Don’t Keep Forever on the Public Road. Leave the Beaten Track Behind Occasionally and Dive Into the Woods

Alexander Graham Bell? Apocryphal?

bell03Dear Quote Investigator: The brilliant inventor Alexander Graham Bell helped to create the first practical telephone. He is often credited with the following inspiring statement:

Don’t keep forever on the public road. Leave the beaten track behind occasionally and dive into the woods. You will be certain to find something you have never seen before, and something worth thinking about to occupy your mind. All really big discoveries are the result of thought.

There are many variants of this exhortation, but none appears to be definitive. Here is a variant using a very different vocabulary:

Refrain from always following a predestined path for it only leads where others have already walked.

The industrious volunteers at Wikiquote have listed multiple versions. I was unable to find a direct citation to the writings of Bell, so I became cautious. Also, the earliest evidence I could locate was dated 1947, yet Bell died in 1922. Could you clarify this situation?

Quote Investigator: On May 22, 1914 Alexander Graham Bell delivered an address to the graduating class of the Friends’ School in Washington D.C. His words were published in the June 1914 issue of “The National Geographic Magazine”. In a section of his speech titled “Out of the Beaten Track” Bell described an experience which he employed as a metaphorical theme for his discourse: 1

I was walking along the road one day in my country place in Nova Scotia, when the idea occurred to leave the beaten track and dive into the woods. Well, I had not gone 50 feet before I came upon a gully, and down at the bottom was a beautiful little stream. I never knew of it before.

After describing the stream Bell elaborated on the lesson of this incident. The modern quotations are primarily derived from the text below. Boldface has been added to show the phrases in the original question above:

We are all too much inclined, I think, to walk through life with our eyes shut. There are things all round us and right at our very feet that we have never seen, because we have never really looked.

Don’t keep forever on the public road, going only where others have gone and following one after the other like a flock of sheep. Leave the beaten track occasionally and dive into the woods. Every time you do so you will be certain to find something that you have never seen before. Of course it will be a little thing, but do not ignore it. Follow it up, explore all round it: one discovery will lead to another, and before you know it you will have something worth thinking about to occupy your mind. All really big discoveries are the results of thought.

It is common for pithier quotations to be constructed by a streamlining process in which words, phrases, and sentences are omitted from a longer passage as a quote evolves.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

If the reader wishes to see the full address here is a link into “The National Geographic” to the beginning of the article by Bell, and here is a link to the phrase: “Don’t keep forever on the public road“.

An edited version of the address was printed in 1918 under the title “Observation: Twin Brother to Invention” in “Our Paper” published by the Massachusetts Reformatory in Concord Junction. The periodical “Youth’s Companion” was acknowledged. 2

In Spring 1947 an issue of “Bell Telephone Magazine” described the unveiling of a bust of Alexander Graham Bell at the prestigious Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. An instance of the quotation was inscribed on the pedestal: 3

As an enduring reminder of this hundredth birthday of the inventor of the telephone, we have called on the services of the eminent sculptor Paul Manship to execute a likeness of Alexander Graham Bell as he appeared at about the time of his great invention.

On the pedestal which supports this likeness is a thought which came from the depths of Bell’s own wisdom and experience. His words are simple and his imagery is homely. None the less, the faith which he expressed is dearly prized by every scientist. These few words of his will long remain an inspiration to us who work here. They read:

Leave the beaten track occasionally and dive into the woods. You will be certain to find something that you have never seen before.

In 1965 a manager with the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company spoke to the local Rotary Club in Vermont about the futuristic Picturephone service. He invoked the words of Bell: 4

Said Hansen, “Mr. Bell’s legacy, in his own words, was “Don’t keep forever on the public road, going where others have gone. We in the telephone business have traveled over many roads never before explored.”

In conclusion, Alexander Graham Bell did deliver a seminal speech in 1914 containing the now well-known injunction to “Leave the beaten track behind”. Over the decades different lines from the address have been highlighted in quotations.

(Great thanks to @wikicitas whose inquiry gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and initiate this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1914 June, The National Geographic Magazine, Volume 25, Number 6, Discovery and Invention by Alexander Graham Bell, (Address to the graduating class of the Friends’ School in Washington D.C. by Alexander Graham Bell on May 22, 1914), Start Page 649, Quote Page 650, Published by National Geographic Society. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1918 March 2, Our Paper, Volume 35, Number 9, Observation: Twin Brother to Invention by Alexander Graham Bell, (Acknowledgement to “Youth’s Companion”), Start Page 93, Quote Page 93, Massachusetts Reformatory, Concord Junction, Massachusetts (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1947 Spring, Bell Telephone Magazine, Mr. Bell and the Bell Laboratories, Start Page 6, Quote Page 11, Published by American Telephone and Telegraph Company, New York. (Internet Archive full view)
  4. 1965 August 18, St. Albans Messenger, Hansen Addresses Rotary: Union Carbide Tests ‘Picture Phone’ in Chicago and N.Y., Quote Page 3, Column 3, St. Albans, Vermont. (GenealogyBank)