Beyond the telephone: Bell on Cape Breton

Right in the center of Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island, at the start (and finish) of the Cabot Trail, a circuitous coastal road that is the island's top tourist attraction, is a small village called Baddeck.It is an exceedingly pretty place, set amid rolling hills beside the Bras d'Or Lakes, but it is saved from obscurity only by one famous former resident: Alexander Graham Bell.

It is often not until travelers arrive in town that they realize Bell spent most of his last 37 years in Baddeck. And that he did some of his most experimental inventing here; died, and is buried here.

Why Baddeck, of all places? The inventor first came to Cape Breton in 1885 while he was traveling from Boston to Newfoundland to inspect a coal mine owned by his father-in-law. Bell made a point of stopping in Baddeck because he had been so enthralled by the book "Baddeck, and That Sort of Thing," by Charles Dudley Warner.

Bell and his wife, Mabel, rowed across the bay to a headland protruding into the large saltwater lake, and climbed to the top. They were so enraptured by the view, which he found reminiscent of his native Scotland, that in 1886 he began purchasingthe land. Over the next seven years, he bought out all the farms on the hill and renamed the place Beinn Breagh, Gaelic for "beautiful mountain."

Granted, Bell was biased, but he is recorded as declaring, "I have seen the Canadian and American Rockies, the Andes and the Alps, and the highlands of Scotland, but for simple beauty, Cape Breton outrivals them all."

The allusion to Scotland is not mere fancy. Resemblance to the place is one reason immigrants from Scotland chose to settle Cape Breton more than 200years ago, coerced onto wooden vessels of dubious seaworthiness by the general economic hardship in the Highlands.

Scottish culture imbues the place, evident even in the accent of the people. Near Baddeck is a Gaelic college, open in summer to anyone, Scottish descent or not, who wishes to learn to dance over swords or speak the tongue-twisting language. (It sounds something like German with a brogue, spoken with a mouth full of mashed potatoes.)

Bell built a mansion on Beinn Breagh in 1893 and used it as a base for his adventures in invention. Not the telephone – he conceived that in Brantford, Ontario – but a host of other endeavors. Today, an excellent museum chronicles the work of the clever Scot. An afternoon stroll through its airy halls reveals many surprises about the breadth of Bell's inventive genius.

Always ahead of his time, he dabbled in sheep genetics, using animal husbandry, not DNA, to develop a breed that consistently produced twin-bearing sheep – a much better return, he thought, on the cost of raising a lamb.

Bell delved into just about every facet of science. When two uncles of one of his assistants were found dead in a dory at sea, with food but no water, his mind went to work. He thought it a poor reflection on man's intelligence that he should die of thirst on a sea of water, so he devised a system of pumping fog into a bottle. When partially submerged in the cool sea, the moisture condensed into potable water.

Bell had personal reasons for undertaking the experiments that led to his telephone: His mother and his wife were deaf, and he himself had impaired hearing. As a teacher of the deaf, Bell directed the teaching of Helen Keller, and the methods of communication and teaching he helped evolve have been vital to deaf people the world over.

But Bell had one major passion that eclipsed all his other interests: flight. He started with kites – big, elaborate ones. The townsfolk saw such craft soaring above Beinn Breagh as sheer folly. Imagine, a grown man flying kites all day! Then one cold February the peace of the village was broken by the roar of an engine, and everyone turned to the frozen bay to witness the first powered flight in the British Empire.

It was just after the Wright Brothers' triumph with powered flight. Bell's "Silver Dart" was a gangly contraption of fabric wings, wires, and wheels that flew a distance of half a mile at an altitude of 30 feet, piloted by an accomplice of Bell's, J.A.D. McCurdy.

The airplane had been designed and built by a group of fellow flight fanatics including McCurdy, a US Army officer named Thomas Selfridge, University of Toronto graduate Frederick Baldwin, and a motorcycle manufacturer, Glenn Curtiss. They formed a company to produce airplanes like the Silver Dart.

But the first production model, Baddeck 1, and the Silver Dart crashed before an audience of journalists, destroying public confidence in the flying machines.

Soon after, the men launched another pet project – hydrofoils.

Their first boat, the HD-1, a cigar-shaped vessel that rode above the water on a series of fins, was driven across the bay in December 1911, at a speed of 30 m.p.h. Seven years later, the much improved HD-4 was launched, and in 1919 reached the speed of 70.86 m.p.h., making it the fastest boat of its day.

The Canadian military showed interest in the hydrofoils, but decided against them, and since there was no other market for the craft, the enterprise died. The HD-4 was beached and left to rot.

The main hall of the Bell Museum is built on the basis of the tetrahedron, the structure that Bell used to provide maximum structural strength with minimum weight to his flying and cruising craft. It houses artifacts, models, and remaining pieces of aircraft and boats. It also contains countless documents and, thanks to Bell's interest in photography, hundreds of excellent photographs that vividly re-create his life on Beinn Breagh.

Two separate wings house a life-size replica of the HD-4, along with the weathered remains of the original, plus a full-size reconstruction of the Silver Dart.

• For information on Cape Breton Island and the Bell National Historic Site, visit www.pebretonisland.com/AGBell.html and www.capebretonisland.com.

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