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The First Lady of Canadian Aviation, Mabel Hubbard Bell

Drawing of Mabel Hubbard Bell
Drawing courtesy Sharon Rajnus

Mabel Bell Portrait
Photo of Mabel Bell courtesy Alexander Graham Bell Museum for STARS OF THE SKY, Legends All

by Ann L. Cooper
Excerpted from “Soaring Silver Wings” from STARS OF THE SKY, Legends All
Text by Ann L. Cooper, Art by Sharon Rajnus

John Alexander “Douglas” McCurdy, born in Baddeck, Nova Scotia in 1886, lost his mother in 1888. Fortunately, his father, editor of the Baddeck newspaper, was secretary, assistant, and photographer to the famed Scottish inventor, Alexander Graham Bell. McCurdy was raised as part of the Bell family and Alexander and Mabel Bell financed his education - an engineering degree received in 1906 from the University of Toronto. Read more

It was Mabel Bell who involved the young engineer in her business venture. As her husband sought to create a flying machine, Mabel wrote to suggest that Douglas bring home a fellow engineer who might be intrigued with her husband’s concept - a tetrahedral kite capable of carrying a man. Frederick W. “Casey” Baldwin joined McCurdy and, in 1907, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge was assigned by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to serve as a U.S. Army observer of Bell’s aeronautical pursuits. A search for an appropriate engine to power the kite brought in Glenn H. Curtiss of Hammondsport, New York, and Mabel was gratified to witness a growing camaraderie of an enthusiastic team.

When it came time to test ideas, the energetic Mabel was in the midst of the activities. She held kite strings and measured the velocity of the wind and altitudes reached. She rode in motorboats that towed the kites aloft. Most significantly, she funded the group and proposed their alliance. Having earned $20,000 from the sale of land inherited from her father, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, Mabel suggested creating Canada’s Aerial Experiment Association (A.E.A.), which began 1 October 1907 and was to exist for one year.

Alexander Bell, whose laboratory and facilities were to be used free of charge, was to serve as chairman without salary. Casey and Douglas were to be paid $1,000 and Glenn Curtiss, who divided his time between Baddeck and Hammondsport, was to be paid $5,000. Focusing initially on Bell’s tetrahedral kite, the Cygnet, the plan included having each man in turn design an aircraft, assisted by the others.

On 12 December 1907, Mabel witnessed Tom Selfridge pilot the Cygnet, towed behind a steamer. It soared to 168 feet and held steady. When the breeze abated, it slowly lowered to the water’s surface. Had someone cut the tow rope immediately, the flight would have been completely successful. Selfridge escaped; but, the kite was dragged through choppy waters and destroyed.

During that winter, members of the A.E.A. worked in Hammondsport, conducting gliding experiments and working on powered designs. Selfridge completed his Red Wing; but, was called away by the Army when it was to be tested. Baldwin became the test pilot and the Red Wing, mounted on iron sleigh runners to glide over the icy lake, slid forward before Casey could board. McCurdy, Curtiss, and volunteers on ice skates caught the craft and returned it for a second try. This time Baldwin piloted the Red Wing into the air and an appreciative audience witnessed history in the making. Casey Baldwin, in the first public flight in North America, became the first Canadian to make a heavier-than-air flight. He followed this success with the completion of his White Wing, which bore controllable hinged surfaces on the wings’ trailing edges.

Glenn Curtiss produced the third history-making A.E.A. machine - his June Bug, which, in July 1908, won the Scientific American Trophy for the first flight of a heavier-than-air powered machine piloted over a measured kilometer. A proud Mabel wrote, of the A.E.A., “They are young and their work is the youth of a great new thing in the history of the world.”

Their next project, the Silver Dart, took center stage as the association’s year neared a close. However, a distressing crash on 17 September 1908 was fatal to Selfridge. He died as a passenger aboard an aircraft piloted by Orville Wright at Fort Myer, Virginia, and Mabel wrote, “I can’t get over Tom being taken ... I know he would have said he was having the time of his life although he must have realized his danger; those last seconds he would still hope to escape and he had no time for unavailing regrets.”

Determined to see the A.E.A. continue, Alexander and Mabel extended it for six months, completing the Silver Dart in Hammondsport where it was flown on 6 December 1908. McCurdy flew it three times on 14 December after which they crated and shipped it to Baddeck for its first flight from the ice of Bras d’Or Lake.

On 23 February 1909, McCurdy piloted the Silver Dart for a distance of three quarters of a mile. His was the first flight by a British subject of a heavier-than-air, powered, controlled aircraft in Canada - the first in the British Commonwealth. Mabel Bell’s dreams soared; her organization was triumphant.

Her accomplishments are even more significant because Mabel was deaf, having lost her hearing at age five due to scarlet fever. At that time, deaf children were often sent to asylums for deaf mutes. It was fortuitous that Mabel was taught to speak by her teacher, mentor, and, later, her husband and the father of her two daughters, Alexander Graham Bell. He was a third generation expert in elocution who had come from his native Scotland to teach vocal physiology at Boston University. His father invented “Visible Speech,” signals indicating the placement of tongue, lips, and throat for the correct utterance of sounds. His mother started losing her hearing when Alexander was 12 and he became passionate about teaching the deaf and the deaf and blind to speak, an idea new at that time.

Mabel, called Alexander’s “Silent Partner,” rose above her affliction to live life fully and to participate in achievements that went well beyond aviation. Mabel Bell ensured that she and her inventive husband took a rightful place in the history of flight.

When members of the A.E.A. voted to dissolve the association on 31 March 1909, Douglas McCurdy read a resolution that said, in part, “…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.”

On 25 July 1923, Dr. Gilbert H. Grosvenor, the Bell’s son-in-law, praised his wife’s parents. He wrote, “Mr. Bell’s fame is secure for all ages but few know the quality and genius of his wife, one of the greatest minds and personalities of the times.” These were wonderful words of praise for any mother-in-law and well deserved by his particular mother-in-law, the First Lady of Canadian Aviation, Mabel Gardiner Hubbard Bell.

Editor’s Note: STARS OF THE SKY, Legends All, with Mabel’s story, will be available at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2009, and Ann Cooper will be speaking about Mabel at the EAA AirVenture Museum.

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