Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

“…we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.”
John of Salisbury in Metalogicon, 1159

Cleaning out the storage area of his basement in February 2010, he came across a large white flipchart he had used in the early 1980s. It was the sort used before powerpoint presentations and was only slightly yellowed by time. On the top page was written, in his own handwriting, the word “THE” in large capital letters. That was all – just the word “THE.” “The what?” he wondered.

He flipped the large first page over and smiled. In somebody else’s handwriting was written, “The Irresistible, Inescapable, Irrevocable Coming of Electronic Distribution of Newspapers.” That was his style for sure, to leave no doubt about his position and no wiggle room either. After writing the word “THE” he had decided to delegate the time-consuming task of copying his presentation onto the flip chart to an employee. Somehow, the original first page was never torn off and thrown away. Now it was a message from the past that symbolized his early days as a telecommunications consultant.

He swelled with pride, thinking of how farseeing he had been in predicting the coming of “electronic” newspapers. But as he flipped over page after page of the presentation he knew that was a crock. Only the title of the presentation was original to him. Following the bold pronouncement on page one were page after page of bullet points showing the results of his research of the literature which supported his thesis. He was not a technology scholar. Nor was he an inventor of technology. He was a consultant. His role had been to stay abreast of advances in telecommunications technology, to persuade clients to adopt new technology and then to help them justify its costs and implement it. To a large extent he was in the vision business.

Finding the old flip chart got him to thinking about one special person who had influenced him. He had met this person only briefly and only once.

A few days passed. Early on a Saturday morning, he impulsively typed the special person’s name into the Google search box: “Ralph Lee Smith”. He thought it was a waste of time because there must be a million Ralph Lee Smiths. And sure enough, Google’s first search result showed a “Ralph Lee Smith, The Dulcimer’s Number One Friend,” with a picture of an older man lovingly holding the musical instrument known as the dulcimer. No telecommunications connection here, he thought. And the photo brought no recollection of the Ralph Lee Smith he had met so long ago, so he paged back to the Google search results. That was when he noticed this Ralph Lee Smith also claimed to be an author.

He decided to return to the webpage and click on some of its links. First he clicked on a link titled “Books and Records.” All the books listed were about the dulcimer and folk music. Next he tried the link titled “Greenwich Village Days.” This time his persistence was rewarded. The book he was looking for was listed there.

At 8:14 A.M. on the same day he sent an email:

Dear Sir:

I was working for the old Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company in DC when I first read “The Wired Nation” back in 1971-72. It made quite an impression on me and I decided to go for a Master’s Degree in the University of Colorado’s then new Telecommunications Program. I was privileged to hear you speak when you visited Boulder. That was in the fall of 1972 or the spring of 1973.

I just want to thank you very much for inspiring me and giving me a vision of the future which became largely true. I tell young people today about how you influenced me and gave me a vision that pointed me in a good direction. I tell them that they need to find such a vision also.

Warm regards and Deep Respect,
Gordon MacPherson

The vision had been the vision of broadband communications and digitization of information. These were the two interlocking advances in telecommunications that made possible the high speed networks and advanced communications services we have today. The idea that we would also wind up with a wireless nation had barely crossed anybody’s mind at the time, but the concept of broadband communications was inclusive.

He wondered if he would get a response. Ralph’s webpage said he was born in 1927 and that the website was designed by his granddaughter, Robin.

He was surprised and gratified, therefore, when he received this email 17 minutes later:

Dear Gordon,

Thank you so much for this very kind message! I think that the coming of new things inspired all of us in the days when The Wired Nation was published. I stand in awe of the many things that have been happening in the communications world in recent years and that are happening now.

In addition to writing and communications, I have had for many years an interest in folklore and folk music, and these days I write and teach in this field. You can see some of my writing in this area, on my website http:///www.ralphleesmith.com

Thank you again for writing!

Very best regards,

Ralph

But he wasn’t going to let it go at this. The matter of exactly when he had met Ralph Lee Smith still needed to be resolved. Was it 1972 or 1973? He just wanted to know, for no particular reason except that he was wired that way. He might find a clue in his copy of “The Wired Nation,” so he found the old book and opened it up. On the fly page was Ralph’s autograph:

For Gordon with very best personal regards.
Ralph Lee Smith
October 1972

He sent another email to Ralph informing him of this finding and received this in reply:

Dear Gordon,

Gosh! Amazing! Thank you!

Ralph

It appears that giants come in all shapes and sizes. And some of them play the dulcimer. Expertly. After all, if they were one-dimensional, they wouldn’t be giants.

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2 responses to “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

  1. I can totally imagine the delight when you hear from your idol.
    (I once got an autographed photograph from an actor, as a kid. It was pure euphoria!)
    I admire men with a vision, and you, dear Gordon, have shown us the tracks that your vision left behind. You definitely deserve to be an inspiration and have someone speak of you in the same respect.

  2. “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” is an inspiring story for several reasons. It pays tribute to those moments in life when one person’s thoughts or actions can positively impact another person, sometimes changing the entire course of their life. And, it shows how taking the time to acknowledge a mentor’s impact can become an unexpected and very valuable reward to them for their actions.

    I am fortunate enough to have had a similar moment in life. It happened in mid-December, 1995. I recall that it occurred in a home located in Annapolis, MD, which had been converted into an office. My mentor gave me a book written by Bill Gates entitled “The Road Ahead” and he offered his thoughts about the changes the book foretold. He then challenged me to create a seminar showing, amongst other things, how the Internet would change the call center. In retrospect, it was at that moment that I found myself standing on the shoulders of my own giant.

    Gordon, thank you for your broad shoulders and for the impact you’ve had on my life. Happy Thanksgiving – 2010!

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