THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 17

Subject:  Invention – Stethoscope

Event:  Birthday of French physician Rene Laennec, 1781

It was baseball great Yogi Berra who said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” It is also true that you can hear a lot just by listening.  One man who exemplified the benefits of both watching and listening was a French doctor named Rene Laennec, who was born on this day in 1781.  

Today we take it for granted that doctors wear white coats with stethoscopes draped around their necks and shoulders.  This was not always the case.  From the days of Hippocrates — the father of medicine — physicians practiced the art of “auscultation,” (from the Latin verb auscultare “to listen”) by placing their ear directly on a patient’s body to listen to the internal sounds of the heart and lungs.  This was often embarrassing for women when examined by a male doctor. 

One day in 1816, when Rene Laennec was preparing awkwardly to listen to the chest of a female patient, he had an epiphany.  He remembered watching children play with long hollow sticks.  They would place their ear on one end of the stick, scratch the other end of the stick with a pin, and listen as the sound reverberated loudly through the stick.  Based on this memory, he rolled up a piece of paper into a cylinder and placed one end of it on the patient’s chest.  He was extremely pleased with the results:  not only was the use of the cylinder less intrusive, but it also allowed him to hear the beat of the patient’s heart more clearly and distinctly than he could with just his naked ear.  Laennec dubbed his invention the “stethoscope” from the Greek stethos — meaning “chest” — and skopein — meaning “observe.”

An original stethoscope belonging to Rene Laennec (Wikipedia)

Within two years of inventing the stethoscope, Laennec received a favorable review from the New England Journal of Medicine, which caused the majority of doctors to adopt the innovation.  In 1852, the stethoscope was improved when George Cammann produced one with two earpieces, the version we recognize today.

Both sadly and ironically, a stethoscope was used on Laennec as a patient when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  He died in 1826 at the age of 45, only ten years after his great discovery (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How did observation lead to the invention that helped physicians listen better?

Challenge – Once Upon an Invention:  What is another invention that has an interesting backstory?  Research an invention, and tell the story of its inventor and its origin. 

Sources:

1- “Viewpoint: The curious history of the first stethoscope.”  March 1, 2010

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 4

Subject:  Invention and Adaptation – Braille Alphabet

Event: Birthday of Louis Braille, 1809

Two sides of a coin, with a portrait of Braille on the front and a child reading a braille book on the back
U.S. Dollar Coin issued in 2009 (Wikipedia)

Today is the birthday of Louis Braille (1809-1852), a blind man who invented a system that brought literacy to the blind and visually impaired. 

Born in Coupvray, France, in 1809, Braille lost his sight at a young age.  Playing in his father’s workshop, he accidentally punctured his eye with a sharp awl.  Tragically, an infection developed in the punctured eye and spread to the other eye, leaving Louis totally blind.  Despite his blindness, Louis attended school in his village, and at age 10, he won a scholarship to the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris.

At the Royal Institute, Braille learned night writing, a system of raised dots and dashes that allowed soldiers to read messages in the dark.  Adapting and simplifying night writing, Braille developed his own system in 1824, when he was only fifteen years old.  Unfortunately, Braille’s genius was not fully recognized during his lifetime (he died of consumption in 1852); however, his alphabet eventually became the standard for schools for the blind internationally (1).

Braille’s hunger for knowledge drove him to create a coding system that brought literacy to millions of visually impaired people.  His refusal to live in darkness made him a tenacious seeker of the light of knowledge.  His tragedy became his springboard for triumph.

Braille’s story has a couple of lessons for us about creative thinking.  First, creativity is a great way to reframe a setback or failure.  Instead of looking back with regret, we can look ahead for an opportunity for turning the negative into something positive.  Braille clearly was a learner. His growth mindset allowed no obstacle to stop him from getting an education and contributing something to humanity.  Second, creativity isn’t always about producing something from nothing; instead, it more often than not is about adapting something that exists for a new application.  Braille’s adaptation of night writing took an idea that applied narrowly to a military context and expanded and simplified it to help bring literacy to the blind.  Certainly other people knew about night writing, but ironically, it took a blind man to see how its use might be adapted.  Perhaps no man in history better exemplified Einstein’s proclamation:  “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: How did Braille’s life exemplify the growth mindset?

Challenge – Tragedy as a Springboard for Triumph:  Who is another person who typifies Braille’s growth mindset, another person who turned a life-tragedy into an opportunity, or who used failure as a springboard for future success?  Research the life of a person like Braille, and write a summary that presents the highlights of how this person went from tragedy to triumph.

Today’s Word Day: Happy Grimm’s Fairy Tales Day

Sources:  

1-Sloane, Paul.  Think Like an Innovator:  76 Inspiring Business Lessons from the World’s Greatest Thinkers and Innovators.  UK:  FT Press, 2016.