Alexander Graham Bell: more than Mr Telephone

Bell is famous for the phone but the inventor also paved the way for modern flight and inspired architecture from Disney World to Argentina

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 October, 2012, 2:33pm

We all know Alexander Graham Bell as the inventor of the telephone, but his remarkable inventiveness did not stop there. From his early 40s until his death, he researched an astounding range of subjects at his lakeside retreat in the scenic town of Baddeck in Cape Breton, Canada.

On a recent visit to the museum in Baddeck dedicated to his work, I was amazed to find that more than half the exhibits related not to telephony but to his experiments with hydrofoils, aircraft and - perhaps most intriguingly - geometric shapes.

It struck me that, arguably, geometric structures are as important to the modern world as telecommunication and the internet.

In the early 1900s, at the dawn of the aviation age, Bell became interested in how the geometry of a flying object could help lift it off the ground and stay aloft. The Wright brothers had made history in 1903 with the first controlled, powered and sustained human flight. But questions remained about how to construct a large flying machine with enough wing surface to provide the necessary lift, that wouldn't weigh the aircraft down.

Bell's experiments showed that for some geometric shapes, increasing the surface area of the wing does not have to increase proportionally the weight of the wing. Thus, a flying machine with a large surface area and the appropriate geometric shape for its wing can fly.

Instead of one big wing, he assembled a stack of small wings each in the form of a tetrahedron - a pyramid-shaped polygon that is the strongest known structure. By joining together two sides of a four-sided tetrahedron, he built kites, of any size, without increasing the weight-to-surface ratio.

In 1907, he built a large kite of 3,393 tetrahedral cells that carried a pilot in flight for seven minutes, reaching a height of 51 metres. It was the first flight of a passenger-carrying aircraft in Canada. Bell's idea for a tetrahedral airplane never materialised because it was not aerodynamically efficient. But examples abound of geometric design inspiring other scientists, engineers and architects. Among the best-known: Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome.

Expanding on an earlier concept, the American engineer, designer and visionary "Bucky" Fuller (1895-1983) patented and popularised the geodesic dome - a shell structure formed by the network of circles (geodesics) on the surface of a sphere that intersect to form triangles, distributing the stress across the structure.

A geodesic dome is extremely strong for its weight and a geodesic sphere encloses the greatest volume with the least surface area, minimising the cost of construction. Their simplicity also allows rapid construction in difficult terrain.

Since its introduction in 1954, hundreds of thousands of geodesic domes have been built around the world as storage spaces, civic buildings, exhibition centres and attractions such as the Epcot Pavilion in Disney World, Florida.

Innovators are extending Bell's replication of geometric units and Fuller's idea of geometric enclosure into the design of futuristic living space. In the past decade, the Argentinean artist and architect Tomas Saraceno has become known for designing geometric habitats called "cloud cities" inspired by floating soap bubbles and dust particles.

A prototype, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, merges art, architecture and science in a towering modular cluster of 16 interconnected polyhedrons the size of small rooms made of polished steel and clear plexiglass.

Of course, the future of geometric design has already taken shape far out in space. The space stations that provide a life-supporting habitat to its crews orbiting earth were constructed in modular units and delivered in phases.

The placing of modular units with different geometric shapes and sizes in a given volume of space, a typical storage problem such as that in the space station or in putting furniture of different shapes and sizes in your apartment, has been explored by a technique in mathematics known as the bin packing problem.

So while many of you may loathe geometry (those excruciating geometry problems in school!) and love your phone, remember that its inventor Bell appreciated the versatility and practicality of geometric form which has generated many fertile areas of research and application in architecture, science, art and mathematics.

His contribution extended beyond applications in telephony on earth.

Tom Yam is a Hong Kong-based management consultant with a doctorate in electrical engineering and an MBA from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He has worked at AT&T, Ernst & Young and IBM