The Pocket Notebooks of 20 Famous Men

John D. Rockefeller

John D. Rockefeller’s zeal for detailed bookkeeping was legendary. He loved to meticulously pore over his ledger books and took great pleasure in having every fact and figure right at his fingertips. And he was constantly trying to figure out ways to make his business more efficient; he was never satisfied with the status quo. His aid in this efficiency crusade was a little red notebook he always kept with him in which he would jot down notes to himself, along with facts, figures, and calculations.

Rockefeller took his notebook on tours of his refineries and processing plants. He carefully observed the plants and probed the managers with a myriad of questions as he made notes of ways things could be improved. And he always followed up on these ideas. Thus the little red notebook had the power to strike a bit of fear in his underlings. “More than once I have gone to luncheon with a number of our heads of departments and have seen the sweat start out on the foreheads of some of them when that little red notebook was pulled out,” Rockefeller remembered with enjoyment.

Rockefeller understood that a penny saved somewhere along the line could snowball into a hefty sum. For example, while touring a plant he saw that 40 drops of solder were being used to seal kerosene cans destined for export. He asked the foreman to try sealing them with 38 drops; some leaked with 38, but none with 39, and so the switch was made. Rockefeller recalled, “That one drop of solder saved $2,500 the first year: but the export business kept on increasing after that and doubled, quadrupled-became immensely greater than it was then: and the saving has gone steadily along, one drop on each can, and has amounted since to many hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Lewis and Clark

With the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the United States acquired nearly a million square miles of territory, territory that had yet to be officially mapped and explored. Americans knew very little about this new swath of their country, and Jefferson charged the Corps of Discovery with finding out just what was out there. Jefferson was not only interested in the men finding river routes to the Pacific, but as an amateur naturalist and scientist himself, was also extremely keen on discovering just what geography, climate, plants, peoples, and animals inhabited this frontier. So he charged the expedition with recording a long list of information, from the lay of the land to the disposition of the native peoples they encountered. He asked them to keep multiple journals and to take extremely good care of them.

The Corps of Discovery carried out this order with all due diligence. Not only did Captains Lewis and Clark keep notebooks on their observations, but the other soldiers did as well, producing in all more than one million words during their travels.

Lewis and Clark kept 18 of what Jefferson called their “traveling pocket journals;” 13 were larger notebooks bound in red morocco leather, 4 were smaller and bound in paper board, and one was Clark’s field notebook bound in elkskin. Clark carried this elkskin field book during times of inclement weather or while canoeing down a river in order not to risk damage to one of the larger red notebooks. He would then copy his field notes into the red notebooks later on. When all the notebooks were not in use they were kept protected in tin cases. When their pages had been completely filled, the notebooks were sealed safely shut inside the cases for a safe return to Washington.

Shoshone smoking pipe

Falls and portage of the Missouri River.

Historian Donald Jackson called Lewis and Clark “the writingest explorers of their time.” The men “wrote constantly and abundantly, afloat and ashore, legibly and illegibly, and always with an urgent sense of purpose.” Their journals covered astronomy, weather, natural history, botany, animals, anthropology, maps, and much more, and today offer an incomparable snapshot of the frontier of America.

George C. Marshall

George C. Marshall always kept a small notebook with him, and it would bear rich fruit during his tenure as the U.S. Army Chief of Staff during WWII.

Between the World Wars, Marshall served as aide-de-camp to General Pershing, worked within the War Department, commanded the 15th Infantry Regiment, and taught at the Army War College. These positions brought him into contact with many up and coming officers admist the Army’s ranks. Wherever he went, he carefully observed the men he met and encountered. He would jot down the names of those he considered promising candidates for future leadership positions, making notes of the men’s strengths and particular characteristics. The names of men like Patton, Eisenhower, Bradley, and Stilwell could be found on the pages of his famous notebook.

When WWII broke out, Marshall didn’t want over-the-hill generals ordering young men into battle; instead, he looked for leaders who, even if controversial, could be dynamic in their thinking and strategy. To find the men ready for top commands, Marshall had to simply flip open his notebook and look over his notes. He became known for having a “gift” for putting the right people in the right positions. But it was a gift born of preparation…and a pocket notebook.

Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton began his habit of keeping a notebook as a boy-he would write out lists of words and recipes for things like colored dyes. But his notebook keeping began in earnest when he arrived at Cambridge as an undergraduate. In the 17th century, students were encourage to keep a large “commonplace book” in which they recorded all their notes and acquired knowledge. But on the advice of his Cambridge tutor, Newton instead started a set of small notebooks, each dedicated to a specific subject-theology, mathematics, chemistry, and philosophy. Newton’s method of inquiry was to pose a question, study and analyze all the evidence, and record his deductions in his notebooks.

Newton had an obsession for organizing and categorizing information, and he would typically lay out his notebooks by listing the subjects he wished to study throughout the book and then entering notes under the headings as he learned and gathered new knowledge. He would also start in on both ends of the notebook at once, covering different subjects on each end and numbering the front half with Roman numerals and the end half with Arabic numerals. He would then return later to fill in the blank middle section with a different subject.

Newton’s philosophical notebook is particularly prized among scholars for its insight into Newton’s intellectual development. Inspired by the philosophy of Rene Descartes, he endeavored to explore all the quaestiones quaedam philosophicae (Philosophical Questions). He made 45 different headings in his notebook on topics ranging from atoms and color to God and the soul.

First page of the Quaestiones.

He organized his theological notebook in the same way, making a list of headings on various theological subjects at each end of the notebook. The front part was used to systematically study the Bible and record what it said about each subject; the end of the notebook was used to further explore the questions which had been raised during this scripture reading by seeing what the church fathers had to say on the topic. He even wrote up an index to this book so that he could reference the entries and insights he had gained throughout his life.

For the rest of his life, Newton not only returned to his old notebooks but filled many dozens more with insights and experiments in everything from alchemy to mathematics.

Notebook entry on alchemy

Frank Capra

In his autobiography, Frank Capra recalls how, without any real previous experience, he stumbled into being asked to direct his first short film, The Ballad of Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House, based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling. Worried about failing, Capra prepared as much as possible, with help from his pocket notebook:

“Came the morning of  ‘shooting.’ The saloon looked perfect, foggy with smoke as I ordered, and smelly with beer on the sawdust. The ‘actors,’ standing around in open-mouthed wonderment, were so villainous Kipling would have loved them. I had every scene in my mind and sketched out in a pocket notebook; long shots, near shots, face shots-all in chronological order. A pomaded Montague gripped my hand, wishing me luck.”

Pablo Picasso

Picasso utilized his pocket notebooks to make preliminary sketches before he began a painting. This was particualrly true in the case of preparing to paint what would become Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Driven by his artistic passion and an intense rivalry with Henri Matisse, Picasso made 809 sketches for the painting in many notebooks over a period of nearly six months-more preparatory sketches than for any other known artwork in history.

Picasso thought so much of his notebooks that he wrapped some of them with pieces of colorful fabric. Others he painted with stars, zig zags, stripes, and dots.

Prepatory sketch for ‘Guernica’

His notebooks were indispensable to his art, but they also kept him sane during trying times.

From 1932-1935, two books which exposed Picasso’s private life were published, his mistress gave birth to his child, and his wife left him and took their son with her. Picasso called this period “the worst time in my life.” Hoping to strip his life back to the essentials, he confined himself in near isolation in Paris. But as his friend Jaime Sabartes recalled, his trusty pocket notebook remained his companion:

“Picasso was endeavoring to recapture the simplicity of our life as young men, despite the manifold and profound changes in us and around us. He wanted to return to a bygone period in our lives. He neither painted nor sketched and never went up to his studio except when it was absolutely necessary, and even then he put it off from day to day, no matter how urgent. In order to occupy his imagination, he wrote-with a pen if he found one handy, or a small stub of pencil-in a little notebook which he carried about with him in his pocket. He wrote everywhere.”

Peter Jennings

To go from a high school dropout to a respected foreign correspondent and news anchor takes hard work and attention to detail. Peter Jennings particularly set himself apart from other journalists with his zeal for the latter. Vice President and Managing Editor of News for ABC, Paul Friedman, remembered:

“Whenever we would go out on a story he carried a reporter’s notebook around with him-a small spiral notebook that he used to put in the back of his pants, inside the belt. He would take incredibly detailed notes. So if you went anywhere in the world, he would go back to his file of spiral notebooks and you’d hit the ground running because he could say, ‘well, there is this guy I talked to last time. Here is his telephone number and we’ll call him.’ All reporters do that, but Peter did it in incredible detail.

I remember going to Cuba with Peter on a story. We needed a sugarcane field for a standup, talking about the economy. Peter looked in one of his notebooks and he looked around and said, ‘If you go down that road about a mile, there’ll be a church on the left. Hang a left at that church, drive a little while after that, and there will be a sugarcane field.’ Sure enough, there it was.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson was surely one of the most prolific notebook-keepers in history. He kept 263 notebooks on a variety of subjects and for a variety of purposes. His notebook collection became so unwieldy, it required a 400 page index to help Emerson find what he was looking for. And then he made indexes for specific subjects too and an index just for references to people in his notebooks-839 in all. He even had indexes for his indexes.

What did Emerson write in all of these journals and notebooks? Perhaps it would be easier to make a list of what he did not write down. His larger journals were filled with notes on his prodigious reading (he kept four small notebooks just to list the books he had read), philosophical musings, excerpts of letters, recollections of dreams, and translations of ancient and modern writings. He kept a series of topical notebooks, each devoted to a different subject: Beauty and Art, Reality and Illusion, Country Life, Rhetoric, and Notes on Love.

There were notebooks devoted to his lectures and notebooks devoted to observations and memories of people in his life like Henry David Thoreau. He kept 30 pocket-size diaries to record daily happenings. Other pocket-size notebooks were given specific purposes: drafts of poems and lectures, notes on his trees and garden, and a collection of quotes which he kept on hand to supplement his writings, sermons, and lectures. When he used a quote he would mark a line through it to indicate such. On his traveling lecture tours he brought small leather bound pocket notebooks which he used to keep track of his expenses and to make observations about the sites, local peoples, economy, and geography of the places  he visited. In short, Emerson was simply always writing-nature, religion, politics, people, culture-it all drove him to put pen to paper.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison started using a pocket notebook as a teenager. He carried it wherever he went and used the notebook to make observations about the natural world, jot down bits of inspiration, record the results of experiments, and draw diagrams and pictures of new ideas. He continued this practice as an adult.

On the advice of a patent attorney, he also kept a set of notebooks specifically for officially recording his ideas in case he had to defend their origin in court.

In 1888 he started a notebook entitled “Private Idea Book.” Within its pages Edison wrote down ideas for inventions he planned to bring to fruition in the near future. These inventions included “artificial silk,” “platinum wire ice cutting machine,” “electrical piano,” “toy phonograph for dolls,” and perhaps most curiously, “ink for blind:”

Edison’s To-Do List

Edison also personally vetted each piece of music his company recorded and released and kept a set of notebooks full of his reasons for giving  songs the thumbs up or thumbs down.

Edison ordered the staff at his famous Menlo Park laboratory to adopt his avid notebook-keeping habit, and he and his associates generated 2,500 pocket notebooks of 200-250 pages each during his lifetime.

August 31, 1871 notebook entry for an Automatic Translating Printing Machine for Telegraphy

Early sketch of Edison’s incandescent light bulb.

Leonardo da Vinci

Like Emerson, Leonardo da Vinci was a positively prolific writer. 13,000 pages of his writings have come down to us, and there may be another 10,000 which have gone missing. He frequently wrote on loose sheets of paper that he kept barely organized; he made his own “notebooks” by folding the sheets and wrapping them in fabric. But when he turned thirty he also began writing in leather-bound journals. And he carried small bound notebooks with him at all times. He kept these tiny 3.5X2.5 notebooks tied to his belt, always at the ready for his thoughts, observations, drawings, and ideas.

Leonardo has been called “the most curious man who ever lived.” He was always asking questions and thinking of new things to investigate. His notebooks are filled with musings and drawings on every conceivable subject: philosophy, art, botany, geology, anatomy, flight, water and many more. His tireless mind flitted from one idea to the next; on the same page of his notebook he might wax poetic on the human form, sketch a plant, start a draft of a letter, and even record his expenditures and that night’s dinner menu.

The sudden jumps from topic to topic, even within a single page, are not the only thing that makes Leonardo’s notes hard to decipher. He famously wrote in “mirror writing” from right to left across the page, although not because he was trying to keep the writings secret; as a left hander it was simply a way to keep the ink from smearing as he wrote. His writing also lacks punctuation, and he was apt to combine several short words into one long one or divide long words into smaller parts. But while the chaos of his notebooks may impede the average person from delving into their contents, the profound mish-mash only adds to the man’s mystique and mystery and our fascination with his legendary mind.

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