A few more thoughts on Alexander Graham Bell; he was so much more than the “inventor” of the telephone. Like many other creative people, he had a wide range of interests and, thanks to his “telephone fortune,” he had the time and resources to pursue them. He also came from an unusual family background; his mother Eliza was thought to be the “model” for the similarly named character in the play Pygmalion, with Bell’s grandfather being the “model” for Professor Higgins. Bell’s grandfather and father were highly respected speech therapists, probably the progenitors of that profession. Alexander initially followed them into that activity, and working with the deaf remained part of his life to the end of his days. Helen Keller, for example, came to the public stage as a sub-contracted project of his.
While the story of how the development of the telephone came to be financed by his eventual father-in-law is very compelling, I found his forays into genetics and aeronautics to be fascinating.
Bell got into genetics trying to figure out ways to reduce the frequency of deafness. In the days before antibiotics many infections cost people their hearing, but Bell was most interested in how people came to be born deaf. At one point he collected a particular type of domestic cat after another researcher told him they were always born deaf. He later branched out into sheep in hopes of developing a breed that always gave birth to twins or triplets. No high-minded explanation of why he moved on to sheep when his primary interest was in eliminating deafness; he just thought they would be more profitable.
His aeronautic experiments started out with kites and ended up with powered aircraft. While his fortune, and understanding wife, made these experiments possible it was his unquenchable hunger for knowledge that drove him on.
Most of us will never have the luxury of unlimited time and resources to investigate our passions. But the lesson I take from Bell is to keep learning new things. No matter what your job is you can find some aspect of it to improve. You don’t have to be defined by your day job and can keep learning until they day you pass from this earth.