Researching Aerial Locomotion – Kites and Alexander Graham Bell

This post is by Kellie Taylor, Ed.D., the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow.

Alexander Graham Bell was known as a teacher, scientist, inventor, engineer, and innovator. He is often remembered for inventing the telephone and founding the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Curious about many things, Bell was the quintessential life-long learner and worked to solve problems through invention and innovation. In his quest for knowledge, Bell meticulously documented his experiments through correspondence and journals. Studying these documents can lead to insights into his processes and approaches to recording his work as well as deeper understanding of particular experiments or inventions.

Before reading this page of Bell’s journal, ask students to look at it without sharing any information about it, including the author. Challenge them to describe what they see. Although the date may be easy to decipher, students might wonder what “At B.B.” means. What looks strange or unfamiliar to them? What type of equipment or machine recorded this page?

Journal Page from Alexander Graham Bell 9/2/1901

Read  the entry together with students. Encourage them to think more deeply by asking:

  • What is this page about?
  • Why do they think this document was made?
  • Who do they think created it?
  • What might have been happening when this was created?
  • What can be learned from this page?

Reflecting on these questions may prompt students to ask their own questions as well. Encourage student-generated questions in the discussion while working with students to reflect on what they know and any relevant prior knowledge connected to this document.

After students have shared their observations and reflections, explain that this is a page from Bell’s notebook. “At B.B.” means that Bell was writing from Beinn Bhreagh, his home and laboratory in Nova Scotia. Is there anything that surprises them about the author’s identity? Students may not have known that Bell  experimented with kites and may wonder why he did.

Two photographs of two men holding a kite. 1908

Encourage students to reflect on what important technological innovations were taking place around this time. The birth of modern aviation was taking place, and Bell, like many of his peers, was interested in solving the problem. Kites were used and tested for many purposes including aerial photography, meteorological data collection, communication, and human flight.

In this journal entry, Alexander Graham Bell seems to be compiling information on experiments with aerial locomotion in preparation for his own work on kites. Challenge students to recreate their own versions of the aerial kites through the recorded descriptions in Bell’s journal. Students can sketch their designs or create them from recyclables and craft materials. Further explorations can include testing and modifying kite designs. If students create original kite designs, encourage them to write a scientific description of how their kite works based on the examples in Bell’s journal.

The Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers Collection are held at the Library of Congress.

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