In later life, Alexander Graham Bell lived in a large house facing the great Bras d’Or Lakes. This house was heated by ten fireplaces in addition to the large one in the main hall. It was built to resemble a French château. There were several round towers, each topped by a cone roof. The main roof was cut through in many places by stone chimneys and dormers, and a wide porch faced the water. Inside were great long runs of ash and cherry panelling. It stood on a sloping point, surrounded by wild grass. Peculiar varieties of sheep could be seen in pastures above the house.

Bell had become interested in sheep breeding. He was attempting to create a strain of sheep in which the ewes had extra nipples. He was interested in the observation that ewes with more than the usual two nipples often gave birth to more than the usual one lamb. He reasoned also that the extra nipples could be used to nourish extra lambs. An elaborate system was being used to keep track of the genealogy of his flocks. The sheep’s ears were punched according to a code. Samples of their wool were taken and tested in a machine of Bell’s design. A young man standing in the pens wrote down the number of times a ram penetrated a ewe. Every time it happened, his trousers tightened. The ram gripped the ewe, using his front legs like arms. From the way they jittered about in the pen, they might as well have been treading water. The ram appeared to be trying to save himself by climbing on her back. Eventually the ewe stood still and opened her mouth. They both panted like fire dogs.

One summer evening, Bell and his guests Samuel P. Langley and Simon Newcomb had a terrible argument about the righting ability of cats. It had started in the living-room of Bell’s house after dinner. Bell and Langley were talking about animal reflexes, as part of their continuing speculations about the future of manned flight. Sitting in a heavily stuffed chair facing an open porch, Bell had said that he thought a nation might defend itself against hostile aircraft by blowing them out of the sky with giant fans. An engine and a propeller could be mounted on a tower, and the draught thus created could be aimed at the approaching enemy. He noted that flying machines had to be made so light that they could be driven out of control by a stiff breeze. He went on to speculate that the limitation on control might well be in the reflexes of the pilot, so that no improvement in the machines themselves could ever allow them to be operated safely in turbulent air.

The Loves of The Tortoises