How a horse inspired the telegraph

When most people use their imaginations to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in predictable ways by the properties of existing categories and concepts. In school you are taught to define, label, and segregate what you learn into separate categories. The various categories are kept separate and not allowed to touch each other, much like ice cubes in a tray. Once something is learned and categorized, your thoughts about it become frozen. For example, once you learn what a telegraph is, whenever someone mentions “telegraph” you know exactly what it is.

Samuel Morse invented the telegraph but he became stumped trying to figure out how to produce a signal strong enough to be received over great distances. The traditional solution was to use a generator. They made large and larger generators but they were still not sufficient to power a signal coast to coast. He worked long and hard on the problem.

Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his journals that creative thinking requires the ability to generate a host of associations and connections between two or more dissimilar subjects, creating new categories and concepts. You force connections between dissimilar subjects to provoke new thinking patterns in your brain. These new patterns generate new associations and connections which lead you to original ideas you cannot get using your usual way of thinking.

Imagine, for a moment, that thought is water. When you are born, your mind is like a glass of water. Your thinking is inclusive, clear, and fluid. All thoughts intermingle and combine with each other and make all kinds of connections and associations. This is why children are spontaneously creative.

However, in school you are taught to think exclusively. When confronted with a problem, you examine your mind’s ice cube tray and select the appropriate cube. Then you take the cube and put it in a glass, where your thinking heats and melts it. For example, if the problem is to “power the telegraph coast to coast,” the glass will contain all you have learned about the telegraph and ways to power it and nothing more. You are thinking exclusively, which is to say you are thinking only about what you have learned about the telegraph and exclude everything else. No matter how many times the water is stirred, you end up creating, at best, a marginal improvement.

One day Morse was waiting for a ride at a horse relay station. Idly waiting, he contemplated ways to power the telegraph while simultaneously thinking about tired horses being exchanged at the station. He made the observation that one can travel coast to coast by periodically changing horses at horse relay stations. He then forced a connection between powering the telegraph with exchanging horses at relay station to solve his problem. The solution was to give the traveling telegraphic signal periodic boosts of power. This made the coast-to-coast telegraph possible.

Morse tried to solve his problem using one cube from the ice cube tray (the telegraph) with no luck. It was when he dropped another cube (horse relay stations) into the glass that the two dissimilarities conceptually blended into the solution. Da Vinci reported that is impossible to simultaneously think of two dissimilar subjects without connections being made. DaVinci labeled this technique as “Connecting the Unconnected. In my work in the field of creative thinking I discovered that this is a commonly used technique used by creative geniuses throughout history to provoke different thinking patterns.

Michael Michalko

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