An Environmental History of Canada’s First Flight

"A.E.A. Silver Dart," by Robert Bradford. Source: Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

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February 23 is National Aviation Day in Canada. This year, Canadian aviation turns 107, but the story of Canada’s first controlled powered flight has been carefully crafted and curated since the very beginning. The act of curation, and the more enduring elements of the story, help show that making a technology appear Canadian often involves placing it inside an easily recognizable Canadian environment.

In 1907, Alexander Graham Bell (yes, that Alexander Graham Bell,) assembled a team of Canadian and American aeronautics enthusiasts, known as the Aerial Experiment Association: Canadian engineers J. A. D. McCurdy and Frederick “Casey” Baldwin, U.S. Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, and American motorcycle designer Glen Curtiss. Bankrolled by Bell’s wife, Mabel, the team divided their time between the Bell estate on Cape Breton Island and Curtiss’s motorcycle shop in upstate New York. Although their focus was originally on tetrahedral kites, the A.E.A. eventually concentrated largely on “aerodromes,” as Bell was known to call heavier-than-air flying machines. In the fall of 1908 Selfridge became history’s first airplane casualty when an airplane he was testing for the US military crashed. Fearing the dissolution of the A.E.A., Mabel Bell offered the team six more months of financing, so long as they used the winter to test their unfinished machines. The “Silver Dart,” designed by the youngest member of the team, Cape Bretoner McCurdy, was the nearest to completion, and it was transported from New York to Nova Scotia in early 1909. On February 23, McCurdy flew the Silver Dart approximately one kilometer above the frozen Lake Bras D’Or in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. This was Canada’s first flight and, by many accounts, the first flight in the British dominion.

McCurdy piloting the Silver Dart, February 1909. Source: Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, Library of Congress.
McCurdy piloting the Silver Dart, February 1909. Source: Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, Library of Congress.

Frozen Lake Bras D’Or is the key here. The fact that the flight took place in winter, and on a frozen lake, has become the easiest way to identify the flight as Canadian. The Silver Dart might have been constructed in the United States of Canadian, American, and Scots heritage, but its performance on the ice allowed it to become unquestionably Canadian. The Toronto Star, the first large Canadian newspaper to pick up the story, reported on only one technical element of the Silver Dart in its first brief report: “the aeroplane was started from the ice surface, having for its support a set of ice wheels.” The Manchester Guardian mistakenly called them “ice-skates.” Ice became the catch-word for newspapers attempting to describe how the Silver Dart took off, landed, and flew in its first season of testing through spring 1909.  The Globe and Mail’s special reports on the flights constantly mentioned ice: on March 9, McCurdy “made five ascensions with the special object of practicing landing on the ice,” and on March 11, he flew along “a course of four miles [that had] been previously measured along the ice on Bras d’Or Lakes.”

The Bells came to be gatekeepers to the Silver Dart story by writing press releases for the Associated Press and the New York Times, communicating with journalists, and giving public addresses about Canadian aviation. They made a point of emphasizing the Canadian-ness of the overall scene in their personal correspondence, which was extrapolated into news reports and eventually commemorative images and stories. Mabel wrote to one of her daughters, for instance, that “all Baddeck was out in sleighs or on skates….There must have been fully 30 sleighs within a small compass on the ice.” By early March, test flights were becoming routine, but Baddeck residents continued to turn up in impressive numbers and with great speed. Bell wrote to his wife that he was “somewhat surprised at the promptness with which witnesses make their appearance on the ice…without any notification from us,” suspecting that the A.E.A.’s on-call doctors were alerting the local general store owner. Mabel compared the young, handsome, very Canadian pilot McCurdy to a “coureur-debois [sic]” dressed “like he had just stepped out of a historical picture” in furs and leather leggings.

I don’t have any evidence that the Bells were deliberately making the flights seem as Canadian as possible, but it appears as though they, and the newspapermen who continued to report on test flights, were working with a prevailing set of concepts of what a Canadian scene should look like. Winter sports, especially skating, tobogganing, and snowshoeing, were very popular subjects of 19th-century Canadian painting and photography; ice-skating witnesses, “lithe active boys swiftly chasing the hockey sphere,” as Mabel Bell wrote in March 1909, and the Bell family in their sleigh were all expected elements of a Canadian scene. Placing the Silver Dart next to these other ice-based activities meant that it took very little work to make it a Canadian technology.

"A.E.A. Silver Dart," by Robert Bradford. Source: Canada Aviation and Space Museum.
“A.E.A. Silver Dart,” by Robert Bradford. Source: Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

It didn’t take long for these elements to become Canadian aviation heritage canon. Upon the 30th anniversary of the Silver Dart’s maiden voyage, for instance, the Carbon (Alberta) Chronicle described Alexander Bell “in his red sleigh, his white beard blown by the wind” in an attempt to make him as much like Santa Claus as possible. In my former life as an educator at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, I spent many National Aviation Days helping visitors assemble a giant puzzle of a midcentury painting of the Silver Dart by Canadian aviation artist and curator Robert Bradford, in which the eye is drawn to the bright red sleigh despite it serving as background to the aircraft. The 2009 commemorative Canada Post postage stamp took historical weather records into account to recreate what a press release called the “cool, crisp feel” of the day; the Bell family is not present, but a collection of “expressive spectators on skates” is. According to one of the stamp’s designers, it was meant to invoke “a turn-of-the-century oil painting.” However, it appears that almost every account of Canada’s first flight has meant to invoke such a scene, composed to best resemble a typical Canadian wintertime environment. In the case of aviation, at least, to make a technology Canadian is to place it inside that most Canadian of environments: ice, snow, and, apparently, hockey.

Centennial "First Flight" stamp by Canada Post, 2009. Source: Canada Post.
Centennial “First Flight” stamp by Canada Post, 2009. Source: Canada Post.



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Blair Stein

I am Assistant Professor of History at Clarkson University in northern New York State. I teach history of science and technology and environmental history, and I write about the links between geography, technology, and modernity in twentieth-century Canada, with a special interest in aviation.

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