He was described by Robert Lloyd Praeger as "the working-man naturalist."
Sources conflict on his exact date of birth, the possibilities being 20 May, 22 May, though most sources state 29 December. He later moved to Belfast, becoming a hot riveter in Harland and Wolff"s shipyards. Despite the full time work in the shipyards, as a teenager Bell would spend his spare time studying in the Belfast Museum.
lieutenant was during this time that he developed an interest in geology, and began to collect specimens of minerals and fossils at the weekends.
Bell discovered the skull of the fossil Ichthyosaurus communis in 1885, in lias clay in the mountains outside of Belfast. Over time Bell was recognised as an authority on local geology, aiding visiting scientists, led many field trips, and prepared and catalogued specimens.
In particular his skill with a geology hammer was noted, being referred to as "Knight of the Hammer". He assisted Doctor West.F. Hume of the Egyptian Geological Survey, and George William Lamplugh of the Geological Survey of Ireland.
He would display his specimens at the club"s annual social evening, winning the award for best exhibit numerous times.
He also discovered a neolithic flint factory on Black Mountain, above Belfast in 1922. A portion of Bell"s collection of zeolite minerals is now in the Ulster Museum, which includes many first records for Ireland. The Ashcroft Collection of Irish zeolite collection in the Natural History Museum, London is also based around Bell"s specimens.
However, Bell sold the majority of his specimens to dealers, collectors, universities and museums.
Two minerals which Bell collected were new to science and were named by Cecil Edgar Tilley scawtite and larnite in honour of County Antrim, where they were discovered. Bell worked in the shipyards for forty years, and was laid off in 1924.
By this point Bell had become deaf, and suffered from depression at first, but then dedicated himself to his scientific work. Owing to an application of a number of prominent Ulster intellectuals, Bell was awarded a civil-list pension in 1930.
Bell"s son James worked at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, was a fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, working in the fields of chemistry and medicine.
He died on 12 April 1934 in Belfast. A blue plaque to Robert Bell was unveiled in Ballynahinch, near his birthplace of Ballycreen.
In 1912, he was made a life long member of Mineralogical Society of London. Bell was a member of the Belfast Naturalists" Field Club from 1893. Bell was also an Honorary Member of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, and also had an interest in botany.