Canadian Aviation History
Early in the 1890’s, Alexander Graham Bell looked on as Samuel Langley’s model aircraft took flight in Washington and concluded, “I shall have to make experiments of my own in Cape Breton. Can’t keep out of it.”
And, it was at his summer home, Beinn Bhreagh in Baddeck, Cape Breton that Bell began his experimentation with flight.
Other aviation pioneers were busy studying how to get a man into the air. The first controlled, powered flight in the world was over Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903 by Orville and Wilbur Wright. It was a biplane. Bell didn’t learn of this feat until 1905 and it only spurred him on, determined to continue his own work at his laboratory in Beinn Bhreagh.
Worried about safety, Bell first used self-propelled kites, believing this was the way to eventually get man into the air. He built ring kits, box kites and kites made of tetrahedral cells, one of which named the ‘Frost King’ carried Neil McDermid into the air nine metres in 1905.
It was Bell’s wife Mabel that encouraged him to get other younger men involved who were just as enthusiastic about flight but could bring engineering and other technical knowledge into the mix. Bell, as he often did, listened to his wife’s advice.
Bell asked J.A.D. “Douglas” McCurdy to join him at Beinn Bhreagh and bring a fellow student with him. Now a mechanical engineering student at the University of Toronto, McCurdy was the son of a longtime family friend and spent many summers in Baddeck. McCurdy asked Frederick W. Baldwin, known as Casey, to join him for a summer holiday in Baddeck. Both men thoroughly enjoyed their time working with Bell and his assistants at Beinn Bhreagh.
Baldwin, born in Toronto, already was very interested in aviation and wrote a thesis on the possibility of powered flight. After his summer holiday, Baldwin returned to Baddeck in the fall of 1906 where he helped Bell experiment with his kites and built a tower made of tetrahedral cells on the top of Beinn Bhreagh. After he completed his studies in 1907, McCurdy joined Baldwin and Bell.
Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, a graduate of West Point Academy and an artillery officer with the United States Army read about Bell in National Geographic and contacted him so he could observe his kite experiments. Bell wrote to President Theadore Roosevelt requesting Selfridge be assigned to Beinn Bhreagh to be the US Army’s official observer. Selfridge was appointed to the new Aeronautical Division of the US Army and joined Baldwin and McCurdy in 1907.
A successful motorcycle manufacturer from Hammondsport, New York traveled to Baddeck in the summer of 1907 to deliver an aviation motor. Glenn Curtiss, with his experience in building lightweight motors and his technical knowledge, joined the rest of the team in Baddeck in the fall of 1907.
Mabel Bell observed the work of this group that summer and early fall of 1907 and came to them with an idea. She suggested forming an organization with the purpose of “getting into the air” and she offered to fund the venture. The group accepted the proposal and the Aerial Experiment Association was born on October 1, 1907. Bell was chairman, Baldwin was chief engineer, McCurdy treasurer and assistant engineer, Selfridge secretary and Curtiss director of experiments. They decided they would keep the Association active for one year.
The AEA started with the ‘Cygnet’, a large tetrahedral kite that carried Selfridge above the Bras d’Or Lakes about 50 metres. Then, the men went to Hammondsport, New York, the home of Curtiss Motorcyles, with the exception of Bell who returned to Washington for the winter with his family.
While in Hammondsport, they built a biplane glider and then, Baldwin, McCurdy, Selfridge and Curtiss decided to experiment with powered aircrafts, each responsible for a machine but all sharing their ideas and advice. They stayed in constant communication with Bell.
The first aircraft was the ‘Red Wing’ and it was flown by Casey Baldwin. Baldwin holds the honor of the first Canadian to fly a heavier-than-air machine when he flew in Hammondsport, New York on March 12, 1908.
Then, came the ‘White Wing’ with its moveable control surfaces on the wing tips called ailerons, inspired by Bell who provided instructions from Washington. The other feature new to this machine was a tricycle undercarriage on motorcycle wheels – the first use of a wheeled undercarriage in North America. Baldwin took the White Wing on its inaugral flight and it was also flown by Curtiss and McCurdy. The White Wing crashed after several trials with McCurdy as pilot but he survived even if the only thing to survive from the machines was the motor. The men remained undaunted by the latest accident.
The third machine was the ‘June Bug’ with Curtiss having overall responsibility. After many modifications and trials, the group decided to challenge for the Scientific American magazine trophy for the first public flight of one kilometer. Curtiss and the June Bug succeeded in this endeavor on July 4, 1908 in Hammondsport.
The next machine was crafted by McCurdy with more modifications and christened the ‘Silver Dart’ for its rubberized silk fabric covering the wings. While work on this latest craft continued, the men received word from Washington that Selfridge had died in a plane crash with Orville Wright who had survived but was badly injured. This saddened the men deeply who attended Selfridge’s funeral and there, decided, they would continue the work of the AEA for another six months until March 1909.
In late January 1909, the ‘Silver Dart’ was disassembled and shipped to Beinn Bhreagh by train. The remaining members of the AEA decided it was time for the first Canadian flight since McCurdy and Baldwin were Canadian. On February 23, 1909, the Silver Dart was ready for its first Canadian trial.
After the second try, the craft gathered speed and lifted into the air, leaving a crowd of onlookers on skates on the ice of the Baddeck Bay below. The Bells celebrated by having everyone back to Beinn Bhreagh for sandwiches and refreshments and Bell telegrammed the London ‘Times’ to announce the first flight of a flying machine in Canada to the world.
The AEA accomplished many firsts in 18 months and made a lasting impact on aviation history. In Bell’s words, the Aerial Experiment Association was a “co-operative, scientific association, not for gain but for the love of art and doing what we can to help one another.”
The Loves of Bell’s Life – Family, Invention and Beinn Bhreagh
Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland to Melville and Eliza Bell. He had an older brother Melville and a younger brother, Ted. Eventually, both brothers lost their battle with tuberculosis, leaving Alec an only child.
Alec’s thirst for knowledge and his keen interest in invention began at an early age. As a teenage boy, he came up with a farm tool to help remove the husks of corn after his childhood friend’s father challenged the boys to do something useful with their time. The young Bell then began to work with his father who was a ground-breaking elocution instructor and published “Bell’s Standard Elocutionist” used for more than 100 years as a guide for proper enunciation.
Bell worked as teacher for the deaf in Boston and it was there that he met his future wife, Mabel Hubbard. During this time, he continued to experiment with telegraphy that eventually led him to electricity, electromagnets and sound waves. In 1876, with the backing of Mabel’s father and Thomas Sanders and the assistance of an electrician, Thomas Watson, Alexander completed his invention, one of the greatest in history – the telephone.
After marrying Mabel in 1877, he continued his work on inventions and moved with Mabel’s family to Washington. In 1878, the Bell’s welcomed their first child, a daughter named Elsie. In 1880, they had a second daughter, Marian, who became known as Daisy. In the early 1880’s, they began to search for a summer home and in 1885, the young family went to Baddeck for a summer holiday after reading about it in a travel book.
While staying at the Telegraph House, the Bells enjoyed the beautiful scenery, pleasant climate and the Scottish traditions and culture so familiar to Alec, in Baddeck, Cape Breton. On their second stay, Mabel and Alec noticed a place called Red Head on the other side of Baddeck Bay. It was there they decided to build a place of their own and call it Beinn Bhreagh, Gaelic for beautiful mountain.
Beinn Bhreagh became a hub of activity watched over by Mabel Bell, who always wanted it to be a family home first and foremost. The Bells and in particular, Mabel, contributed to life in Baddeck in various ways and even, helped the war effort with their boatbuilding and community fundraisers. During the summer months, the Bells’ two daughters, their husbands and ten grandchildren would spend endless hours swimming, boating, exploring and learning.
Beinn Bhreagh also provided the inspiring surroundings, quiet refuge and willing workers to support Bell’s ongoing experiments. In fact, life at the estate revolved around Bell and his science. It was at Beinn Bhreagh that the Aerial Experiment Association took root. From there, aviation experimentation by the AEA’s five members flourished, culminating with the first powered, controlled flight in Canada by Canadian Douglas McCurdy.
In addition to aviation, Bell and Casey Baldwin, his engineer from the AEA, experimented with hydrofoils. Their HD-4 reached a speed of 70.86 mph over a one-mile course across Baddeck Bay, setting a record for watercraft. They worked on many other inventions and experiments together from genetics in sheep to x-ray photography to a precurser to the iron lung.
Then, Bell’s health began to deteroriate and he died on August 2, 1922 at his beloved summer home in Baddeck, holding his wife and partner’s hand of 45 years. His wife, Mabel, died in January the following year and she was buried next to her husband at the top of Beinn Bhreagh.
Bell’s work and his contributions to society are accurately depicted in compelling exhibits at the Alexander Graham Bell Museum located across the bay from Beinn Bhreagh. Many of his contraptions, writings and laboratory journals were donated by his daughters, Elsie and Daisy, to be a tribute to the hard work, commitment to invention and spirit of discovery that was their father.
“Addressing a meeting of inventors in 1891, Alec declared, “Wherever you may find the inventor, you may give him wealth or you may take away from him all that he has; and he will go on inventing. He can no more help inventing than he can help thinking or breathing.”
“I have travelled around the globe. I have seen the Canadian Rockies, the American Rockies, the Andes and the Alps and the Highlands of Scotland; but for simple beauty, Cape Breton outrivals them all.” Alexander Graham Bell
On a cold morning in February 1909, the vision of flying a powered aircraft for the first time in Canada came to be when the Silver Dart took to the air above the frozen waters of Baddeck Bay in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
This inaugural Canadian aviation feat on February 23rd, 1909 was the result of innovative thinking, entrepreneurial spirit, unrelenting determination and a talented team of experts.
When world-renowned and accomplished inventor Alexander Graham Bell decided to turn his gaze toward the skies and find a way for man to fly, it was based on a lifelong fascination with flight. His wife Mabel, knew if he were to realize his dream, he would have to enlist the help of like-minded men who were just as enthusiastic about flight but had other technological knowledge.
J.A.D. “Douglas” McCurdy, a friend of the Bell family and a mechanical engineer studying at the University of Toronto was the first to join Bell. He brought with him a fellow classmate, Frederick W. “Casey” Baldwin. Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, an artillery officer with the United States Army and motorcycle engine manufacturer Glenn Curtiss rounded out the team.
Together, this group of men formed the Aerial Experiment Association with the financial backing of Mabel Bell and began building aircrafts and conducting experimental flights. It started with the Cygnet, a man-carrying massive tetrahedral kite designed by Bell followed by the airplanes or “aerodromes” as Bell called them, the Red Wing, the White Wing, the June Bug and then, the most advanced of them all, the Silver Dart.
A year and four months after the AEA was formed, the Silver Dart, piloted by Douglas McCurdy and under the watchful eyes of Bell, Baldwin and Curtiss, was brought onto the ice at Baddeck Bay.
McCurdy started the engine and volunteers on skates pushed it into position. The Silver Dart glided along the ice and finally lifted off to the astonishment of onlookers. It rose 9 metres into the air and flew for almost a kilometer and a half at 65 kilometres per hour. The first flight of a flying machine in Canada and the entire British Empire was a huge success.