The word is a combination of:  Hydro + Foil

Hydro: relating to water + Foil:  a surface, as a wing, designed to aid in lifting or controlling an aircraft by making use of the air currents through which it moves.

A hydrofoil is a wing shape attached to a boat. The foils are shaped like an airplane wing, in that it is tapered to allow water to flow quickly over it. At higher speeds, this action creates lift. This, in effect, lifts the boat out of the water and into the air, where there is much less resistance and higher speeds can be reached.

As mechanical engineering students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) explain:

When a normal boat moves forward, most of the energy expended goes into moving the water in front of the boat out of the way (by pushing the hull through it). Hydrofoils lift the hull out of the water so that you only have to overcome the drag on the foils instead of all of the drag on the hull.

Hydrofoil History

One of the earliest hydrofoil accounts is credited to Thomas Moy, an English engineer who in 1861 installed a set on a boat in the Surrey Canal and noted that when the vessel was towed, it was lifted ‘quite out of the water’.

William Meacham explained the principal and described his own experiments in a March 1906 edition of Scientific American magazine.

That same year in Italy, Enrico Forlanini is seen racing his hydrofoil craft across Lake Maggiore.

Alexander Graham Bell undoubtedly read Meacham’s article. By 1906, Bell was using floats on some tetrahedral kite experiments for trials over water at Beinn Bhreagh.

Bell & Baldwin: The Path to Hydrofoils

All the early flight pioneers struggled with the same engineering difficulties.

  • How to get enough speed to create lift.
  • Once in the air, how to safely land, without injury to pilot or plane.

During his early kite experiments in 1902, Bell searched for a successful way to launch a kite large enough to carry a man and/or a motor. This posed a myriad of engineering and mathematical problems. Should he tow the kite on a track overland or outfit it with floats and tow it over water. Bell chose the latter.

For their 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk (and for years after) the Wright Brothers used a catapult system to get their planes airborne and skids for landing.

Between 1902 and the creation of the AEA in 1907, Bell is experimenting with a variety of types of floats on kites. As Bell is already deeply involved in the construction of the Cygnet, The AEA take this on as their first project.

AEA Craft

  • Cygnet

    Designed by Bell; a non-motorized manned kite, towed behind the steamer Blue Hill. Carried Lt. Selfridge and flies for 8 minutes over Baddeck Bay in December 1907

  • Red Wing

    Designed by Selfridge, flown by Baldwin in Hammondsport, N.Y. in March 1908

  • White Wing

    Designed by Baldwin. Outfitted with tricycle undercarriage – a first in North America.

  • June Bug

    Designed by Curtiss. Wins Scientific American trophy on July 4, 1908 – first public flight in North America

  • Silver Dart

    Designed by McCurdy who pilots it in February 1909 to become first flight in Canada.

  • Drome #5 (nicknamed the Cygnet II)

    A tetrahedral kite with a motor. Did not fly.

  • Drome #6 Dhonnas Beag

    A blend of aerodrome (as Bell called fling machines) and hydrodrome

The AEA work takes place at Glenn Curtiss’s machine shop in Hammondsport NY and at Bell’s Beinn Bhreagh Labs.

In June 1908, while some members of the AEA are working in New York on finalizing the June Bug, Bell and the Beinn Bhreagh lab have the catamaran launcher The Getaway, built for his tetrahedral kites.

In November 1908, two-thirds into the life of the AEA, the group decides to outfit their successful June Bug with catamaran-styled floats and hydroplanes. Baldwin’s expertise as a sailor is called upon as they look to design hydroplanes for the flying machine. But attempts at lift off from Lake Keuka near their Hammondsport headquarters are not successful.

For Bell & Baldwin, hydrofoil experimentation came as a natural sequence in the development of flying machines, as they continually tried to overcome issues related to take-off and landing. Thus hydrofoil development is directly tied to and is a direct outcome of the AEA’s aviation work.

The proposed sixth machine of the AEA, called Drome #6 (Dhonnas Beag) was planned as a combined boat/flying machine. Baldwin was in charge of the project.

In the AEA Bulletin in October 1908, Bell called it ’Baldwin’s hydro-aerodrome’ and the plan was to ‘place hydroplanes under the boat-body to assist it in rising’.  He continued:

“…its body shall be in the form of a boat with outriggers so that it can float upon the water and rise from the water after the manner of a water bird.”

Baldwin called it anaero-hydric trinity of a boat, hydroplane and an aeroplane”.

These trials were exploratory and preliminary, done in an effort to create an engine capable of rising out of the water.

During this heady time in Baddeck, these young innovators joined the recently formed Bras d’Or Yacht Club.  AEA members Bell, McCurdy, Baldwin and Selfridge became members, helping with the logistics of some of the club’s earliest races.  During one meeting in 1908, Bell is called upon by the club commodore to speak about sailboats and racing. The secretary notes Bell advocated: Safety first; comfort second and speed, third.  He also wanted it noted that “a boat with its propeller in the air is eligible for the motor boat race.”

Following the end of the AEA in 1909, Bell, Baldwin and McCurdy form the Canadian Aerodrome Company (CAC), with the hopes of creating an aviation manufacturing industry in Canada. The company builds and tests aircraft, but the business folds after a year when there are no orders for planes.

In 1910, Bell & Baldwin and their wives spend a year travelling around the world. The couples make a stop at Italy and spend time with Enrico Forlanini. When they return to Baddeck the following year, Bell and Baldwin have a renewed enthusiasm for hydrofoils.

Bell Laboratory: 1911-1922

Hydrodromes: Beginning in 1911, hydrofoil experimentation became a focus for Bell & Baldwin and four hydrofoil craft are designed, constructed and tested over the next 8 years. Like the AEA, Bell & Baldwin studied and learned from each craft built. They also explore a variety of side projects, including adding hydrofoils to sailboats

Their work culminated with hydrodrome #4 (also known as the HD-4) which established a world speed record for water craft on September 9, 1919, travelling 70.86 mph on Baddeck Bay. This record would remain unbroken for almost a decade.

More experimental hydrodromes are built and tested following the 1919 test, including towing targets for the Canadian Navy. Bell & Baldwin form a company and are awarded patents.

Boat Building: Walter Pinaud, master boat builder is hired to train Beinn Bhreagh Lab staff in boat building techniques.  The boatyard was responsible for constructing the Bell’s motorboat the Ranzo, a number of dinghies, a tender for Gilbert Grosvenor’s yacht Alexander, the yawl Elsie and Baldwin’s record- breaking Typhoon.  During the First World War, the Beinn Bhreagh Boatyard builds lifeboats for the navy.

Cruising Club of America: The American yachting club was formed aboard Elsie as she was anchored at Maskell’s Harbour in 1921.

Hydrofoil Development After Bell:

Casey Baldwin continues to design and build hydrofoil motorboats, towing targets and smoke generators for at-sea testing. Later in life, Baldwin becomes a Member of the Nova Scotia legislature and encourages the development of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park in northern Cape Breton.

In the 1950’s & 1960’s the Royal Canadian Navy began to develop experimental naval hydrofoils:

  • KC-B (also known as the Massawippi) A 14 meter, 5-ton experimental craft built in Quebec and tested in Halifax Harbour
  • R-103 (launched as Bras d’Or, renamed Baddeck) Commissioned by the Defence Research Board of the federal department of Defence and built by the British Company Sanders-Roe in Wales.
  • The Bras d’Or: A Royal Canadian Navy warship outfitted with hydrofoils; conducts sea trials and reaches 112 kph on hydrofoils.

Foil Baddeck

A Hydrofoil Centennial Celebration – 2019

As the centennial of Bell & Baldwin’s ground breaking hydrofoil approaches, planning is underway.  Stay tuned.