Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s sketch of his phonautogram. Credit: firstsounds.org

Avoiding Our Blind Spots with Multidisciplinary Collaboration

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog on three inspiring ideas that came out of Brightspace’s FUSION conference in Orlando, Florida. The three ideas were:

  1. The Importance of Creative Courage
  2. Multidisciplinary Collaboration is the Future of Innovation
  3. The Slow Hunch vs. The Eureka Moment

I would like to take a moment now to elaborate on this second idea. In doing so, I hope to give a little more context to the comments I made last time and highlight the importance of, not only collaboration, but more importantly, multidisciplinary collaboration.

In 2008, the New York Times published a front page article titled “Researchers Play Tune Recorded Before Edison”. In this article the writer broke the story of how the first audio recordings from 1860 (almost twenty years before Edison’s debut with the phonograph) had been found and how modern technology is able to play back this 150 year old voice from the past. These audio clips have been acknowledged as “humanity’s first recordings of its own voice”.

In the first recording , Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, sings “Au Clair de la Lune”. Scott had recorded his voice on his invention, which he named the phonautogram. So, why wasn’t Scott credited with the invention of the first audio recording device? It wasn’t because his invention wasn’t well known. Actually, the scientific community readily adopted it at the time, and it was used extensively in the study of acoustics. What happened was that Scott fell prey to what Steven Johnson, bestselling author and FUSION keynote speaker, called the “blind spot”.

Scott was fascinated with a method of rapid writing called shorthand. It appeared he was almost obsessed with it. He took great pride in accelerating the process of note taking and made it a part of his life’s work to develop new ways of writing and reading. He even invented a device that would “write down” sound for him. This is what he called the phonautogram.

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s sketch of his phonautogram. Credit: firstsounds.org
Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s sketch of his phonautogram. Credit: firstsounds.org

This papery, balloon-like apparatus when spoken into would vibrate a needle on its end. This needle would then etch these vibrations onto a rotating cylinder, creating a written form of sound.

An example of the waves recorded by the phonautograph. Credit: firstsounds.org
An example of the waves recorded by the phonautograph. Credit: firstsounds.org

Scott used these transcriptions to decode what we now call sound waves into shorthand. (Picture 3). The phonautogram suited his purposes perfectly, and he continued to try to further automate the process of shorthand for many years.

Beginning to decipher sound waves. Credit: firstsounds.org
Beginning to decipher sound waves. Credit: firstsounds.org

Although his work was innovative, he couldn’t see that he was on the cusp of something transformative for the world around him. However, his invention was missing a key element: playback. Scott was so focussed on writing sound down and reading his products back that he never saw the potential in playing them back! He fell prey to his “blind spot”.

The argument to make here is that had he been working with others outside his discipline, others who had a more diverse set of interests, perhaps this obvious next step would have been brought up. Imagine if one of his peers had been a musician. What would that individual’s input have been? Sadly, this sort of multidisciplinary collaboration was not common during Scott’s time.

Now, however, the future of innovation has shifted: important new advancements are no longer happening in isolation. Whether we are learning from history or working on products relating to connective technology, teams of people from different disciplines are now collaborating and seeking out new solutions for the future. We avoid falling prey to our own “blind spots” in the way Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville did because we now surround ourselves with a diverse group of people and work together.

The next time you are working on an idea for your classroom, or your school, or in your day-to-day life, challenge yourself to seek the advice of people outside your discipline, and work together to create something that is not only innovative, but also transformative.

“Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them and it will change your life.” – A. Poehler

Post Script: Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s efforts did not go entirely unrecognized, fortunately. Although he was not recognized for the invention of the first audio recording device, he once referred to his goals for the phonoautogram and wrote, “Pourra-t-on conserver à la génération future quelques traits de la diction d’un de ces acteurs éminents, éminents, de ces grands artistes qui meurent sans laisser après eux la plus faible trace de leur génie?” [“Will one be able to preserve for the future generation some features of the diction of one of those eminent actors, those grand artists who die without leaving behind them the faintest trace of their genius?”]. I wonder if he ever imagined that his genius would be preserved for future generations and that people would be able to hear his voice centuries later.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.