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Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

12 MARCH, 2013

Alexander Graham Bell on Success, Innovation, and Creativity

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“It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.”

Success is one of those grab-bag terms — like happiness — that defies universal definition. Thoreau saw it as a matter of greeting each day with gratitude and for designer Paula Scher, it’s about the capacity for growth; for Jad Abumrad, it comes after some necessary “gut churn”; for Jackson Pollock’s dad, it was about being fully awake to the world. But the best kind of success is the kind you define yourself.

And yet, those who share a certain culturally agreed-upon degree of success might have some timeless and widely relevant tips. Take, for instance, Alexander Graham Bell — father of the telephone, romantic, proponent of remix culture. In the 1901 volume How They Succeeded: Life Stories of Successful Men Told by Themselves (public library; public domain) — which also gave us novelist Amelia E. Barr’s 9 rules for success — writer Orion Swett Marden interviews Bell, at the time 54, about his life’s learnings regarding the secrets of what we call “success.”

Marden writes of Bell with deep admiration:

Extremely polite, always anxious to render courtesy, no one carries great success more gracefully than Alexander G. Bell the inventor of the telephone. His graciousness has won many a friend, the admiration of many more, and has smoothed many a rugged spot in life.

When asked about the key factors of success, Bell sides with Ray Bradbury and replies:

Perseverance is the chief; but perseverance must have some practical end, or it does not avail the man possessing it. A person without a practical end in view becomes a crank or an idiot. Such persons fill our insane asylums. The same perseverance that they show in some idiotic idea, if exercised in the accomplishment of something practicable, would no doubt bring success. Perseverance is first, but practicability is chief. The success of the Americans as a nation is due to their great practicability.

And yet he recognizes, to borrow Bertrand Russell’s words, that “every opinion now accepted was once eccentric” and leaves room for the usefulness of useless knowledge:

But often what the world calls nonsensical, becomes practical, does it not? You were called crazy, too, once, were you not?

Bell affirms the role of “unconscious processing” — what T. S. Eliot called the “long incubation” of ideas — in the creative process:

I am a believer in unconscious cerebration. The brain is working all the time, though we do not know it. At night, it follows up what we think in the daytime. When I have worked a long time on one thing, I make it a point to bring all the facts regarding it together before I retire; and I have often been surprised at the results. Have you not noticed that, often, what was dark and perplexing to you the night before, is found to be perfectly solved the next morning? We are thinking all the time; it is impossible not to think.

Paralleling Thomas Edison’s sleep habits, Bell offers a fine addition to other famous daily routines:

I begin my work at about nine or ten o’clock in the evening, and continue until four or five in the morning. Night is a more quiet time to work. It aids thought.

When Marden asks whether everyone can become an inventor, Bell is adamant:

Oh, no; not all minds are constituted alike. Some minds are only adapted to certain things. But as one’s mind grows, and one’s knowledge of the world’s industries widens, it adapts itself to such things as naturally fall to it.

Echoing Thoreau, Bell advocates for the creative stimulation of nature and makes a strong case for physical health:

I believe it to be a primary principle of success; ‘mens sana in corpora sano’ — a sound mind in a sound body. The mind in a weak body produces weak ideas; a strong body gives strength to the thought of the mind. Ill health is due to man’s artificiality of living. He lives indoors. He becomes, as it were, a hothouse plant. Such a plant is never as successful as a hardy garden plant is. An outdoor life is necessary to health and success, especially in a youth.

Bell, like John Dewey, believes that ideas can’t be willed and aren’t the product of the fabled Eureka! moment — rather, he advocates for slow creative gestation, echoing Thomas Edison’s insistence on singularly focused effort and Polaroid inventor Edwin Land’s conception of the 5,000 steps to success:

You cannot force ideas. Successful ideas are the result of slow growth. Ideas do not reach perfection in a day, no matter how much study is put upon them. It is perseverance in the pursuit of studies that is really wanted.

Next must come concentration of purpose and study. That is another thing I mean to emphasize. Concentrate all your thought upon the work in hand. The sun’s rays do not burn
until brought to a focus.

[…]

Man is the result of slow growth … The most successful men in the end are those whose success is the result of steady accretion. That intellectuality is more vigorous that has attained its strength gradually. It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider, and progressively better able to grasp any theme or situation, persevering in what he knows to be practical, and concentrating his thought upon it, who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.

Bell offers a poignant, if overly violent, metaphor for how the factory model of education stifles the creative spirit and the capacity for success:

In Paris, they fatten geese to create a diseased condition of the liver. A man stands with a box of very finely prepared and very rich food beside a revolving stand, and, as it revolves, one goose after another passes before him. Taking the first goose by the neck, he clamps down its throat a large lump of the food, whether the goose will or no, until its crop is well stuffed out, and then he proceeds with the rest in the same very mechanical manner. Now, I think, if those geese had to work hard for their own food, they would digest it better, and be far healthier geese. How many young American geese are stuffed in about the same manner at college and at home, by their rich and fond parents!

Alexander Graham Bell's telephone patent drawing and oath, March 7, 1876

In considering the different mindsets towards innovation in Europe vs. the United States, Bell applauds the American gift for embracing the unfamiliar and remaining open to the new, pointing to risk-aversion as a killer of the culture of innovation:

It is harder to attain success in Europe. There is hardly the same appreciation of progress there is here. Appreciation is an element of success. Encouragement is needed. My thoughts run mostly toward inventions. In England, people are conservative. They are well contented with the old, and do not readily adopt new ideas. Americans more quickly appreciate new inventions. Take an invention to an Englishman or a Scot, and he will ask you all about it, and then say your invention may be all right, but let somebody else try it first.

Take the same invention to an American, and if it is intelligently explained, he is generally quick to see the feasibility of it. America is an inspiration to inventors. It is quicker to adopt advanced ideas than England or Europe. The most valuable inventions of this century have been made in America.

When asked about the roles of heredity and environment in creativity — the good old nature-vs.-nurture debate — Bell offers a biological spin on John Locke’s “blank slate” theory and ultimately extols the American spirit of innovation as an enormously fertile environment for nurturing great minds:

Environment, certainly; heredity, not so distinctly. In heredity, a man may stamp out the faults he has inherited. There is no chance for the proper working of heredity. If selection could be carried out, a man might owe much to heredity. But as it is, only opposites marry. Blonde and light-complexioned people marry brunettes, and the tall marry the short. In our scientific societies, men only are admitted. If women who were interested especially in any science were allowed to affiliate with the men in these societies, we might hope to see some wonderful workings of the laws of heredity. A man, as a general rule, owes very little to what he is born with. A man is what he makes of himself.

Environment counts for a great deal. A man’s particular idea may have no chance for growth or encouragement in his community. Real success is denied that man, until he finds a proper environment.

America is a good environment for young men. It breathes the very spirit of success. I noticed at once, when I first came to this country, how the people were all striving for success, and helping others to attain success. It is an inspiration you cannot help feeling. America is the land of success.

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05 MARCH, 2013

The History of Photography, Animated

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From ancient witchcraft to the camera obscura to the iPhone, or why Victorians always looked stern.

It’s estimated that roughly 380 billion photographs are taken in the world each year — more photos per day than in the entire first 100 years after the invention of photography. But what, exactly, ignited that boom of visual culture? In this lovely short animation, Bulgarian-born Boston-based photographer Eva Koleva Timothy — who gave us the wonderful Lost in Learning project — traces the evolution of photography through innovations in science, technology, and policy, from the Arab world of the 9th century to Leonardo daVinci to George Eastman and beyond.

Complement with 100 ideas that changed photography, the history of image manipulation before Photoshop, and some innovation lessons from the story of Polaroid.

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28 FEBRUARY, 2013

The Age of Edison: Radical Invention and the Illuminated World

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A brief history of giving the people what they wanted, or why the lightbulb was a mere cog in the machinery of total illumination.

In 1880, a short segment of Broadway from Madison Square to Union Square was transformed into the “Great White Way” when twenty-three arc lights were switched on at nightfall, burning until sunrise the next day.

The light itself was overwhelming. The New York Times reported:

The great white outlines of the marble stores, the mess of wire overhead, the throng of moving vehicles, were all brought out with an accuracy and exactness that left little to be desired.

Women shielded themselves from the light using umbrellas. One person described the scene in horror:

People looked ghastly — like so many ghosts flitting about.

The harsh brightness of the arc lights required that they be hoisted between 20 and 50 feet in the air, throwing the city into dramatic light and shadow. People appeared gaunt and washed out, and the light exposed every skin imperfection. The experience of the arc lamp was like standing under a watchtower, and the street now had one on every corner. New York had been transformed into a prison, not a playground.

Light had come to the American city. And it was just awful.

In The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America (public library), Ernest Freeberg explains that the invention of electric light was not simply the invention of the light bulb — rather, it was the introduction of an entirely new way of life: the experience of illumination.

A night view of the Paris Exposition of 1900

Image courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Thomas Edison, in fact, wasn’t the first to invent the lightbulb — in one form or another, electric light had been in existence since the turn of the nineteenth century when Sir Humphry Davy — a British scientist who had previously intoxicated himself with nitrous oxide — demonstrated the first arc light to the Royal Society in 1810. The arc light was named for the brilliant white light that appeared when an electrical current jumped the gap between two carbon rods. Davy’s effect was brief but brilliant, and the scientist made no effort to distribute the light on a grand scale.

Sir Humphry Davy experimenting with a voltaic battery

Image courtesy Chemical Heritage Foundation

The arc light was powerful and effective; it became the standard application for inventors who wanted to distribute light to small towns and big cities across the U.S. It could blast away the shadows in Grand Central Station and it could light up an area for miles with a single strobe. San Jose and Austin constructed “moonlight towers,” roughly the size of a modern cell phone tower, to cast a white-hot glow over their city streets and combat crime. For the civic-minded, darkness was the criminal and the arc light was the policeman.

The first arc light tower, constructed in San Jose, California in 1881

Image courtesy Wikimedia

The incandescent light bulb was much more fragile an invention, relying on a glowing filament whose lasting power was unreliable. It was, however, the glow that Edison obsessively sought out. Edison didn’t invent incandescence either, but his goal was to make a bulb that glowed steadily, and that could glow in tandem with others.

Edison the man was an emblem for his entire workshop: hundreds of engineers and patents, a mountain of discarded materials, a thousand promises and false starts, millions of dollars in potential profit and market domination.

Edison and his workshop always invented in full view of the public. He would throw open the doors of his laboratory in Menlo Park, ready to reveal another rung in the ladder of human progress, only to shut himself up again when the newspapers questioned the efficiency of his inventions. The news from Menlo Park, much like the news from Cupertino today — and from Bell Labs in the mid-twentieth century — could affect the stock market on a grand scale.

The gas companies had the most to lose from the invention of a successful Edison lighting grid.

Image courtesy the New York Public Library

In late 1879, Edison opened the doors to his laboratory to introduce the prototype of his incandescent light, capable of burning for up to three hundred hours. The bulb itself was not particularly special — hundreds of bulbs with varying filaments had been invented and discarded over the years. What made Edison’s light different, however, was a quality that couldn’t be measured in dollars: it was beautiful.

According to one newspaper, the lightbulb was “a little globe of sunshine” which produced “a bright, beautiful light, like the mellow glow of an Italian sunset.” It was also the first light that had a single sensory experience. For thousands of years, light had been the product of wood, tallow, gas, or coal — where there was smoke, there was light. A newspaper reported of Edison’s bulb:

There is no flicker… There is nothing between it and darkness. It consumes no air and, of course, does not vitiate any. It has no odor or color.

Cities and towns did not simply crave light — the arc light was the brightest and boldest light a person could experience — they craved the right light. Edison’s incandescent bulb was not the brightest, but it had the glow that the public desired. Edison devised a system of lighting, a string of incandescent bulbs that ran on parallel circuits — ensuring that one outage wouldn’t collapse the system — driven by an enormous dynamo that allowed an even brightness across a vast field. Edison didn’t simply envision a bulb, he envisioned a grid, and he hooked his lighting into the tangle of telegraph wires, phone lines, and police alarms that already ran through the city.

The Edison Electric Tower was a pillar of incandescent light designed to showcase the glow of the Edison bulb. It was a popular feature of the General Electric exhibit at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago

Image courtesy Field Museum

The great shift from darkness into light during the nineteenth century wasn’t due to the invention of the lightbulb, but the invention of illumination and the experience of light on a grand scale. A well-lit room was not a novelty. A well-lit street, a building sprinkled with light, a lighthouse with a brilliant beam — these were the signposts of an illuminated world. Men and women would begin to stay out later into the night. Constant illumination meant a longer workday, for some driven by economic need, while others simply craved it.

The illuminated world transformed the literary sphere, too. With more people outside during the night, there were more stories to cover, more life to unfold. Newspapers began to publish multiple daily editions, both because they could and because the public hungered for it. The factory worker and the newspaper reporter began to intensify their “night work” and the now-familiar 24-hour workday began to take shape.

The Great Search Light and Electric Tower at the Pan American Exposition, held in Buffalo in 1901.

Image courtesy the New York Public Library

The Age of Edison is the story of invention and experience, in which the race to light America was not for the brightest light, but the best, and the smartest. In the end, Edison’s incandescent bulb prevailed — not simply because it was the most beautiful light, but also because it was the savviest.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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