On February 14th, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell got his name put in the history books when he beat fellow inventor Elisha Gray to the patent office with his new creation, the telephone. And while the telephone's importance to humanity is neat, it's not exactly Bell's most adrenaline-pumping idea. For that, you need water. And speed.
Unlike anybody else who might be tempted to rest on their laurels after inventing the single greatest communications device known to man at the time, which would later give birth to the Internet and cell phones and even those mysterious devices of wonder, beepers, Bell didn't just sit around for the next 46 years. He kept right on inventing, right on looking for the next big thing.
Four years after inventing the telephone, he invented an early precursor to mobile communications and fiber optics with his photophone device. The photophone transmitted noises and speech over distances as far as 700 feet, all on a beam of light. And while light moves at 186,000 miles per second, which is pretty fast, you can't ride a beam of light, unless you're Albert Einstein.
But at that early stage of his life, meaning when he was in his fifties, Bell wasn't interested in moving human quickly, only their voices. Moving as fast as a horse could take him was perfectly fine, thank you very much. Until he met a young chap named Casey Baldwin.
Baldwin's dead-eyed stare in the photograph above may only hint at unfriendly photography norms of the day, but I think it reflects a common element in most people with a hankering for moving quickly. Only at extreme speed could his face light up, a condition that afflicts all great racers.
In 1906, Baldwin was a recent graduate of the University of Toronto with two engineering degrees, and, like any young go-getter ever, decided that his next career move was to simply go and shack up with one of the greatest inventors of his day, in Nova Scotia. Why Alexander Graham Bell and his wife, Mabel, ever agreed to let this precocious kid just come and live with him, for no reason at all, other than he was a bright kid, we may never know. But they did.
And the partnership that resulted was the one of the world's most enduring watercraft world speed records.
Baldwin and Bell were enchanted by the recent invention of the airplane by the Orville and Wilbur Wright, and quickly set up an organization to build planes of their own. The Aerial Experiment Association was short-lived, but beyond Bell and Baldwin it also included luminaries like Glenn Curtiss, who later went on to found the Curtiss Aircraft Company, and Thomas Selfridge, the first person to ever die in a plane crash.
So you know they were in good company. Sort of.
The AEA didn't invent a whole lot, and it disbanded in 1909, but the partnership between Bell and Baldwin wasn't done. Baldwin continued to push Bell in the pursuit of velocity, in addition to a push for anything and everything that had wings on it.
Inspired by a 1906 article in Scientific American, Baldwin and Bell set out to build what they called a "hydrodrome." At first the idea was to build an airplane that could take off from water, but then they turned to a different idea – the hydrofoil.
In case you're not familiar with how a hydrofoil works, it's basically a boat on skis. It looks like a normal boat at rest, but at speed the skis lift the boat out of the water, reducing drag immensely, and that's when the speeds really come on. A modern hydrofoil looks like this:
The effect makes it look as if the boat is flying just a few feet over the water, and it can all be weirdly unsettling.
But Bell and Baldwin didn't care how it looked, and they set out to build a hydrofoil of their own. Of course, there's no better publicity for an invention than to just go about smashing world records with it and then getting rich because isn't that how records work, so that's what they set out to do.
Watercraft HD-1 through HD-3 were developmental models, and as such don't really bear worth mentioning as, let's be honest, they were all kind of slow and a bit boring and they tended to crash. The epitome of their work, though, was built after the end of World War I. It was the HD-4.
It's a bit of a chintzy looking thing, but then it would be, as it was derived from a turn-of-the-century idea of what an airplane should resemble, and then it looks like they slapped the entire thing together with some leftover plywood, broken ladders, and maybe some rope.
Powered by two 250-horsepower Renault engines attached to two whirling propellers spinning through the air, which must've been very safe, and then by two 350-horsepower Liberty engines supplied by the US Navy, Bell's HD-4 set out on the water of Bras d'Or Lake in Nova Scotia, Canada to claim the world speed record on water. It looks like it would never be able to move, let alone achieve any sort of real wind-in-your-face sensations, but move it did.
On September 9th, 1919, propelled by over 700 horsepower, the HD-4 shot across the inland sea at 70.86 miles per hour, and grabbed the world record. Somehow, the thing that looked like it would fall apart in two seconds managed to beat everyone else.
While the US Navy liked Bell and Baldwin's idea enough that they'd loan them some engines, they didn't like it enough to actually purchase the boat. Neither did the British. HD-4 was dismantled in 1921, and its hull spent the next few decades abandoned on shore.
Unfortunately HD-4 no longer exists, but a sort-of replica now resides at the Alexander Graham Bell museum in Nova Scotia.
Even if you could get it into the water, though, you'd never convince me to ride on top.
Photo credit: Dr Wilson