued to call him into later life.

First invention

As a child, Bell displayed a natural curiosity about his world, resulting in gathering botanical specimens as well as experimenting even at an early age. His best friend was Ben Herdman, a neighbour whose family operated a flour mill, the scene of many forays. When their typical child's play had caused a racket one day, John Herdman admonished the two boys, "Why don't you do something useful?" Young Aleck asked what needed to be done at the mill. He was told wheat had to be dehusked through a laborious process and at the age of 12, Bell built a homemade device that combined rotating paddles with sets of nail brushes, creating a simple dehusking machine that was put into operation and used steadily for a number of years. In return, John Herdman gave both boys the run of a small workshop to "invent."

Early work with speech

From his early years, Aleck showed a sensitive nature and a talent for art, poetry and music that was encouraged by his mother. With no formal training, he mastered the piano and became the family's pianist. Despite being normally quiet and introspective, he reveled in mimicry and "voice tricks" akin to ventriloquism that constantly entertained family guests. Aleck was also deeply affected by his mother's gradual deafness (she began to lose her hearing when Aleck was 12) and learned a manual finger language so he could sit at her side and tap out silently the conversations swirling around the family parlour. He also developed a technique of speaking in clear, modulated tones directly into his mother's forehead wherein she would hear him with reasonable clarity. Aleck's preoccupation with his mother's deafness led him to study acoustics.

His family was associated with the teaching of elocution: his grandfather, Alexander Bell, in London, his uncle in Dublin, and his father, in Edinburgh, were all elocutionists. His father published a variety of works on the subject, several of which are still well known, especially his The Standard Elocutionist (1860) and treatise on Visible Speech, which appeared in Edinburgh in 1868. In this treatise, he explains his methods of how to instruct deaf-mutes (as they were then known) to articulate words and read other people's lip movements to decipher meaning. Aleck's father taught him and his brothers not only to write Visible Speech but also to identify any symbol and its accompanying sound. Aleck became so proficient that he became part of his father's public demonstrations and astounded audiences with his abilities in deciphering Latin, Gaelic and even Sanskrit symbols.


Although young Aleck Bell, like his brothers, received his early schooling at home from his father, he was enrolled at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, Scotland, which he left at age 15, completing the first four forms only. His school record was undistinguished, marked by absenteeism and lacklustre grades. His main interest remained in the sciences, especially biology but other school subjects were treated with indifference, to the dismay of his demanding father. Upon leaving school, Aleck went to London to live with his grandfather, Alexander Bell. During the year he spent with his grandfather, a love of learning was born, with long hours spent in serious discussion and study. The elder Bell took great efforts to have his young pupil learn to speak clearly and with conviction, the attributes Aleck would need to become a teacher himself. At age 16, he secured a position as a "pupil-teacher" of elocution and music, in Weston House Academy, at Elgin, Moray, Scotland. Although Alexander was enrolled as a student in Latin and Greek, he instructed in return for board and ten pounds per session. The following year, he attended the University of Edinburgh, joining his older brother Melville who was already enrolled there the previous year; Aleck intended to write exams there but later graduated from the University of Toronto.

First experiments with sound

Bell's father encouraged Aleck's interest in speech and in 1863, took his sons to see a unique automaton, developed by Sir Charles Wheatstone based on the earlier work of Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen. The rudimentary "mechanical man" simulated a human voice. Aleck was fascinated by the machine and after he obtained a copy of von Kempelen's book published in Germany and had laboriously translated it, Aleck and his older brother, Melville built their own automaton head. Their father, highly interested in their project, offered to pay for any supplies and spurred the boys on with the enticement of a "big prize" if they were successful. While his brother constructed the throat and larynx, Aleck tackled the more difficult task of recreating a realistic skull. His efforts resulted in a remarkably lifelike head that could "speak," albeit only a few words. The boys would carefully adjust the "lips" and when a bellows forced air through the windpipe, a very recognizable "Mama" ensued, to the delight of neighbors who came to see the Bell invention.

Intrigued by the results of the automaton, Aleck continued to experiment with a live subject, the family's Skye terrier, "Trouve". After he taught it to growl continuously, Aleck would reach into its mouth and manipulate the dog's lips and vocal chords to produce a crude-sounding "Ow ah oo ga ma ma" ("How are you grandma?"). More indicative of his playful nature, his experiments convinced onlookers that they saw a "talking dog." However, these initial forays into experimentation with sound led Aleck to undertake his first serious work on the transmission of sound, using tuning forks to explore resonance. At the age of 19, he wrote a report on his work and sent it to Alexander Ellis, a colleague of his father. Ellis immediately wrote back indicating that the experiments were similar to existing work in Germany. Dismayed to find that groundbreaking work had already taken place by Hermann von Helmholtz who had conveyed vowel sounds by means of a similar tuning fork "contraption", he pored over the German scientist's book, Sensations of Tone. From his translation of the original German edition, Aleck then made a deduction that would be the underpinning of all his future work on transmitting sound, "Without knowing much about the subject, it seemed to me that if vowel sounds could be produced by electrical means so could consonants, so could articulate speech."

Family tragedy

In 1865, when the Bell family moved to London, Aleck returned to Weston House as an assistant master and in his spare hours, continued experiments on sound using a minimum of laboratory equipment. Throughout the fall and winter, his health faltered mainly through exhaustion. His younger brother, Edward "Ted" was similarly bed-ridden, suffering from tuberculosis. While Aleck recovered (now referring to himself in correspondence as "A.G. Bell") and served the next year as an instructor at Somerset College, Bath, Somerset, England, his brother's condition deteriorated. Edward would never recover. Upon his brother's passing, Aleck returned home in 1867. His older brother, "Melly" had married and moved out. With aspirations to obtain a degree at the University of London, Aleck considered his next years as preparation for the degree examinations, devoting his spare time at his family's residence to studying.

Helping his father in Visible Speech demonstrations and lectures brought Aleck to Susanna E. Hull's private school for the deaf in South Kensington, London. His first two pupils were "deaf mute" girls who made remarkable progress under his tutelage. While his older brother seemed to achieve success on many fronts including setting up his own school for elocution, applying for a patent on an invention, and beginning a family, Aleck continued as a teacher. In May 1870, Melville died from complications of tuberculosis, causing a family crisis. His father had also suffered a debilitating illness earlier in life and had been restored to health by a convalescence in Newfoundland. Making a swift judgement, Alexander Melville Bell asked Aleck to arrange for the sale of all the family property, conclude all of his brother's affairs (Aleck took over a last student, curing a pronounced lisp) and join his father and mother in setting out for the "New World." Reluctantly, Aleck also had to conclude a relationship with Marie Eccleston, whom he surmised was not prepared to leave England with him.


In 1870, at age 23, Aleck, his brother's widow, Caroline (Margaret Ottaway), and his parents travelled on the SS Nestorian to Canada. After landing at Quebec City, the Bells boarded a train to Montreal and later to Paris, Ontario to stay with the Reverend Thomas Henderson, a family friend. After a brief stay with the Hendersons, the Bell family purchased a ten and a half acre farm at Tutelo Heights (now called Tutela Heights), near Brantford, Ontario. The property consisted of an orchard, larger farm house, stable, pigsty, hen-house and carriage house, bordering the Grand River.

At the homestead, Aleck Bell set up his own workshop in the converted carriage house near to what he called his "dreaming place," a large hollow nestled in trees at the back of the property above the river. Despite his frail condition upon arriving in Canada, Aleck found the climate and environs to his liking, and rapidly improved. He continued his interest in the study of the human voice and when he discovered the Six Nations Reserve across the river at Onondaga, he learned the Mohawk language and translated its unwritten vocabulary into Visible Speech symbols. For his work, Aleck was awarded the title of honorary chief and participated in a ceremony where he donned a Mohawk headdress and danced traditional dances.

After setting up his workshop, Aleck continued experiments based on Helmholtz's work with electricity and sound. He designed a piano which, by means of electricity, could transmit its music at a distance. Once the family was settled in, both Aleck and his father made plans to establish a teaching practice and in 1871, he accompanied his father to Montreal, where Melville was offered a position to teach his System of Visible Speech.

Work with the deaf

Subsequently, his father was invited by Sarah Fuller, principal of the Boston School for Deaf Mutes (which continues today as the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing), in Boston, Massachusetts, United States, to introduce the Visible Speech System by providing training for Fuller's instructors but he declined the post, in favor of his son. Travelling to Boston in April 1871, Alexander provided a successful inservicing of the school's instructors. Bell was subsequently asked to repeat the program at the American Asylum for Deaf-mutes in Hartford and the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton.

Returning home to Brantford after six months abroad, Alexander continued his experiments with his "harmonic telegraph." The basic concept behind his device was that messages could be sent through one wire if each message was transmitted at a different pitch but work on both the transmitter and receiver were needed. Unsure of his future, he first contemplated returning to London to complete his studies but decided to return to Boston as a teacher. His father helped Aleck set up his private practise by contacting Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the president of the Clarke School for the Deaf for a recommendation. Teaching his father's system, in October 1872, Alexander Bell opened a school in Boston named the "Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech" which attracted a large number of deaf pupils. His first class numbered 30 students. Working as a private tutor, one of his most famous pupils was Helen Keller, who came to him as a young child, unable to see, hear or speak. She later was to say that Bell dedicated his life to the penetration of that "inhuman silence which separates and estranges."

Continuing experimentation

In the following year, Alexander became professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at the Boston University School of Oratory. During this period, he alternated between Boston and Brantford, spending summers in his Canadian home. At Boston University, Bell was "swept up" by the excitement engendered by the many scientists and inventors resident in the city. He continued his research in sound and endeavored to find a way to transmit musical notes and articulate speech, but although absorbed by his experiments, he found it difficult to devote enough time to experimentation. While days and evenings were occupied by his teaching and private classes, Alexander began to stay awake late into the night, running experiment after experiment in rented facilities at his boarding house. Keeping up "night owl" hours, he worried that his work would be discovered and took great pains to lock up his notebooks and laboratory equipment. Worse still, his health deteriorated as he suffered severe headaches. Returning to Boston in fall 1873, Alexander made a fateful decision to concentrate on his experiments in sound.

Deciding to give up his lucrative private Boston practise, Alexander only retained two students, six-year old "Georgie" Sanders, deaf from birth and 15-year old Mabel Hubbard. Each pupil would serve to play an important role in the next developments. George's father, Thomas Sanders, a wealthy businessman, offered Bell a place to stay at nearby Salem with Georgie's grandmother, complete with a room to "experiment." The arrangement was for teacher and student to continue their work together with free room and board thrown in. Mabel was a bright, attractive girl who was ten years his junior but became the object of Alexander's affection. Losing her hearing after a bout of scarlet fever at age five, she had learned to read lips but her father, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, Bell's benefactor and personal friend, wanted her to work directly with her teacher.


By 1874, Bell's initial work on the harmonic telegraph had entered a formative stage with progress made both at his new Boston "laboratory" as well as at his family home in Canada. That year, telegraph message traffic was rapidly expanding and in the words of Western Union President William Orton, had become "the nervous system of commerce." Orton had contracted with inventors Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray to find a way to send multiple telegraph messages on each telegraph line to avoid the great cost of constructing new lines. Philipp Reis, a German self-taught scientist and inventor, also worked on a version of the telephone many years before Bell.

While working that summer in Brantford, Bell concentrated on his "phonautograph," a pen-like machine that could draw shapes of sounds on glass by tracing their vibrations. His preliminary work on the device led to a "giant leap in logic," in that it showed that sound travelled in waves and that it might be possible to generate an electrical current that corresponded to vibrations of sound. Transferring this spark of intuition to his harmonic telegraph led Bell to consider that he could send an "undulatory" current that could be converted into sounds.

When Bell mentioned to Gardiner Hubbard and Thomas Sanders that he was working on a method of sending multiple tones on a telegraph wire using a multi-reed device, the two wealthy patrons began to financially support Bell's experiments. Patent matters would be handled by Hubbard's patent attorney Anthony Pollok. In early 1875, Bell visited the famous scientist Joseph Henry, who was then director of the Smithsonian Institution, and asked Henry's advice on an electrical multi-reed apparatus which Bell hoped would transmit the human voice by telegraph. Henry replied that Bell had "the germ of a great invention". When Bell said that he did not have the necessary knowledge, Henry replied, "Get it!" That declaration greatly encouraged Bell to keep trying. Bell faced one crucial obstacle in that he did not have the equipment needed to continue his experiments, nor the ability to create a working model of his ideas. A chance meeting between Bell and Thomas A. Watson, an experienced electrical designer and mechanic at the electrical machine shop of Charles Williams, changed all that.

With the benefit of his financial support, Bell was able to hire Thomas Watson as his assistant. Bell and Watson experimented with acoustic telegraphy in 1874 and 1875. On 2 June 1875, Watson accidentally plucked one of the reeds and Bell at the receiving end of the wire, heard the overtones of the reed, overtones that would be necessary for transmitting speech. This led to the "gallows" sound-powered telephone, which was able to transmit indistinct voice-like sounds but not clear speech.

The race to the patent office

Meanwhile, Elisha Gray was also experimenting with acoustic telegraphy and thought of a way to transmit speech using a water transmitter. On 14 February 1876, Gray filed a caveat with the U.S. patent office for a telephone design that used a water transmitter. That same morning, Bell's lawyer filed an application with the patent office for the telephone. There is a debate about who arrived first.

On 14 February 1876, Bell was in Boston. Hubbard, who was paying for the costs of Bell's patents, told his patent lawyer Anthony Pollok to file Bell's application in the U.S. Patent Office. This was done without Bell's knowledge. Patent Number 174,465 was issued to Bell on 7 March 1876 by the U.S. Patent Office which covered "the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically… by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sound."

Three days after his patent was issued, Bell experimented with a water transmitter, using an acid-water mixture. Vibration of the diaphragm caused a needle to vibrate in the water which varied the electrical resistance in the circuit. When Bell spoke the famous sentence "Mr Watson — Come here — I want to see you" into the liquid transmitter, Watson, listening at the receiving end in an adjoining room, heard the words clearly.

Later developments

Continuing his experiments in Brantford, Bell brought a working model of his telephone home. On 3 August 1876, from the telegraph office in Mount Pleasant five miles (eight km) away from Brantford, Alexander sent a tentative telegram indicating he was ready. With curious onlookers packed into the office as witnesses, faint voices were heard replying. The following night, he amazed his family and guests when a message was received at the Bell home from Brantford, four miles (six km) distant along an improvised wire strung up along telegraph lines, fences and ending up being laid through a tunnel. This time guests at the household distinctly heard people in Brantford reading and singing. These first long-distance transmissions clearly proved that the telephone could work over long distances.

Bell and his partners, Hubbard and Sanders, offered to sell the patent outright to Western Union for $100,000. The president of Western Union balked, countering that the telephone was nothing but a toy. Two years later, he told colleagues that if he could get the patent for $25 million he would consider it a bargain. By then the Bell company no longer wanted to sell the patent. Bell's investors would become millionaires while he fared well from residuals and at one point, had assets nearly reaching one million dollars.

Bell began a series of public demonstrations and lectures in order to introduce the new invention to the scientific community as well as the general public. His demonstration of an early machine at the 1876 Centenary Exhibition in Philadelphia,the following day, made the telephone the featured headline worldwide. Influential visitors to the exhibition included Emperor Pedro II of Brazil, and later Bell had the opportunity to personally demonstrate the invention to William Thomson, a renowned Scottish scientist and even Queen Victoria who had requested a private audience at her Isle of Wight home; she called it "most extraordinary." The enthusiasm that surrounded Bell's public displays laid the groundwork for acceptance of the revolutionary device.

The Bell Telephone Company was created in 1877, and by 1886, over 150,000 people in the U.S. owned telephones. Bell company engineers made numerous other improvements to the telephone which developed into one of the most successful products. In 1879, the Bell company acquired Edison's patents for the carbon microphone from Western Union. This made the telephone practical for long distances, unlike Bell's voice-powered transmitter that required users to shout into it to be heard at the receiving telephone, even at short distances. On 25 January 1915, Alexander Graham Bell sent the first transcontinental telephone call, at 15 Day Street in New York City, which was received by Thomas Watson at 333 Grant Avenue in San Francisco.


As is sometimes common in scientific discoveries, simultaneous developments can occur, as evidenced by a number of inventors who were at work on the telephone. Although many of these devices had common features that were incorporated in Bell's machine, none were successful in establishing priority over the original Bell patent. The Bell company lawyers successfully fought off a myriad of lawsuits generated initially around the challenges by Elisha Gray and Amos Dolbear.On 13 January 1887, the Government of the United States moved to annul the patent issued to Bell on the grounds of fraud and misrepresentation. The prosecuting attorney was the Hon. George M. Stearns under the direction of the Solicitor General George A. Jenks.The Bell company decisively won the landmark case.

Over a period of 18 years, the Bell Telephone Company faced over 600 litigations from inventors claiming to have invented the telephone, never once losing a case. One such example was Italian inventor Antonio Meucci who claimed in 1834 to have created the first working model of a telephone in Italy. In 1876, Meucci took Bell to court in order to establish his priority. Meucci lost his case due to lack of material evidence of his inventions. Meucci's work, like many other inventors of the period, was based around earlier acoustic principles. However, due to the efforts of Italian American Congressman Vito Fossella, Resolution 269 the U.S. House of Representatives on 11 June 2002 stated that Meucci's "work in the invention of the telephone should be acknowledged," even though this did not put an end to a still contentious issue. Overwhelmingly, modern scholars do not recognize the claims of acoustic devices such as Meucci's had any bearing on the development of the telephone.

The value of the Bell patent was acknowledged throughout the world, and when Bell had delayed the German patent application, the electrical firm of Siemens & Halske (S&H) managed to set up a rival manufacturer of Bell telephones under their own patent. A series of agreements in other countries eventually consolidated a global telephone operation. The strain on Bell by his constant appearances in court necessitated by the legal battles, eventually resulted in his resignation from the company.

Family life

On 11 July 1877, a few days after the Bell Telephone Company began, Bell married Mabel Hubbard (1857-1923) at the Hubbard estate in Cambridge, and shortly after, embarked on a yearlong honeymoon in Europe. Although the courtship had begun years earlier, Alexander waited until he was financially secure before marrying. One unusual request exacted by his fiancée was that he use "Alec" rather than the family's earlier familiar name. From 1876, he would sign his name "Alec Bell." They had four children: Elsie May Bell (1878-1964) who married Gilbert Grosvenor of National Geographic fame; Marian Hubbard Bell (1880-1962) who was referred to as "Daisy"; and two sons who died in infancy.

In 1882, Bell became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Although the Bell family maintained a residence in Washington, DC, where Alec would set up a laboratory, by 1885, a new summer retreat was contemplated. That summer, the Bells had a vacation on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, spending time at the small village of Baddeck. Returning in 1886, Bell started building an estate on a point across from Baddeck, overlooking Bras d'Or Lake. By 1889, a large house, christened "The Lodge" was completed and two years later, a larger complex of buildings were begun that the Bells would name Beinn Bhreagh after Alec's ancestral Scottish highlands. Until the end of his life Alec and his family would alternate between the two homes, but Beinn Bhreagh would, over the next 30 years, become more than a summer home as Bell became so absorbed in his experiments that annual stays lengthened. Both Mabel and Alec became immersed in the Baddeck community and were accepted by the villagers as "their own."

Later inventions

Although Alexander Graham Bell is most often associated with the invention of the telephone, his interests were extremely varied. The range of Bell's inventive genius is represented only in part by the 18 patents granted in his name alone and the 12 he shared with his collaborators. These included 14 for the telephone and telegraph, four for the photophone, one for the phonograph, five for aerial vehicles, four for "hydroairplanes" and two for selenium cells. Bell's inventions spanned a wide range of interests and included a metal jacket to assist in breathing, the audiometer to detect minor hearing problems, a device to locate icebergs, investigations on how to separate salt from seawater, and work on finding alternative fuels.

Bell worked extensively in medical research and invented techniques for teaching speech to the deaf. During his Volta Laboratory period, Bell and his associates considered impressing a magnetic field on a record as a means of reproducing sound. Although the trio briefly experimented with the concept, they were unable to develop a workable prototype. They abandoned the idea, never realizing they had glimpsed a basic principle which would one day find its application in the tape recorder, the hard disc and floppy disc drive and other magnetic media.

Bell's own home used a primitive form of air conditioning, in which fans blew currents of air across great blocks of ice. He also anticipated modern concerns with fuel shortages and industrial pollution. Methane gas, he reasoned, could be produced from the waste of farms and factories. At his Canadian estate in Nova Scotia, he experimented with composting toilets and devices to capture water from the atmosphere. In a magazine interview published shortly before his death, he reflected on the possibility of using solar panels to heat houses.

Metal detector

Bell is also credited with the invention of the metal detector in 1881. The device was hurriedly put together in an attempt to find the bullet in the body of U.S. President James Garfield. The metal detector worked flawlessly in tests but did not find the assassin's bullet partly because the metal bed frame the president was lying on disturbed the instrument, resulting in static. The president's surgeons, who were sceptical of the device, ignored Bell's requests to move the president to a bed not fitted with metal springs. Alternately, although Bell had detected a slight sound on his first test, the bullet may have lodged too deeply to be detected by the crude apparatus. Bell gave a full account of his experiments in a paper read before the American Association for the Advancement of Science in August 1882.


The March 1906 Scientific American article by American hydrofoil pioneer William E. Meacham explained the basic principle of hydrofoils and hydroplanes. Bell considered the invention of the hydroplane as a very significant achievement. Based on information gained from that article he began to sketch concepts of what is now called a hydrofoil boat. Bell and assistant Frederick W. "Casey" Baldwin began hydrofoil experimentation in the summer of 1908 as a possible aid to airplane takeoff from water. Baldwin studied the work of the Italian inventor Enrico Forlanini and began testing models. This led him and Bell to the development of practical hydrofoil watercraft.

During his world tour of 1910–1911, Bell and Baldwin met with Forlanini in France. They had rides in the Forlanini hydrofoil boat over Lake Maggiore. Baldwin described it as being as smooth as flying. On returning to Baddeck, a number of initial concepts were built as experimental models, including the Dhonnas Beag, the first self-propelled Bell-Baldwin hydrofoil. The experimental boats were essentially proof-of-concept prototypes that culminated in the more substantial HD-4, powered by Renault engines. A top speed of 54 miles per hour (87 km/h) was achieved, with the hydrofoil exhibiting rapid acceleration, good stability and steering along with the ability to take waves without difficulty. In 1913, Dr. Bell hired Walter Pinaud, a Sydney yacht designer and builder as well as the proprietor of Pinaud's Yacht Yard in Westmount, Nova Scotia to work on the pontoons of the HD-4. Pinaud soon took over the boatyard at Bell Laboratories on Beinn Bhreagh, Bell's estate near Baddeck, Nova Scotia. Pinaud's experience in boatbuilding enabled him to make useful design changes to the HD-4. After the First World War, work began again on the HD-4. Bell's report to the U.S. Navy permitted him to obtain two 350 horsepower (260 kW) engines in July 1919. On 9 September 1919, the HD-4 set a world's marine speed record of 70.86 miles per hour (114.04 km/h). This record stood for ten years.


Bell was a supporter of aerospace engineering research through the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), officially formed at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, in October 1907 at the suggestion of Mrs. Mabel Bell and with her financial support. The AEA was headed by Bell and the founding members were four young men: American Glenn H. Curtiss, a motorcycle manufacturer who later was awarded the Scientific American Trophy for the first official one-kilometre flight in the Western hemisphere and became a world-renowned airplane manufacturer; Frederick W. Baldwin, the first Canadian and first British subject to pilot a public flight in Hammondsport, New York; J.A.D. McCurdy; and Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, an official observer from the U.S. government. In 1891, Bell began experiments to develop motor-powered heavier-than-air aircraft.

In 1898, Bell experimented with tetrahedral box kites and wings constructed of multiple compound tetrahedral kites covered in silk. The tetrahedral wings were named Cygnet I, II and III, and were flown both unmanned and manned (Cygnet I crashed during a flight carrying Selfridge) in the period from 1907-1912. Some of Bell's kites are on display at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site.

The AEA's work progressed to heavier-than-air machines, applying their knowledge of kites to gliders. Moving to Hammondsport, the group then designed and built the Red Wing, framed in bamboo and covered in red silk and powered by a small air-cooled engine. On 12 March 1908, the biplane lifted off on the first public flight in North America. The innovations that were incorporated into this design included a cockpit enclosure and tail rudder (later variations on the original design would add ailerons as a means of control). One of the AEA project's inventions, the aileron, is a standard component of aircraft today. (The aileron was also invented independently by Robert Esnault-Pelterie.) The White Wing and June Bug were to follow and by the end of 1908, over 150 flights without mishap had been accomplished. However, the AEA had depleted its initial reserves and only a $10,000 grant from Mrs. Bell allowed it to continue with experiments.

Their final aircraft design, the Silver Dart embodied all of the advancements found in the earlier machines. On 23 February 1909, Bell was present as the Silver Dart flown by J.A.D. McCurdy from the frozen ice of Lake Baddeck, made the first aircraft flight in Canada (and the British Empire). Bell had worried that the flight was too dangerous and had arranged for a doctor to be on hand. With the successful flight, the AEA disbanded and the Silver Dart would revert to Baldwin and McCurdy who began the Canadian Aerodrome Company and would later demonstrate the aircraft to the Canadian Army.


Along with many very prominent thinkers and scientists of the time, Bell was connected with the eugenics movement in the United States. From 1912 until 1918 he was the chairman of the board of scientific advisers to the Eugenics Record Office associated with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, and regularly attended meetings. In 1921, he was the honorary president of the Second International Congress of Eugenics held under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Organizations such as these advocated passing laws (with success in some states) that established the compulsory sterilization of people deemed to be, as Bell called them, a "defective variety of the human race". By the late 1930s, about half the states in the U.S. had eugenics laws, and the California laws were used as a model for eugenics laws in Nazi Germany.

His ideas about people he considered defective centered on the deaf. This was because of his feelings for his deaf family and his contact with deaf education. In addition to advocating sterilization of the deaf, Bell wished to prohibit deaf teachers from being allowed to teach in schools for the deaf. He worked to outlaw the marriage of deaf individuals to one another, and he was an ardent supporter of oralism over the use of sign language to educate deaf students. His avowed goal was to eradicate the language and culture of the deaf so as to encourage them to assimilate into the hearing culture, for their own long-term benefit and for the benefit of society at large.

Although he supported what some consider harsh and inhumane policies today, he was not unkind to deaf individuals who supported his theories of oralism. He was a personal and longtime friend of Helen Keller, and his wife Mabel was deaf (none of their children were).

Awards and honours

In 1880, Bell received the Volta Prize which he used to fund the Volta Laboratory in Washington, D.C. In partnership with Gardiner Hubbard, Bell established the publication Science in 1883. In 1888, Bell was one of the founding members of the National Geographic Society and became its second president (1897-1904) and Regent of the Smithsonian Institution (1898-1922). He was the recipient of many honors. The French government conferred on him the decoration of the Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honor); the Académie française bestowed on him the Volta Prize of 50,000 francs; the Royal Society of Arts in London awarded him the Albert Medal in 1902; and the University of Würzburg, Bavaria, granted him a Ph.D. He was awarded the AIEE's Edison Medal in 1914 "For meritorious achievement in the invention of the telephone."


Bell died of pernicious anemia on 2 August 1922, at his private estate, Beinn Bhreagh, Nova Scotia at age 75. While tending to her husband after a long illness, Mabel whispered, "Don't leave me." By way of reply, Bell traced the sign for "No" – and promptly expired.

Dr. Alexander Graham Bell was buried atop Beinn Bhreagh mountain overlooking Bras d'Or Lake. He was survived by his wife and his two daughters.









This web page was last updated on: 08 December, 2008