Alexander Graham Bell is No Friend of the Wright Brothers

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Contemporaries

Alexander Graham Bell, the famous scientist and inventor of the telephone, was also interested in inventing a practical airplane. In the process he gave few favors to the Wright Brothers.

Bell believed that the Wright Flyer was dangerous because of the high speeds needed for take-off and maintaining lift during flight. He believed that wing warping, the Wrights’ system for exercising lateral control, was dangerous because it required flexible wings. Bell thought there was a better design solution. Bell’s Interest in Aeronautics

Bell, born in Scotland in 1847, exhibited a lifelong curiosity, which drove him to investigate diverse problems ranging from aeronautics to eugenics. His greatest

interest was in helping the hearing impaired. His mother was deaf, as was his wife, who had been one of his deaf students. Helen Keller credited him for leading her “from darkness into light, from isolation to friendship.” Throughout his life he listed his occupation as “teacher of the deaf.”

His invention of the telephone in 1876 was directly related to his study of sound waves as it related to deafness. The “decibel,” a standard measure of sound intensity was named after Bell.

At the age of 23 he moved to Ontario, Canada and later to Boston, since that was a center of scientific activity.

He became obsessed with the wonder of flight and in 1898 began studying equilibrium and stability by flying kites. He started with simple box kites and expanded into several boxlike cells.

Looking for a strong, but lightweight structure, he began combining and arranging triangles. This led him to build a pyramidal structure with three triangular sides and a triangular base. The geometric form created is known as a tetrahedral.

Bell patented the tetrahedral structure and its use became popular in architecture. Bell, however was interested in using the structure to build a kite-like airplane. He would find out later that he was heading down a blind alley.

Bell Organizes a New Association

Bell was a prolific scientific thinker but he was not good with tools. He needed help to build and fly his cherished tetrahedron. So, he organized a group of young men interested in aviation in 1907 and called it the Aerial Experimental Association (AEA). Its purpose was to build a practical powered airplane.

The Wrights had solved the puzzle of flight in 1903 and had already produced a practical plane in 1905. Bell did not think the Wrights had the ultimate solution, and that he was on the verge of a better answer. His tetrahedral cell structure would be more stable than the Wright machine and add materially to the knowledge of flight.

Among the AEA members was Glenn Curtiss, a famous motorcycle racer, who was appointed director of experiments. Curtiss was good at building gasoline engines and had built an engine that had been used on an experimental airplane. It was Bell’s hope that a propeller-driven tetrahedral kite would provide automatic stability at slow speeds. He believed that Curtiss could provide the engine.

Another member of the AEA was Lieutenant Thomas F. Selfridge, a recent graduate of West Point who was appointed secretary. He came to Bell’s attention after he had sought an interview with Bell regarding his kite experiments. Bell was a friend of President Theodore Roosevelt and used the President’s influence to have the Army Signal Corps assign him to the AEA for one year.

The Army later assigned Selfridge to the committee reviewing the performance of the Wright Airplane in accordance with the Signal Corps performance contract.

Orville was not pleased with the Selfridge assignment because of Selfridge’s association with the AEA. Tragically, Selfridge became the first airplane fatality when as a passenger riding with Orville, the airplane crashed at Ft. Myer in 1908.

AEA Flying Experiments

Returning to the AEA activities, they built a large kite that was named the Cygnet, meaning, “little swan” in French. It was composed of over 3,000 tetrahedral cells. Lt.Selfridge was the test pilot in the first test flight of the Cygnet as a glider towed by a boat. Unfortunately, it crashed and was dragged to pieces by the towline.

Bell made two more versions of the Cygnet, but neither one was successful. In 1912 his Cygnet III with a 70-horsepower motor was reported to have flown one foot.

In the meantime Curtiss and other members of the AEA were more interested in producing more conventional aircraft. They designed a series of airplanes with the stylish names of Red Wing, White Wing, June Bug and Silver Dart.

The “June Bug” won the Scientific American Trophy in an exhibition on July 4, 1908. Curtiss flew 5,360 feet in just under 2 minutes. The flight made the newspaper headlines.

Bell increasingly became more of a figurehead for the organization. His one significant contribution to flying machines was the fundamental concept of the modern aileron. Casey Baldwin, an AEA member designed it following Bell’s instructions. Bell never did like the Wrights’ wing warping mechanism and he thought the new design would get around the Wrights’ patent on wing warping. The aileron was first used on the White Wing.

The Wrights Protest

Orville wrote Curtiss that the June Bug contained key elements covered by the Wright patent and that permission had not been given to use their patented features in a machine used in exhibitions or for commercial purposes.

Curtiss answered that he was not intending to enter the exhibition business and that the matter of patents had been referred to the AEA. Despite his declaration, he ignored the Wrights and entered the exhibition business.

Subsequently, Curtiss challenged the patent in court and lost. In 1914, The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Wrights’ patent covered the concept of ailerons.

Curtiss, still searching for a way to avoid the patent, participated in a new approach to undermine the patent. He and others believed that if it could be shown that Langley’s unsuccessful Aerodrome could have flown in 1903, it would undermine the Wright claims.

Dr. Samuel P. Langley, the former Director and Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution designed the Aerodrome and was a good friend of Bell. The Aerodrome crashed

into the Potomac on its two attempts to fly. The last attempt to fly occurred a mere nine days before the Wrights’ successful first flight on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk.

Reconstruction of the Failed Aerodrome

Bell, a member of the Board of the Smithsonian and a strong supporter of Langley who had died in 1906, proposed that a medal be established in Langley’s honor and awarded annually to an aviation pioneer. He suggested that the Wright Brothers be the fist medal winners. Both proposals were accepted and the first award ceremony was held on February 10, 1910.

The Wrights graciously accepted the award, but unfortunately the event created difficulties for them. In making the principle address at the ceremony, Bell seemed to place more emphasis on honoring Langley than on the Wrights.

He made a point to honor Langley by referring to his airplane, the Aerodrome, “as a perfectly good flying machine.” “It was simply never launched into the air, and so has never been given the opportunity to show what it could do.”

The aggrandizing of Langley continued after the ceremony. The report of the event in the Smithsonian Annual Report stated that the Wrights credited Langley with a critical role in their own success. This false statement subsequently was used by opponents of the Wrights to undermine their standing as the true inventors of the airplane.

On March 30, 1914 Bell hosted a meeting at his Washington home of those interested in rebuilding Langley’s Aerodrome. It was hoped that, if successful, this would restore Langley’s tarnished reputation and undermine the Wright patent claims. Among those attending that meeting were Curtiss and the current Secretary of the Smithsonian, Dr. Charles D. Walcott. The group gave Curtiss $2,000 of Smithsonian funds to reconstruct and test the Langley Aerodrome.

The reconstructed Aerodrome briefly flew, although hopped may be a better description. Curtiss and the Smithsonian claimed that this proved that the original Aerodrome could have flown before the Wrights’ success in 1903. Ultimately, the claim was rejected, but not until the Smithsonian admitted almost 30 years later that they had covered up the fact that the Aerodrome flown by Curtiss had been redesigned from the original.

Unauthorized Examination of the Flyer

One other episode involved Bell. Bell and two other members of the AEA tried to visit Orville in the hospital after Orville’s brush with death after his crash at Ft. Myer in 1908. Orville’s Doctor denied them admission. Leaving the hospital, they visited the barn where the wrecked Flyer had been crated for return to Dayton. The box had yet to be nailed shut because some of the parts had been taken to Orville for his examination. Bell, who was not authorized to visit the barn, was observed to pull a tape measure from his pocket and make at least one measurement. To say the least, Orville was disturbed about the incident.

Alexander Graham Bell won the honor to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences and contributed five papers to the academy’s proceedings, but none were about aviation. While he was one of America’s famous scientists he did not have the mathematical sophistication to do more theoretical work. He made no further contribution to aviation.

The AEA lasted until 1909. By that time, Selfridge had died and Curtiss had left to form his own company. In a solemn ceremony at Bell’s summer mansion in Nova Scotia, the remaining members voted to dissolve the association at the stroke of midnight, March 31.

Previous post:

Next post: