"The call of the trail"

The adventurous life of John Metcalf (1717-1810) told, in his second book, by Michele Mele, the champion of the visually-impaired and blind in scientific fields
Alberto Zanelli

“Il richiamo della strada. Storia del non vedente che rivoluzionò l’ingegneria” (“The call of the trail. The story of the blind man who revolutionized engineering”) was published in October 2023 by Edizioni Efesto (cover price €15, ISBN 9788833814766). The book (22 x 14 cm) has 160 pages, ten black and white photos, a large bibliography, and a lovely cover in color (drawn by Francesco Manzo) that projects us back to 18th-century England and almost makes it look like a children’s book. This extraordinary biography, as exciting as the best adventure novels, is actually the true story of John Metcalf (1717-1810). Becoming blind at the age of 6 and thus nicknamed Blind Jack, he started out as a musician and probably sang the ballad “The hills of Longdendale,” from which the words “the call of the trail“ give the book its title and perfectly represent Metcalf’s life. The trail called him, and Blind Jack became first a carrier and then a seller. With his bowed instrument, he traveled through Yorkshire to reach the various villages in which he was hired to play at parties, and the experience he acquired allowed him to draw a mental map of the territory and drive horses on the local roads, accompanying tourists and transporting goods (sometimes smuggled).

Cover of The Call of the Trail" - Edizioni Efesto

The book also tells the romantic story of how Blind Jack marries his Dorothy, as well as the dramatic story of his active participation in the War of British Succession. But his greatest contribution to progress was as a completely self-taught civil engineer: he designed and had built about thirty works, including roads and bridges, most of which are still in use, creating surveying instruments and innovative solutions for road foundations. It was probably the welcoming and inclusive context of 18th-century British society (more familiar with disabilities than today’s) that enabled Blind Jack to express his full potential. Courage, determination, industriousness, and a doubtless gift for business and science, combined with self-irony, sense of humor, and empathy were the qualities that let him build a vast network of social relations and be successful. Therefore, John Metcalf’s biography perfectly demonstrates the baselessness of the prejudices that still tend to exclude sight-impaired children from scientific fields. “Il richiamo della strada. Storia del non vedente che rivoluzionò l’ingegneria” can be found at Centro Internazionale del Libro Parlato, along with Michele Mele’s first book, “L’universo tra le dita. Storie di scienziati ipovedenti o non vedenti,” described in “Vedere Oltre” in December 2022.


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