Initially famous for building a triple horsepower-engine steamboat called the Comet, Bell ultimately launched Europe's debut commercial steamboat enterprise. Tragically, the collision of his second steamboat, the Comet II, with a similar vessel resulted in the deaths of some five dozen passengers.
Before devoting his life to building steamships, he studied the stonemasonry, millwrighting, and carpentry trades.
His steamboat business operated from Scotland's River Clyde.
A native of Torphichen, West Lothian, Scotland, Bell was the fifth boy born to Patrick and Margaret Bell. Following his marriage, he settled in Helensburgh, Argyll and Bute, Scotland.
Bell's American counterpart, Robert Fulton, built another early, commercially successful steamboat line.