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#138 Alexander Graham Bell
August 2nd, 2020 | E138

What I learned from reading Reluctant Genius: The Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of Alexander Graham Bell by Charlotte Gray.


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[0:01]  I have my periods of restlessness when my brain is crowded with ideas tingling to my fingertips when I am excited and cannot stop for anybody. Let me alone, let me work as I like even if I have to sit up all night all night or even for two nights. When you see me flagging, getting tired, discouraged put your hands over my eyes so that I go to sleep and let me sleep as long as I like until I wake. Then I may hand around, read novels and be stupid without an idea in my head until I get rested and ready for another period of work. But oh, do not do as you often do, stop me in the midst of my work, my excitement with “Alex, Alex, aren’t you coming to bed? It’s one o’clock, do come.” Then I have to come feeling cross and ugly. Then you put your hands on my eyes and after a while I go to sleep, but the ideas are gone, the work is never done

[1:20]  Books are the original links: So many times Edwin Land referenced what he learned from studying the life of Alexander Graham Bell—from being motivated as Bell persevered through struggles to how to market a brand new product. 

[3:06] Alexander Graham Bell had a lifelong passion for helping and teaching the deaf.  

[4:13]  Alex asserted his independence early. Exasperated by being the third Alexander Bell in a row, he decided to add Graham to his own name

[4:32] He often retreated into solitude, particularly when he was preoccupied with a project.  

[5:27] Alex’s school record was unimpressive. Chronically untidy and late for class, Alex often skipped school altogether. Outside the classroom he demonstrated the ingenuity and single-mindedness that would shape his later career.  

[8:03] He complained of headaches, depression, and sleeplessness. Perhaps this wasn’t surprising considering the undisciplined intensity of his work habits. In a pattern that would last a lifetime, he would sit up all night reading or working obsessively on sound experiments

[9:54] A note he left himself: A man’s own judgement should be the final appeal in all that relates to himself. Many men do this or that because someone else thought it right

[11:42] The problem Alexander was trying to solve that led to the invention of the telephone: Could they solve a puzzle with which amateur engineers all over the United States were grappling? Nearly thirty years after its first commercial application, the telegraph system was still limited to sending one message at a time. The race was on to increase its capacity. Alex was determined to join this race. 

[12:39] Samuel Morse is mentioned over and over again in this book just like Alexander Graham Bell is mentioned over and over again in books on Edwin Land and just like Edwin Land is mentioned over and over again in books on Steve Jobs. This speaks to this instinctual nature that we have to want to learn from the life stories of other people— to collect that knowledge and push it down the generations.

[17:42] Other inventors were on the same track as he was. A professional electrician and inventor named Elisha Gray had successfully transmitted music over telegraph wires. Thomas Edison was already bragging that he was close to introducing the quadruplex telegraph.  

[23:43]  Inventor and Yankee entrepreneur had found one another. Alex was unaware that Gardiner Hubbard was on the hunt for a multiple telegraph device; Gardiner Hubbard had no idea that his daughter’s teacher [Alex] spent his nights crouched over a table covered with electromagnets and length of wire. Alex had the ideas Hubbard needed; Hubbard had the access to capital to finance them

[25:06] It is a neck and neck race between Mr. Gray and myself who shall complete our apparatus first. He has the advantage over me in being a practical electrician—but I have reason to believe that I am better acquainted with the phenomena of sound than he is—so that I have an advantage here. The very opposition seems to nerve me to work and I feel with the facilities I have now I may succeed. I shall be seriously ill should I fail in this now I am so thoroughly wrought up. 

[27:02] Thomas Watson on what it was like working with Alexander Graham Bell: His head seemed to be a teeming beehive out of which he would often let loose one of his favorite bees for my inspection. A dozen young and energetic workmen would have been needed to mechanize all his buzzing ideas. 

[27:41] Alex meets with an older, wider inventor named Dr. Joseph Henry: He told the eager young inventor that his idea was the germ of a great invention. Since he lacked the necessary electrical knowledge he asked Dr. Henry should he allow others to work out the commercial application. Dr. Henry didn’t pause for a minute. If this young Scotsman was going to get the commercial payoff from his invention, he simply had to acquire an understanding of electricity. “GET IT!” he barked at the twenty-eight-year-old.  

[31:42] Drawing inspiration from the life of Samuel Morse: He was frustrated by his lack of technical knowledge that “Morse conquered his electrical difficulties although he was only a painter, and I don’t intend to give in either till all is completed.” 

[35:09] Alexander Graham Bell’s personality: He put tremendous demands on himself. His tendency to work around the clock, and to alternate between states of fierce focus on one goal and an inability to concentrate on anything, suggest a lack of balance in his temperament. He was erratic in his habits and intellectually obsessive, but it was his unconventional mind that made him a genius. He refused to be hemmed in by rules. He allowed his intuition to flourish. He relied on leaps of imagination, backed by a fascination with physical sciences, to solve the challenges he set himself. 

Comparing and contrasting Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell: Unlike Thomas Edison, the ruthless self-promoter who saw science as a Darwinian competition and who always announced his inventions before he had even got them working, Alex hated revealing anything until he was confident of its success. Edison was an ambitious self-made American; Alex was a cautious Scot more interested in scientific progress than commercial success. [I forgot to put this part in the podcast] 

[40:22] Struggle: When will this thing be finished? I am sick and tired of the nature of my work and the little profit that arises from it. Other men work their five or six hours a day, and have their thousands a year, while I slave from morning to night and night to morning and accomplish nothing but to wear myself out. I expect that the money will come in just in time for me to leave it to you in my will! I am sad at heart, and keep my feelings bottled up like wine in a wine cellar. 

[45:20] More struggle. Alex almost giving up again: Of one thing I am determined and that is to waste no more time and money on the telephone. Let others endure the worry, the anxiety and expense. I will have none of it. A feverish anxious life like that I have been leading will soon change my whole nature. I feel myself growing irritable, feverish, and disgusted with life

[49:37] What’s most important to Alex: “Yes, I hold it is one of the highest of all things, the increase of knowledge making us more like God.” He had bought a set of the new Encyclopedia Britannica and had announced he was going read it from start to finish. Nothing would dampen his irrepressible urge to explore, discover, and improve. 

[50:36]  Alexander Graham Bell on parenting: He believed that play is Nature’s method of educating a child and that a parent’s duty is to aid Nature in the development of her plan. 

[54:30] He never liked for anyone to knock on his door before entering the room. If he was following a train of thought and there was a tap on his door, his attention being diverted to the noise, he very often lost the thread and for days would not be able to pick it up again. Alex once said, “Thoughts are like the precious moments that fly past; once gone they can never be caught again.”  

[55:20] Any disturbance was such anathema to Bell that he never had a telephone installed in his own study


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