What a 19th Century Inventor Taught Me

by Ernest Armah

One day, my mother took me to this place. She told me that that place was the only place we can bring my father, who was then several miles away from us, closer. I was excited and curious at the same time. Why? Because for the first time, I was going to see this place and also going to discover what makes this place so special. So off we went. We got to the hallowed place and met a gentleman who manage the place. My mother read something from her notebook to the gentleman who kept pressing some buttons on a device as she spoke. Then she was given this C-shaped object. She placed it to her ear and said, “Hello”. This marked my first encounter with the telephone.

Somewhere in the late 90s, I had the privilege of benefiting from the imagination and steadfastness of people I have not met. Until I went to Secondary school and came by Encyclopedia Britannica, I didn’t know the face, skin color, nationality, socio-economic status and level of literacy of Alexander Bell and the other pioneers of the telephone. Even if I never got to meet these people, my material experience of their belief that people widely apart physically can be brought together, was enough. Today, we have seen and still seeing tremendous creative disruption in communication technology.

One interesting thing I observed in the historical narratives on the Reconnaissance, Enlightenment, French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution was that the clamor for change was largely driven by grit and self-application to studies. According to John Mackey, “almost all of the extraordinary engineering that we all take for granted in the transition from rural to industrial society, was created by uneducated workmen”.

Perhaps the absence of (systemic, strait-jacket) education inured to the benefit of these workmen. I don’t think the self-educated Thomas Edison would’ve made 1,000 attempts at inventing the light bulb had he had all the facts. The bottom line was curiosity and self-interest. These workmen together with Edison were concerned about making a difference, expanding the frontiers of earthly possibilities and didn’t give a shuck about scoring 10/10.

To those of us privileged to receive higher education, what impact are we making with our knowledge? To what extent is the use of our knowledge advancing progress? Have we been educated to think problems, ink solutions and leave the work which begs our brains and hands to others to do? We don’t necessarily have to be a genius like Alexander Bell and the rest. By acting on what we know to make a positive difference on those who don’t know what we know, we engineer progress.