navigation main:
Bookmark and Share

People

manager Mabel Bell

by DG Graham | March 20, 1998

Anyone who is fascinated by flight will be interested in the story of Mabel Bell who, with her husband, was determined to put a heavier-than-air craft into the air. And not just flight, but hydrofoils and tetrahedron kites. All this with long skirts, “plus fours” and corsets!

Flight fascinates me. I love all the stories of the first attempts that were made, the crazy designs people came up with, the dashing young pilots (interesting, isn’t it: “dashing” almost exclusively belongs to pilots. We don’t talk about “dashing young bankers”), and the subculture of bush pilots in Canada. If you want to see a crazy lifestyle, check it out sometime.

One of the biggest names in flight in Canada is Alexander Graham Bell, the man who invented the telephone. Although Scottish by birth, Alex moved to the United States and then to Nova Scotia after he was married. It was in Nova Scotia that his work on flight began. With the help of a few devoted young pilots and Mabel (his wife), Bell designed and built the first aircraft to achieve flight in Canada. Mabel Bell was the business and organizational head behind it all, yet her contribution is hardly known. So I'm going to rewrite the story to give Mabel her due.

Once upon a time, there lived a great man who invented the telephone. His name was Alexander Graham Bell. Now, Alex was a very clever inventor, but not a very clever businessman. He wasn’t very good at organizing people or managing money, of which he had lots thanks to his invention of the telephone. Luckily for Alex, he had the sense to marry Mabel who, with her common sense and business acumen, saved him from spending all his money and dying in the poorhouse. We’re talking about a man who drained his basement swimming pool and set up an office in it, pumping in ice-cooled air to keep him comfortable. That can’t have been considered practical, even in the 1880s.

Actually, Alex’s dislike of the heat brought him and Mabel to Canada from Washington. They bought a piece of land in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and built such a huge mansion (11 fireplaces) that the name Beinn Bhreagh (Gaelic for “beautiful mountain”) was clearly appropriate. The Bells needed a place where they could do their horticultural “experiments” (investigating multi-nippled sheep) in peace. They weren’t experimenting for money – they had plenty of that from the telephone; they just liked messing around trying to invent things. What the neighbours must have thought of their sheep and kites is a mystery. When you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to buy a cottage to get away from it all, a mad scientist and his wife running around with kites isn't perhaps ideal. But apparently the Bells had a lot of “important” people stay with them, so the neighbours tolerated them for their social cache.

Alex was convinced that kites could show him the way to human flight. So he kept flying them. Mabel stood on the hill, watching various kites crash to the ground, and pondered for the hundredth time why Alex never did anything in an organized way. She called up Douglas McCurdy (son of Alex’s secretary and friend of many years) to ask if he was interested in helping Alex. Douglas was in school and not free to come for a few months, but he was very keen and called up Casey Baldwin, a young engineer and athlete. Casey was enthusiastic about working on a crazy new invention that could put people in the sky, so he came to stay with the Bells at Beinn Bhreagh, a working friendship that lasted their entire lives.

During the development of the aircraft, Mabel was the practical one. When Alex discovered the potential strength of the tetrahedron (a three-sided pyramid) as a kite framework, Mabel had it checked out by an engineering firm. Before she let them start building a “flyer,” she had Alex and Casey build a tower of tetrahedrons to test their strength. The confidence Alex gained from the tower inspired him to work on flight experimentation exclusively.

Mabel convinced Alex that he didn’t have all the technical know-how to do what he wanted on his own. Following her advice and research, Alex contacted Douglas McCurdy (who had finished his studies by then), Thomas Selfridge (an American army lieutenant), and Glenn Curtiss (an American designer of combustion engines), and encouraged them to come to Beinn Bhreagh to help with the invention. They all came and began building and flying kites with Alex.

In some ways, Mabel took what they were doing more seriously than they did. They were having a ball flying kites and measuring how fast they went and how much weight they could pull. Mabel thought they should look ahead and plan for the future. She decided that they should do the work methodically and form a research company. When they did, they became the first aeronautical research team in the world.

Of course, research and structures take money. The Bells had money, but Mabel managed it. As a wedding gift, Alex had given Mabel 4,990 of his 5,000 shares in the Bell Telephone Company, thereby passing the financial responsibility to her. Women back then weren’t trained to handle money, dollars being “beyond their intellect,” so Mabel was faced with a huge responsibility and no experience. No matter, she managed all their fortune just fine. When it came to financing the fledgling Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), it was Mabel who advised the men.

Rather than use the Bell fortune, she decided to sell a piece of land which her father had left to her and use the money to set up the company. She offered salaries and set up the company’s structure. Their mandate: they had one year to fly a heavier-than-air craft. By setting a goal and time limit, they became more serious – no more running around the hillside waiting to see whose kite would crash the hardest. Mabel invested her money, demonstrating her belief in the project and inspiring everyone involved to be accountable. In some ways, Mabel saw the possibilities better than the men designing it did, and maybe even wanted it more than they did. She certainly took the lead in legitimizing what they did.

Like all inventions, it didn’t work on the first try, or even the second. In fact, the AEA built Selfridge’s Red Wing, Baldwin’s White Wing and Curtiss’s June Bug, all of which crashed before McCurdy’s Silver Dart flew successfully. The first three crafts had flown for short distances before crashing, but these near-flights had taken place in Hammondsport, New York. The first flight in Canada was still unaccomplished. The Bells had been experimenting in New York to be close to Washington so that Thomas Selfridge could fly with the Wright brothers. Tragically, Thomas died while flying as a passenger with Orville Wright. This made him the first casualty of powered aviation in North America

The Bells, saddened by the death of their close friend and associate, came back to Canada. The year to which the Association had contracted itself would be up in two weeks, and it looked as though they were going to have to be happy with what they had accomplished. But Mabel decided that they had made so much progress and were so close that she extended the life of the AEA for six months and invested another $15,000. McCurdy’s Silver Dart was brought up from Hammondsport. In February 1909, Douglas McCurdy flew for six minutes in front of awed spectators: the first public flight in Canada.

After the six-month extension expired, the AEA dissolved. Curtiss had left to start his own airplane-building company, and Selfridge had died. Douglas McCurdy, as Secretary of the AEA, read a special resolution into the minutes of the last meeting:

“Whereas the members of the Aeronautical Experimental Association individually and collectively feel that Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell has, by her great personal support and inspiring ideas, contributed very materially to any success that the Association may have attained, Resolved that we place on record our highest appreciation of her loving and sympathetic devotion without which the work of the Association would have come to naught. It is reluctantly moved by Mr. Baldwin and regretfully seconded by the Secretary that we dissolve.”

You see, Mabel really was the key to the whole endeavour. I can just picture everyone standing on an icy, windy shore in Nova Scotia, watching in complete awe as Canada’s first flight was achieved. Mabel must have been particularly proud; after all, without her initiative, her husband and his dashing young friends would probably still be crashing kites on a hillside.

But the Bells had the flight bug. If they couldn’t build planes, well, they could improve on what other people were building. Having crashed a few in his time, Alex decided that water was the safest place from which to take off and land, so he started researching hydroplanes. The craft they built held the world waterspeed record – 70.86 miles per hour – for 12 years. Mabel used to roar around Baddeck Bay in it. There’s an image for you: a woman in full-length skirts and corsets piloting a hydrofoil at record speeds!

An extra bit of information: Mabel Bell was deaf from the age of five until she died in 1923. She was an accomplished lip-reader and spoke coherently. Her daughter, Daisy Bell, says, “Mother always did her own thinking, and it is interesting as I look back and remember about her to realize what a completely original individual she was. I don’t think it was just because her deafness saved her from endless objections and criticisms that so many of us hear when we have a new idea to put over. She just knew what she thought would be fun or interesting or worthwhile to do, and then tried to do it ...”

And that is what I admire most about Mabel Bell.

more to consider

Does anyone know Mabel Bell’s name? No, she’s just Alex's wife. Alex had no money until he met Mabel. He was teaching at the Boston School for the Deaf when he met her, and they fell in love. She introduced him to her father who, because of Mabel’s faith in him, invested a whole lot of money in Bell’s wacky telephone idea. Look what happened!

And that’s just the financial part. What about all the encouragement, design testing and business organization that she contributed? You can bet that if Alex had a male business partner, people would know who he was. But probably no-one would imagine that Mabel had anything to do with it. Who expected a woman to play an active role in something as technical as flight?

Even if her role had been confined to helpmate and homemaker, that would have been a valuable contribution. How’s an inventor supposed to invent anything if their home life isn’t all arranged for them, and the burden of childrearing and domestic chores is taken off their back?

Resources for this story

  • Women in Aviation, timeline
  • The 99s is the first and only international organization of women pilots – there are 6,000 in 33 countries. The Canadian 99s are very active. Their website is packed with information, including profiles of women associated with flight in Canada.
  • To read about Elizabeth Muriel Gregory MacGill, a Canadian who was the first woman aircraft designer in the world, or about Roberta Bondar, Canada’s first woman in space, check the National Library of Canada: Celebrating Women's Achievements - Canadian Women in Science.
  • “Mabel Bell and the Aerial Experiment Association: Kites, Wings and Flightz” in Thomas Carpenter, Inventors: Profiles in Canadian Genius, (Camden House, 1990 ISBN: 0920656951)
  • Dorothy Eber, Genius at Work: Images of Alexander Graham Bell, (McClelland and Stewart, 1982 ISBN: 0771030363)
  • Lilias M. Toward, Mabel Bell, Alexander’s Silent Partner, (Methuen, 1984 ISBN: 0458980900)
  • H. Gordon Green, The Silver Dart, (Brunswick Press, 1959)
  • Helen E. Waite, Make a Joyful Sound: The Romance of Mabel Hubbard and Alexander Graham Bell, (MacRae Smith, 1961)
  • If you are ever near Baddeck, Nova Scotia, visit the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

features