Put a Sock in It! – By Dr. Sara Sawtelle

If NECESSITY is the mother of INVENTION, then OBSERVATION must be her sister.  That’s what I concluded on a recent visit to Thomas Alva Edison Birthplace Museum in Milan, OH.  And that’s what led to the expression, “Put a sock in it!”

My husband and I have driven by the museum countless times.  This time we stopped.  We learned a lot about Mr. Edison and his life.  While he was a great American inventor, he was told as a young child that he was unable to learn and would never be anything.  I believe the phrase they used on the tour was “He was told after less than two weeks in school that he was addled – and they kicked him out”.  Despite that early prediction, he ended up with thousands of patented inventions that have changed our world dramatically. So much for addled!

One of the points that struck me was that many of Mr. Edison’s inventions were improvements on other people’s work, even his own.  He improved on things that he noticed were not practical.  He saw the problem, figured out how to fix the problem and then patented his solution. One example was the light bulb.  He actually did not invent the light bulb, but he invented the INCANDESCENT light bulb.  He figured out how to improve it, made the invention better, more accessible and more practical.

At the museum we listened to one of his original inventions– the first phonograph.  In the days of I-pods and MP3 players, something struck me as I was looking at this artifact.  Its simplicity was awe-inspiring. Add that he was deaf and the awe continues to grow.  Our guide explained that there was no volume control on this first prototype — it was all or nothing.  So when someone was playing it and it was too loud – they would PUT A SOCK IN IT! (The same way I learned to mute my French Horn).  They would shove a sock in the bell of the phonograph to lower the volume.  Mr. Edison saw this as something that needed fixed, so in one of the next phonographs he added volume control.  The control consisted of a slider on the front of the device.  As you push the slider down to lower the volume, a wire slides a ball of material into the bell. The ultimate “put a sock in it!”

That is what I call ingenuity.  Edison observed the problem, saw the solution and figured out how to improve the invention.  It’s a great message:   Take time to observe.   Learn to pay attention, assess what you see, put it in context and you never know what you might figure out!  NECESSITY and her sister, OBSERVATION …

What interesting observations have sparked something for you?

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