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Nicholas Callan: The Experimental Churchman-Scientist. 4 Lessons for Innovators

Known for his invention of the induction coil in 1836, from his intellectual journey we can learn four lessons

Nicholas Callan.

Churchman Nicholas Callan is known for his invention of the induction coil in 1836. Father Callan is one of the many ‘Polymaths’– multifaceted personalities who gave a unique imprint to the Renaissance– starting with those who were active in the Florence of the Medici. There are four lessons that we can learn from his intellectual journey.

1. Adjacent ideas ignite a process of accretion

Creative power emerges when different disciplines collide, an idea exemplified by the sayings:  ‘Innovation is a body contact sport’; ‘one door leads to another door’. One can move around in the spaces adjacent to one’s own domain. In such a way, Nicholas Callan invented the induction coil. This was the result of combining two adjacent ideas: the discovery in 1831 of electromagnetic induction by physicist and chemist Michael Faraday, and the electromagnet invented in 1825 by physicist William Sturgeon. Adjacent psychological spaces may give rise to physical spaces that are sources of unlikely combinations. As Christina van Houten (Adjacent Innovation – Unlikely Connections That Move Our World, Diginomica, 2016) tells us, the concentration on the island of Murano of Venetian glass craftsmen turned out to be an “inadvertent creation of a colony of highly-skilled glassmakers”. Socializing in the neighborhood cultural space could lead to a “sole mode of thought” syndrome of loyalty to the scientific community or industrial district to which one belongs. Those who espouse anti-discipline move into wide and white (uncontaminated) spaces.

2. Anti-discipline generates creative tensions

Anti-discipline is a method that breaks down the barriers separating disciplines and specializations. As the Reverend Patrick McLaughlin relates, in early nineteenth-century Europe an educational process embracing such a method was initiated by St. Patrick’s College. Each student, without exception, undertook a wide range of studies that included, in addition to Theology: Humanities, Rhetoric, Belles Lettres, Logic, Mathematics and Physics. Physics was studied under the guidance of the Professor of Natural Philosophy (as Physics was then known). Subsequently, however, universities tended towards over-specialization, with its associated psychological walls, which has only recently been seriously questioned by the Harvard biologist Edward O. in his essay On Human Nature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978). Wilson saw anti-discipline as an “adversarial relation that often exists when fields of study at adjacent levels of organization first begin to interact” and generate creative tensions.

3. Exploration knows no bounds, whether physical or mental

Educational institutions that do not raise barriers between the Humanists and Scientists open the minds of their students. Father Callan studied at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth – the National Catholic Seminary of Ireland- founded in 1795. In his third year, the Seminary allowed him to advance into the field of natural and experimental philosophy.

Having broken down disciplinary barriers, Callan crossed geographical boundaries. Ordained a priest in 1823, he went to Rome to complete his theological studies at Sapienza University. In 1826, Callan obtained a doctorate in divinity.

There are productive analogies between different specialized fields. A mind empty of preconceived ideas and a knowledge nomad, Father Callan was a curious person who informed himself and shared knowledge in conversation. In Rome, he became acquainted with the work of two pioneers in electricity, Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta. So, let’s move on to the fourth lesson.

4. Conversation expands knowledge

The birth of highly transformative ideas is shortened by the quality of conversation in the space of mindedness.

The Age of Conversation had its cradle in Paris between the 17th and 18th centuries. Yet, that Age at the crossroads between the Scientific Revolution with its two great agitators, Galileo and Newton, and the Enlightenment, symbolized by the Encyclopédie under the direction of Diderot and D’Alembert, is not the exclusive prerogative of Europe, with France and England contending for the primacy.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin was committed to cultivating a fertile ground of conversation from which the creative spark of the First Industrial Revolution emerged.

From the past to the present, there are four critical components of the conversation aimed at expanding human knowledge:

• Bringing out the cleverness of others (Jean de La Bruyère, 1645-1696).

• Humble inquiry: asking instead of telling (Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1790).

• Full-fledged serendipity process (EU Open Innovation Strategy and Policy Group, 2007; see market/en/open-innovation-strategy-and-policy-group).

• Forcing curiosity into a field that promises greater advances  (Global Thinkers Forum, 2017; see http://www.globalthinkers-

Nicholas Callan’s four lessons tell us that this is the time when Homines Novi, the ‘New Men’, enter the picture – people who did not immediately assume that something radically new could not be accomplished. Paraphrasing “Etiam si omnes . . . ego non” from Saint Matthew’s Gospel (26:33, 35), “Even if all others follow the knowledge, we will not”, Homines Novi do not abandon creativity which eludes the captors of knowledge, and add to it conviction, without which the path on which they have set out would not be viable.

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