Today, we find out what Bell did after he invented
the telephone. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
Alexander Graham Bell was born in
Scotland in 1847. He died seventy-five years later
in Nova Scotia. When he was only 25, he opened a
school in Boston for teachers of the deaf. A few
years later, he married a very bright young deaf
woman named Mabel. He also began work on an
instrument to help the deaf hear. He perfected
In 1885, the Bells visited Cape Breton Island in
Nova Scotia. It was perfect. They built a
laboratory there and passed the next 37 years in a
rich life together.
The telephone is such a huge monument to Bell's
inventive genius. We overlook the outpouring of
invention that followed it on that lovely windswept
For example, Bell developed an early version of the
iron lung. He invented the ancestor of the FAX
machine. He bred a strain of 6 and 8-nippled sheep
to do better at nursing lambs. He pushed for the
use of ethyl alcohol in place of fossil fuels.
Two fascinations marked Bell's whole life. One was
his concern for the deaf. The other was flight.
First he made a series of exotic kites formed out
of tetrahedonal elements. Buckminster Fuller
learned about Bell's tetrahedrons after he'd made
his geodesic dome the same way.
Here are old photos. Helen Keller, a friend and
house guest, helps him fly a huge kite. His wife,
Mabel, stands in an abstract tetrahedron kite
frame. She leans out to kiss Alexander. It is a
gentle life with fine texture and form.
Later, Bell flew people in his kites. He built a
70-foot tower from his tetrahedrons. Then he went
on to build airplanes.
Finally, his studies of aerodynamics led him to
invent the hydrofoil. That work culminated in his
HD-4. The HD-4 was a hydrofoil driven by two
airplane propellers. It went over 70 miles an hour.
For years it was the fastest thing on water.
A wonderful mood surrounds all this invention.
Photos show Bell with children -- always playing
with children. They show Mabel, pulled halfway off
her feet, measuring the stress in a kite line. Raw
affection wells up everywhere. Bell writes to Mabel
when she sits for her portrait:
... lay ... siege to [the artist's] heart ...
that those beautiful eyes and sweet face I value so
much may grow out of the canvas.
So what did happen after the telephone? A warm,
inventive man kept right on creating. He left us a
legacy of invention that reached far beyond the
telephone. That legacy flowed from a great mind.
But it flowed from a very large heart, as well.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Eber, D.H., Genius at Work: Images of Alexander
Graham Bell. New York: A Studio Book, The
Viking Press, 1982.
And, just for the fun of it, you might also be
interested in a fictionalized novel about Alexander
and Mabel Bell on Cape Breton:
McMahon, T., Loving Little Egypt. New
York: Viking, 1987.
A model of a Bell kite on display
at the Cradle of Aviation Museum
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.