In the 1920s, Walt Disney began a new career as a cartoonist. A rarity in those days since the industry had no large market. Once this new entertainment medium became profitable, Disney hired additional artists to draw the thousands of still pictures needed to produce a high quality animated feature. Disney’s early success was with an animated character named Oswald Rabbit. The copyright, however, was held by a movie distributor. The distributor, hoping to cut costs, hired the cartoonists away from Disney eliminating the need to pay Disney. Based on physical assets and general abilities, Disney was not needed. Or was he? When was the last time you saw an Oswald Rabbit cartoon? Where did the distributor go wrong?

The distributor, with the Disney staff and the copyright on Disney’s character, expected to profit from his coup—but without Disney’s ideas and fantasies. The physical things—the drawings, the film, and the theaters—were merely vehicles. It was only a matter of time before another set of vehicles could be arranged and the ideas incorporated in a new character—Mickey Mouse—which Disney copyrighted in his own name.[1]

Disney’s creative genius made the difference. Of course, Disney also needed the cartoonists (who were better artists than he was), the theaters, and the distribution vehicles. But it was Disney’s vision and ideas that made his creations household names.

The Birdman of Leavenworth

Robert F. Stroud was a murderer. He killed a man over a woman. While serving time in Leavenworth,[2] a prison facility in Kansas, he killed a guard. This second murder brought him the death penalty. Stroud was headed for the gallows when his mother appealed to the White House for a termination of the sentence in exchange for life imprisonment. There was only one problem. The original death-sentence stated that he should remain in solitary confinement until his death. Now that his sentence was commuted, Stroud was destined to spend the rest of his life in a prison cell. His only contact with the outside world would be through the guard who patrolled his area of the prison.

[get_product id=“1473” align=“right” size=“small”]One day, during recreation time outside his cell, Stroud came upon three young birds whose nest had been blown into the recreation yard during a storm. He decided to nurse the fledglings back to health. It was a way to kill time, something he had a great deal of. Stroud trained the birds to do simple tricks. Other inmates who suffered under the harsh rigors of solitary confinement wanted the same privileges accorded to Stroud. They, too, wanted birds.

It was not too long that the birds developed diseases. With no knowledge of bird diseases, chemistry or science in general, Stroud embarked on an odyssey that made him world famous.

While in prison, Stroud educated himself. He learned to read and paint. He also became an accomplished mathematician and musician. Stroud’s greatest accomplishment, however, was in the study of birds and their diseases. With few raw materials, no formal training, limited access to research works, and restricted freedom to correspond with the outside world, Stroud was able to confound the bird doctors around the globe with his remedies for heretofore incurable bird diseases. He wrote the definite book on birds and their diseases: 200,000 words and 240 drawings. When he was given a microscope, a new world opened up to this caged jailbird. He built a microtome, a machine that cuts tissue very thin—down to 1/12,000 of an inch. This was necessary for examining tissue samples. The thinner the sample the easier it could be observed under the microscope. The machine was made from “a few pieces of hard wood, some glass, a piece of 1/2” rod with threads on it, a tin can, and a few scraps of sheet copper, and some black enamel and wood screws."[3] This machine was able to cut specimens down to two microns, “and the best ones,” Stroud wrote, “will not cut thinner than that."[4] His collection of tissue specimens was unrivaled in the world.

Stroud accomplished more in a 6 X 12 jail cell than most of us will create with the world’s resources at our fingertips. Stroud was forced to create or die. Under less adverse circumstances and a lack of providence in finding three sparrows in the exercise yard during a storm, Stroud probably would have remained just another “con.” The Birdman’s confinement actually gave him more freedom than a student in an American classroom will ever get. He was at liberty to explore, to chase rabbit trails, to experiment and observe.

The Edison Effect

“Average” students often excel in non-traditional academic environments. Instead of taking the academic, or “by-the-book approach,” they look for what has never been tried. And without having the latest scientific studies to tell them that something can’t be done, they often do it in spite of the research. A young Thomas Edison, for example, overheard the schoolmaster say that his mind was “addled,” scrambled. Edison recalled the incident:

I remember I used never to be able to get along at school. I was always at the foot of the class. I used to feel the teachers did not sympathize with me, and that my father thought I was stupid. . . .[5]

We know that Edison was not “addled.” He was a different kind of student, different in terms of the teaching methods employed in the nineteenth century and often duplicated today. For Edison it was always “necessary to observe with his own eyes, to `do things' or `make things' himself. To see for himself, to test things himself, he said, `for one instant, was better than learning about something never seen before for two hours.'"[6]

[get_product id=“1474” align=“right” size=“small”]Edison was always the experimenter. He would try everything to find a workable solution to a puzzling problem. To discover a long-burning filament for his incandescent lamp, Edison “tested no fewer than 6,000 vegetable growths, and ransacked the world for the most suitable filament material."[7] To an empirical scientist, this was a waste of time, money, and effort. But for Edison, it worked, and the world is better for it. I’ve read somewhere that Edison gave the task to one of this workers of turning tungsten (a very brittle metal in raw form) into a wire, seemingly an impossible task, by scientific standards of the day. Edison didn’t “know” that it wasn’t supposed to work. The scientist to whom Edison gave the project probably would have never tried tungsten because all of his training told him it could not work.

Edison recognized that others had abilities that he did not possess. This, too, is a sign of genius. He employed men at his laboratory who had doctorates in physics and chemistry from prestigious universities from around the world. Their considerable academic acumen did not impress him, however. He believed that university trained scientists see only “`that which they were taught to look for,'” and thus they miss “the great secrets of nature lying under foot.” Edison loved to jab at his academic superiors. “Do you think I’d have amounted to anything if I went to school?” Martin Rosanoff, a university trained chemist who worked for Edison remarked, “Had Edison been formally schooled, he might not have had the audacity to create such impossible things as the phonograph!"[8]


There are many young people who are academic “ransackers.” They prefer to hunt for solutions to problems rather than to be told about them. Your child has the potential to excel. I believe there is latent genius in all of us. We should not be discouraged, therefore, if our children do not seem to measure up to other students. Don’t write them off. Encourage them to pursue their interests. Use their interests to teach them the necessities. So what if they don’t take calculus and physics. Those who need to take them will. Maybe your child’s genius lies elsewhere, in the area of the unexplored and untried.

**Footnotes: [1]**Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 71. [2] Stroud’s biography is titled The Birdman of Alcatraz. Nearly all of Stroud’s work with birds was done at Leavenworth. So why is he called the “Birdman of Alcatraz”? After his long career in Leavenworth, he was transferred to the maximum-security federal penitentiary (1934–1963), about one mile offshore north of San Francisco. Alcatraz was known as “Pelican Island.” Since a pelican is a bird, the Alcatraz association probably had more literary meaning. [3] Thomas E. Gaddis, Birdman of Alcatraz: The Story of Robert Stroud (Mattituck, NY: Aeonian Press, [1962] 1976), 156. [4] Gaddis, Birdman of Alcatraz, 156. [5] Quoted in Matthew Josephson, Edison: A Biography (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959), 20. [6] Josephson, Edison, 20. [7] Josephson, Edison, 233–234. [8] Josephson, Edison, 412.