Alexander Graham Bell Thought the Future of Flight was Giant Kites, Not Airplanes
Inventor of the telephone, the metal detector, and contributor of priceless knowledge to the field of acoustics, Alexander Graham Bell was also quite interested in the future of flight. However, he didn't think that the future of flight would come through the airplane, rather he thought the future of flight would be focused on tetrahedral kites.
Bell's research into tetrahedral kites
In his research, Bell had become obsessed with the idea of creating a kite large enough to carry a man. He actually created the box kite design in this quest to create the ultimate kite. This particular design joined several triangular kites together with a frame to create a box. Doing so increased the kite's surface area with little increase in weight – a good measure of improved flight capability.
Upon this innovation, Bell joined several box-like kites together to create larger pyramidal kites that are known as tetrahedral kites. It's one of nature's most stable structures, so why wouldn't it also lead to the future of human flight...right?
While Bell's prediction for the future of flight might have been a little misguided looking back, at the time when aeronautical innovation didn't have set bounds, he was on the cutting edge.
Although his kites were quite large, they were easy to fly, meaning improved stability. It's this stability that was at the core of why Bell believed kites to be the future. He had seen the Wright brothers plane and its instability as a massive issue that would falter that design path, or so he thought.
The Aerial Experimental Association
In 1907, Bell established the Aerial Experimental Association (AEA), which was focused on creating a practical powered plane. That same year they went on to build the largest tetrahedral kite.
This massive construction was named "Cygnet" (meaning little swan in French), and it was made up of nearly 3,400 individual cells. It stood at 40 feet long and weighed in at 200 pounds. That weight number becomes impressive when you consider that the Wright's first craft to carry a human was 604 pounds.
The tetrahedral kite carried a human 168 feet above water while being towed behind a ship. After this illustrious flight, it crashed and ripped into pieces. The man who was aboard, Thomas Etholen Selfridge, actually survived the flight but later became the first person to die in an airplane crash aboard the Wright Military Flyer in 1908.
Bell's colleagues at the AEA eventually moved on to researching more conventional craft and designed several series of airplanes. The AEA made a plane called the "June Bug," which sustained a 5,360 feet flight in under two minutes under the control of pilot Glenn Curtiss. By the end of 1908, the AEA flew over 150 flights without issue.
This organization, founded on aeronautics research, was completely funded by Bell's wife. Eventually, the funds ran out, and the association had to disband. Before that happened, however, Bell did make innovations in the realm of airplanes. One of his most famous is that of the aileron, which is not standard in all aircraft.
Drawing back to Bell's obsession with tetrahedral kites, after Cygnet crashed, he created two more with the creative names of Cygnet II & Cygnet III. The third model was coupled with a 70 HP motor, but it only flew one foot. The Cygnet series proved to be a failure of engineering. Alexander Graham Bell abandoned his tetrahedral kite experiments finally in 1912.
While it may seem absurd that one of the world's greatest minds thought such a seemingly crazy idea was the future, that's all part of the engineering and design process. Failure is crucial in determining what path leads to success.
Bell's innovations in modern aeronautics
Bell eventually moved on from giant kites and focused his effort on the airplane and glider design. In fact, before the AEA was disbanded due to lack of funding, they developed several gliders that flew significant distances for the time. Their glider designs benefited from increased control due to Bell's invention of Ailerons. These kept the craft far more stable than any other fixed-winged craft at the time and provided a significant improvement in aviation technology for the time.
One of the AEA's craft, called the June Bug, actually won the Scientific American Cup for the first official fixed-wing flight over one kilometer in 1908. The following advanced craft called the Silver Dart became the first powered craft that was heavier than air to fly in Canada.
Other than ailerons, Bell also developed an idea about applying lacquer to fabric wings to make them stronger and lengthen the craft's flying time. He realized that porous wings were decreasing the amount of lift that the planes were getting, and suggested that a lacquer type chemical be applied to the fabric to stiffen them up. It worked too, as this was first done to the June Bug, the craft we mentioned before, and it set a distance record for its time.
Other than specific aviation inventions, Bell became one of the foremost aviation accident investigators. He played off of his intense engineering and design background to reverse engineer aviation accidents and determine what went wrong. He had a strong passion for flight, both private and commercial, so all of his passion projects involved this realm of scientific advancement.
Bell goes down in history as one of the most prolific inventors in all of history. While he may be remembered primarily for his invention of the telephone, his work and influence in aviation were arguably just as impactful to the world today. Just remember, even the best inventors in the world may start down a path for a solution that turns out to be wildly wrong. It's learning from failure that determines how good of an engineer you really are.