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My Grandfather Invented the Telegraph

- Abstract

ON August 25, 1952, walking home from the Boston Public Library, I picked up an early afternoon edition of the Boston Traveler, as was my daily custom. The front page was uninviting. Turning to the letters column, I was startled to read:


Joseph Stalin,


You say Muscovite Z.Y. Slonimsky invented the telegraph a dozen years before Americans thought of it. That makes you the champ. After all, you invented Slonimsky.


Stalin invented Slonimsky! Then he must have also invented the genetic content of one-quarter of me, for Z. Y. Slonimsky, known to the world of Jewish scholarship as Chaim Selig Slonimsky, was my paternal grandfather. A swarm of childhood memories invaded my brain. Ever since I could remember, my mother used to tell me amazing tales about my grandfather, who was a genius, but an impractical one. “Don’t follow in his footsteps,” she cautioned me.

The most spectacular of my grandfather’s im- practicalities was his failure to patent the tele- graph, which he invented long before anybody thought of it. My mother recited the story in wea- risome detail, and with each repetition I could be- lieve it less and less, until I could endure it no longer.

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