National Geographic : 2017 Jun
PHOTO: BELL COLLECTION/ NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE FROM NOTEBOOK SCRIBBLES TO INVENTIONS Two men support one of Bell’s tetrahedral kites. Holding the sign is five-year-old Melville Grosvenor, future editor of National Geographic. As America’s entry into World War I loomed, he promised that “the man of science will be appreciated in the future as he never has been in the past.” By his own measure Bell was at his intellectual peak. In the previous dec- ade he’d worked on building the world’s fastest ship (it set the record in 1919), proposed renewable energy sources, and endlessly sketched flying machines (the device he described in an 1892 article resembled the helicopter invented 40 years later). The year after the Wright brothers received their patent, Bell’s kite lifted an associate to over 160 feet. In 1915 he’d made the first coast-to- coast phone call; soon after, a man in Virginia spoke to a man on the Eiffel Tower in the first transatlantic trans- mission. Bell predicted a day when calls—and “any mechanical opera- tion”—could be made without wires. He also foresaw the devices someday displacing their makers: “On every hand we see the substitution of machinery and artificial motive power for animal and man power.” McKinley’s students were mesmer- ized. “He took the audience into his con- fidence and made them feel that he was unrolling to them the secrets of his scien- tific notebooks,” a newspaper reported. Bell made daily additions to the legendary notebooks: sketches of in- ventions, musings, press clippings. At home in Nova Scotia, more than 30 men worked to make Bell’s ideas reality. Some were small comforts: a system of ropes to open and close the windows so he didn’t have to get out of bed while reading. Others were huge undertakings: Bell spent decades trying to breed sheep with more than two nipples. In 1912 Bell had written in a note- book: “You can say that man has con- quered the mystery of nature.” But just five years later at McKinley, he voiced concern about the abuse of nature. “We can take coal out of a mine, but we can never put it back. We can draw oil from subterranean reservoirs, but we can never refill them again,” he told the students. Given the world’s great consumption, he foresaw a day when the supplies would run dry. While other scientists believed that dirty air would block the sun’s rays and cool down the planet, Bell was ahead of his time when he said he was “inclined to think we would have some sort of greenhouse effect.” As a solution, he proposed alcohol as an alternative fuel and sketched rooftop devices for collect- ing solar power from the sun. “ The most remarkable thing about Doctor Bell is that he is younger, in mind, than most men of half his age,” a friend of his was quoted as saying in 1921. The next year, and a few months after receiving his last patent, Bell died at age 75. During his funeral all 14,346,701 phones in America went silent for one minute in tribute to their inventor.