This Week in History


Cape Breton Man Flies Through Air!

For the week of Monday February 23, 1998

On February 23, 1909, John A. D. McCurdy took to the air from the frozen surface of Nova Scotia's Bras d'Or Lake, making the first powered flight anywhere in the British Empire. McCurdy was one of the group of friends of Alexander Graham Bell who called themselves the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA). Years of experimenting had taught the AEA – Glenn H. Curtiss, F.W. (Casey) Baldwin, Lieut. Thomas E. Selfridge, McCurdy, and Alexander Graham Bell – enough about aerodynamics to build small planes. Although the Silver Dart was little more than a motor with wings, it carried McCurdy 800m (2600 feet) over the frozen waters of Baddeck Bay, the first manned flight in Canadian history. McCurdy's flight was part of the wide range of scientific activities of his friend and patron Alexander Graham Bell.

McCurdy and the Silver Dart

McCurdy and the Silver Dart
© Library and Archives Canada / C-71050

Even though Bell is best known for his invention of the telephone, he was active in many scientific fields. He spent most of his life working with the deaf, and believed that deaf people should be taught how to communicate without using sign language, which he felt separated them from the rest of society. Bell worked tirelessly with each of his students, teaching them how to speak and how to read lips. The success that he had with his students, including his wife Mabel, increased the fame he earned from his inventions.

Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell in Baddeck, 1914

Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell in Baddeck, 1914
© Parks Canada

Although scientific research has progressed dramatically throughout the 20th century, Bell's early successes in medical, electrical, hereditary, aeronautic, and marine research were outstanding. His scientific curiosity and imagination led him to try to find treatments for cancer, methods to distill salt water (very important if stuck out at sea), and an early method of artificial respiration. Along with F.W. Baldwin, he developed a number of hydrofoil boats.

One of the most influential scientists of his time, Bell's work is commemorated at the Alexander Graham Bell Homestead, his parents' home in Brantford, Ont., and at the Alexander Graham Bell Museum at Baddeck, Nova Scotia. This museum, built on a hill overlooking the scene of the Silver Dart's flight, contains thousands of artifacts representing many of Bell's experiments. In addition to the commemorations of Alexandre Graham Bell, there is also a national plaque at Baddeck commemorating John A. D. McCurdy and honouring his aviation achievements.

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