( Originally Published 1879 )
IF we are prompt to seize and improve even the shortest intervals of possible action and effort, it is astonishing how much can be accomplished. Watt taught himself chemistry and mechanics while working at his trade of a mathematical instrument maker; and he availed himself of every opportunity to extend his knowledge of language, literature, and the principles of science. Stephenson taught himself arithmetic and mensuration while working as an engineer during the night shifts, and he studied mechanics during his spare hours at home, thus preparing himself for the great work of his life—the invention of the passenger locomotive.
With perseverance, the very odds and ends of time may be worked up into results of the greatest value. An hour in every day withdrawn from frivolous pursuits, would, if profitably employed, enable any man of ordinary capacity, very shortly to master a complete science. It would make an ignorant man a well-informed man in ten years. We must not allow the time to pass without yielding fruits, in the form of something learned worthy of being known, some good principle cultivated, or some good habit strengthened. Dr. Mason Good translated Lucretius while riding in his carriage in the streets of London, going his rounds among his patients. Dr. Darwin composed nearly all his works in the same way, while riding about in his "sulky," from house to house in the country—writing down his thoughts on little scraps of paper, which he carried about with him for the purpose. Hale wrote his " contemplations " while traveling on a circuit. Dr. Burney learned French and Italian while traveling on horseback from one musical pupil to another in the course of his profession. Kirk White learned Greek while walking to and from a lawyer's office; and we personally know a man of eminent position in a northern manufacturing town, who learned Latin and French while going messages as an errand boy in the streets of Manchester.
Elihu Burritt attributed his first success in self improvement, not to genius, which he disclaimed, but simply to the careful employment of those invaluable fragments of time, called "odd moments." While working and earning his living as a blacksmith, he mastered some eighteen ancient and modern languages, and twenty-two European dialects. Withal, he was exceedingly modest, and thought his achievements nothing extraordinary. Like another learned and wise man, of whom it was said that he could be silent in ten languages, Elihu Burritt could do the same in forty. " Those who have been acquainted with my character from my youth up," said he, writing to a friend, "will give me credit for sincerity when I say, that it never entered into my head to blazon forth any acquisition of my own. * * * All that I have accomplished, or expect, or hope to accomplish, has been and will be by that plodding, patient, persevering process of accretion which builds the ant-heap—particle by particle, thought by thought, fact by fact. And if ever I was actuated by ambition, its highest and warmest aspiration reached no further than the hope to set before the young men of my country an example in employing those invaluable fragments of time called ' odd moments.' "
Daguesseau, one of the great chancellors of France, by carefully working up his odd bits of time, wrote a bulky and able volume in the successive intervals of waiting for dinner; and Madame de Gentis composed several of her charming volumes while waiting for the princess to whom she gave her daily lessons. Jeremy Bentham in like manner disposed of his hours of labor and repose, so that not a moment should be lost, the arrangement being determined on the principle that it is a calamity to lose the smallest portion of time. He lived and worked habitually under the practical consciousness that man's days are numbered, and that the night cometh when no man can work.
What a solemn and striking admonition to youth is that inscribed on the dial at All Souls,''Oxford, England, "Periunt el imputantur," the hours perish and are laid to our charge. For time, like life, can never be recalled. Melanchton noted down the time lost by him, that he might thereby reanimate his industry, and not lose an hour. An Italian scholar put over his door an inscription intimating that whosoever remained there should join in his labors. "We are afraid," said some visitors to Baxter, "that we break in upon your time." " To be sure you do," replied the disturbed and blunt divine. Time 'was the estate out of which these great workers, and all ' other workers, carved a rich inheritance of thoughts and deeds for their successors.
Sir "Walter Scott found spare moments for self-improvement in every pursuit, and turned even accidents to account. Thus it was in the discharge of his functions as a writer's apprentice that he first penetrated into the Highlands, and formed those friendships among the surviving heroes of 1745 which served to lay the foundation for a large class of his works. Later in life, when employed as quartermaster of the Edinburgh Light Cavalry, he was accidentally disabled by the kick of a horse, and confined for sometime to his house; but Scott was a sworn enemy to idleness, and he forth-with set his mind to work, and in three days composed the first canto of "The Lay of the Last Minstrel," his first great original work.
Let not, then, the young man sit with folded hands, calling on Hercules. Thine own arm is the demi-god. It was given thee to help thyself. Go forth into the world trustful, but fearless. Exalt thine adopted calling or profession. Look on labor as honorable, and dignify the task before thee, whether it be in the study, office, counting-room, work-shop, or furrowed field. There is an equality in all, and the resolute will and pure heart may ennoble either.