Tag Archives: Alexander Graham Bell

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.

Continue reading

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