Ben Franklin, he isnt

Hey, when you come up with literally hundreds of ideas for inventions, not all of them are going to be gems. Take Alexander Graham Bell, for example.

Bell, as most of us know, is famous for his telephone invention. He came up with lots of other ideas, too. But even geniuses have bad days and bad ideas.

Like the Cygnet II — a plane made with wings created from a wall of kites.

Bell had been playing around with tetrahedral kites. And apparently he thought that a nice wall of tetrahedral kites would be just the thing to get a plane off the ground.

So he had a half-ton of kites built. That’s 3,960 tetrahedral kites constructed and then fastened together into a wall. These were the wings. He hung a fuselage and motor off the whole shebang and voila — a flying wall of fun.

Bell was sixty-two when this little wonder was put together at Badeck, Nova Scotia, so he didn’t actually try to pilot this contraption. A young man by the name of J.A.D. McCurdy had that honour on February 22, 1909.

Now, let’s just review.

Aeronautically speaking, for something to get off the ground, there has to be lift. That’s what a wing does. Kites can fly because they are wings and the wind can lift them off the ground. And Bell had conducted an experiment where a big triangle of tetrahedral kites provided powerful lift.

So a wing made of tetrahedral kites should provide lots of lift, right?

Well, yes.

But in 1909 there was no engine in the world that could push almost four thousand kites through the air fast enough to get the contraption airborne. That’s because the resistance of the wall of kites was greater than the lift.

It was an important lesson in aeronautics. Fortunately everyone got to walk away from this tutorial, mostly because the experiment, conducted on a frozen lake, the perfect natural airfield, was such a failure. Riding the wall of kites, McCurdy sort of swanned around the frozen lake surface until it was pretty clear the Cygnet was a dodo.


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