Edison His Life And Inventions / Frank Lewis Dyer / CHAPTER 5


IN 1903, when accepting the position of honorary electrician to the International Exposition held in St. Louis in 1904, to commemorate the centenary of the Louisiana Purchase, Mr. Edison spoke in his letter of the Central West as a "region where as a young telegraph operator I spent many arduous years before moving East." The term of probation thus referred to did not end until 1868, and while it lasted Edison's wanderings carried him from Detroit to New Orleans, and took him, among other cities, to Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Memphis, some of which he visited twice in his peregrinations to secure work. From Canada, after the episodes noted in the last chapter, he went to Adrian, Michigan, and of what happened there Edison tells a story typical of his wanderings for several years to come. "After leaving my first job at Stratford Junction, I got a position as operator on the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern at Adrian, Michigan, in the division superintendent's office. As usual, I took the 'night trick,' which most operators disliked, but which I preferred, as it gave me more leisure to experiment. I had obtained from the station agent a small room, and had established a little shop of my own. One day the day operator wanted to get off, and I was on duty. About 9 o'clock the superintendent handed me a despatch which he said was very important, and which I must get off at once. The wire at the time was very busy, and I asked if I should break in. I got orders to do so, and acting under those orders of the superintendent, I broke in and tried to send the despatch; but the other operator would not permit it, and the struggle continued for ten minutes. Finally I got possession of the wire and sent the message. The superintendent of telegraph, who then lived in Adrian and went to his office in Toledo every day, happened that day to be in the Western Union office up-town—and it was the superintendent I was really struggling with! In about twenty minutes he arrived livid with rage, and I was discharged on the spot. I informed him that the general superintendent had told me to break in and send the despatch, but the general superintendent then and there repudiated the whole thing. Their families were socially close, so I was sacrificed. My faith in human nature got a slight jar."

Edison then went to Toledo and secured a position at Fort Wayne, on the Pittsburg, Fort Wayne & Chicago Railroad, now leased to the Pennsylvania system. This was a "day job," and he did not like it. He drifted two months later to Indianapolis, arriving there in the fall of 1864, when he was at first assigned to duty at the Union Station at a salary of $75 a month for the Western Union Telegraph Company, whose service he now entered, and with which he has been destined to maintain highly important and close relationships throughout a large part of his life. Superintendent Wallick appears to have treated him generously and to have loaned him instruments, a kindness that was greatly appreciated, for twenty years later the inventor called on his old employer, and together they visited the scene where the borrowed apparatus had been mounted on a rough board in the depot. Edison did not stay long in Indianapolis, however, resigning in February, 1865, and proceeding to Cincinnati. The transfer was possibly due to trouble caused by one of his early inventions embodying what has been characterized by an expert as "probably the most simple and ingenious arrangement of connections for a repeater." His ambition was to take "press report," but finding, even after considerable practice, that he "broke" frequently, he adjusted two embossing Morse registers—one to receive the press matter, and the other to repeat the dots and dashes at a lower speed, so that the message could be copied leisurely. Hence he could not be rushed or "broken" in receiving, while he could turn out "copy" that was a marvel of neatness and clearness. All was well so long as ordinary conditions prevailed, but when an unusual pressure occurred the little system fell behind, and the newspapers complained of the slowness with which reports were delivered to them. It is easy to understand that with matter received at a rate of forty words per minute and worked off at twenty-five words per minute a serious congestion or delay would result, and the newspapers were more anxious for the news than they were for fine penmanship.

Of this device Mr. Edison remarks: "Together we took press for several nights, my companion keeping the apparatus in adjustment and I copying. The regular press operator would go to the theatre or take a nap, only finishing the report after 1 A.M. One of the newspapers complained of bad copy toward the end of the report—that, is from 1 to 3 A.M., and requested that the operator taking the report up to 1 A.M.—which was ourselves—take it all, as the copy then was perfectly unobjectionable. This led to an investigation by the manager, and the scheme was forbidden.

"This instrument, many years afterward, was applied by me for transferring messages from one wire to any other wire simultaneously, or after any interval of time. It consisted of a disk of paper, the indentations being formed in a volute spiral, exactly as in the disk phonograph to-day. It was this instrument which gave me the idea of the phonograph while working on the telephone."

Arrived in Cincinnati, where he got employment in the Western Union commercial telegraph department at a wage of $60 per month, Edison made the acquaintance of Milton F. Adams, already referred to as facile princeps the typical telegrapher in all his more sociable and brilliant aspects. Speaking of that time, Mr. Adams says: "I can well recall when Edison drifted in to take a job. He was a youth of about eighteen years, decidedly unprepossessing in dress and rather uncouth in manner. I was twenty-one, and very dudish. He was quite thin in those days, and his nose was very prominent, giving a Napoleonic look to his face, although the curious resemblance did not strike me at the time. The boys did not take to him cheerfully, and he was lonesome. I sympathized with him, and we became close companions. As an operator he had no superiors and very few equals. Most of the time he was monkeying with the batteries and circuits, and devising things to make the work of telegraphy less irksome. He also relieved the monotony of office-work by fitting up the battery circuits to play jokes on his fellow-operators, and to deal with the vermin that infested the premises. He arranged in the cellar what he called his 'rat paralyzer,' a very simple contrivance consisting of two plates insulated from each other and connected with the main battery. They were so placed that when a rat passed over them the fore feet on the one plate and the hind feet on the other completed the circuit and the rat departed this life, electrocuted."

Shortly after Edison's arrival at Cincinnati came the close of the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln. It was natural that telegraphers should take an intense interest in the general struggle, for not only did they handle all the news relating to it, but many of them were at one time or another personal participants. For example, one of the operators in the Cincinnati office was George Ellsworth, who was telegrapher for Morgan, the famous Southern Guerrilla, and was with him when he made his raid into Ohio and was captured near the Pennsylvania line. Ellsworth himself made a narrow escape by swimming the Ohio River with the aid of an army mule. Yet we can well appreciate the unimpressionable way in which some of the men did their work, from an anecdote that Mr. Edison tells of that awful night of Friday, April 14, 1865: "I noticed," he says, "an immense crowd gathering in the street outside a newspaper office. I called the attention of the other operators to the crowd, and we sent a messenger boy to find the cause of the excitement. He returned in a few minutes and shouted 'Lincoln's shot.' Instinctively the operators looked from one face to another to see which man had received the news. All the faces were blank, and every man said he had not taken a word about the shooting. 'Look over your files,' said the boss to the man handling the press stuff. For a few moments we waited in suspense, and then the man held up a sheet of paper containing a short account of the shooting of the President. The operator had worked so mechanically that he had handled the news without the slightest knowledge of its significance." Mr. Adams says that at the time the city was en fete on account of the close of the war, the name of the assassin was received by telegraph, and it was noted with a thrill of horror that it was that of a brother of Edwin Booth and of Junius Brutus Booth—the latter of whom was then playing at the old National Theatre. Booth was hurried away into seclusion, and the next morning the city that had been so gay over night with bunting was draped with mourning.

Edison's diversions in Cincinnati were chiefly those already observed. He read a great deal, but spent most of his leisure in experiment. Mr. Adams remarks: "Edison and I were very fond of tragedy. Forrest and John McCullough were playing at the National Theatre, and when our capital was sufficient we would go to see those eminent tragedians alternate in Othello and Iago. Edison always enjoyed Othello greatly. Aside from an occasional visit to the Loewen Garden 'over the Rhine,' with a glass of beer and a few pretzels, consumed while listening to the excellent music of a German band, the theatre was the sum and substance of our innocent dissipation."

The Cincinnati office, as a central point, appears to have been attractive to many of the clever young operators who graduated from it to positions of larger responsibility. Some of them were conspicuous for their skill and versatility. Mr. Adams tells this interesting story as an illustration: "L. C. Weir, or Charlie, as he was known, at that time agent for the Adams Express Company, had the remarkable ability of taking messages and copying them twenty-five words behind the sender. One day he came into the operating-room, and passing a table he heard Louisville calling Cincinnati. He reached over to the key and answered the call. My attention was arrested by the fact that he walked off after responding, and the sender happened to be a good one. Weir coolly asked for a pen, and when he sat down the sender was just one message ahead of him with date, address, and signature. Charlie started in, and in a beautiful, large, round hand copied that message. The sender went right along, and when he finished with six messages closed his key. When Weir had done with the last one the sender began to think that after all there had been no receiver, as Weir did not 'break,' but simply gave his O. K. He afterward became president of the Adams Express, and was certainly a wonderful operator." The operating-room referred to was on the fifth floor of the building with no elevators.

Those were the early days of trade unionism in telegraphy, and the movement will probably never quite die out in the craft which has always shown so much solidarity. While Edison was in Cincinnati a delegation of five union operators went over from Cleveland to form a local branch, and the occasion was one of great conviviality. Night came, but the unionists were conspicuous by their absence, although more circuits than one were intolerant of delay and clamorous for attention—-eight local unionists being away. The Cleveland report wire was in special need, and Edison, almost alone in the office, devoted himself to it all through the night and until 3 o'clock the next morning, when he was relieved.

He had previously been getting $80 a month, and had eked this out by copying plays for the theatre. His rating was that of a "plug" or inferior operator; but he was determined to lift himself into the class of first-class operators, and had kept up the practice of going to the office at night to "copy press," acting willingly as a substitute for any operator who wanted to get off for a few hours—which often meant all night. Speaking of this special ordeal, for which he had thus been unconsciously preparing, Edison says: "My copy looked fine if viewed as a whole, as I could write a perfectly straight line across the wide sheet, which was not ruled. There were no flourishes, but the individual letters would not bear close inspection. When I missed understanding a word, there was no time to think what it was, so I made an illegible one to fill in, trusting to the printers to sense it. I knew they could read anything, although Mr. Bloss, an editor of the Inquirer, made such bad copy that one of his editorials was pasted up on the notice-board in the telegraph office with an offer of one dollar to any man who could 'read twenty consecutive words.' Nobody ever did it. When I got through I was too nervous to go home, so waited the rest of the night for the day manager, Mr. Stevens, to see what was to be the outcome of this Union formation and of my efforts. He was an austere man, and I was afraid of him. I got the morning papers, which came out at 4 A. M., and the press report read perfectly, which surprised me greatly. I went to work on my regular day wire to Portsmouth, Ohio, and there was considerable excitement, but nothing was said to me, neither did Mr. Stevens examine the copy on the office hook, which I was watching with great interest. However, about 3 P. M. he went to the hook, grabbed the bunch and looked at it as a whole without examining it in detail, for which I was thankful. Then he jabbed it back on the hook, and I knew I was all right. He walked over to me, and said: 'Young man, I want you to work the Louisville wire nights; your salary will be $125.' Thus I got from the plug classification to that of a 'first-class man.'"

But no sooner was this promotion secured than he started again on his wanderings southward, while his friend Adams went North, neither having any difficulty in making the trip. "The boys in those days had extraordinary facilities for travel. As a usual thing it was only necessary for them to board a train and tell the conductor they were operators. Then they would go as far as they liked. The number of operators was small, and they were in demand everywhere." It was in this way Edison made his way south as far as Memphis, Tennessee, where the telegraph service at that time was under military law, although the operators received $125 a month. Here again Edison began to invent and improve on existing apparatus, with the result of having once more to "move on." The story may be told in his own terse language: "I was not the inventor of the auto repeater, but while in Memphis I worked on one. Learning that the chief operator, who was a protege of the superintendent, was trying in some way to put New York and New Orleans together for the first time since the close of the war, I redoubled my efforts, and at 2 o'clock one morning I had them speaking to each other. The office of the Memphis Avalanche was in the same building. The paper got wind of it and sent messages. A column came out in the morning about it; but when I went to the office in the afternoon to report for duty I was discharged with out explanation. The superintendent would not even give me a pass to Nashville, so I had to pay my fare. I had so little money left that I nearly starved at Decatur, Alabama, and had to stay three days before going on north to Nashville. Arrived in that city, I went to the telegraph office, got money enough to buy a little solid food, and secured a pass to Louisville. I had a companion with me who was also out of a job. I arrived at Louisville on a bitterly cold day, with ice in the gutters. I was wearing a linen duster and was not much to look at, but got a position at once, working on a press wire. My travelling companion was less successful on account of his 'record.' They had a limit even in those days when the telegraph service was so demoralized."

Some reminiscences of Mr. Edison are of interest as bearing not only upon the "demoralized" telegraph service, but the conditions from which the New South had to emerge while working out its salvation. "The telegraph was still under military control, not having been turned over to the original owners, the Southern Telegraph Company. In addition to the regular force, there was an extra force of two or three operators, and some stranded ones, who were a burden to us, for board was high. One of these derelicts was a great source of worry to me, personally. He would come in at all hours and either throw ink around or make a lot of noise. One night he built a fire in the grate and started to throw pistol cartridges into the flames. These would explode, and I was twice hit by the bullets, which left a black-and-blue mark. Another night he came in and got from some part of the building a lot of stationery with 'Confederate States' printed at the head. He was a fine operator, and wrote a beautiful hand. He would take a sheet of this paper, write capital 'A', and then take another sheet and make the 'A' differently; and so on through the alphabet; each time crumpling the paper up in his hand and throwing it on the floor. He would keep this up until the room was filled nearly flush with the table. Then he would quit.

"Everything at that time was 'wide open.' Disorganization reigned supreme. There was no head to anything. At night myself and a companion would go over to a gorgeously furnished faro-bank and get our midnight lunch. Everything was free. There were over twenty keno-rooms running. One of them that I visited was in a Baptist church, the man with the wheel being in the pulpit, and the gamblers in the pews.

"While there the manager of the telegraph office was arrested for something I never understood, and incarcerated in a military prison about half a mile from the office. The building was in plain sight from the office, and four stories high. He was kept strictly incommunicado. One day, thinking he might be confined in a room facing the office, I put my arm out of the window and kept signalling dots and dashes by the movement of the arm. I tried this several times for two days. Finally he noticed it, and putting his arm through the bars of the window he established communication with me. He thus sent several messages to his friends, and was afterward set free."

Another curious story told by Edison concerns a fellow-operator on night duty at Chattanooga Junction, at the time he was at Memphis: "When it was reported that Hood was marching on Nashville, one night a Jew came into the office about 11 o'clock in great excitement, having heard the Hood rumor. He, being a large sutler, wanted to send a message to save his goods. The operator said it was impossible—that orders had been given to send no private messages. Then the Jew wanted to bribe my friend, who steadfastly refused for the reason, as he told the Jew, that he might be court-martialled and shot. Finally the Jew got up to $800. The operator swore him to secrecy and sent the message. Now there was no such order about private messages, and the Jew, finding it out, complained to Captain Van Duzer, chief of telegraphs, who investigated the matter, and while he would not discharge the operator, laid him off indefinitely. Van Duzer was so lenient that if an operator were discharged, all the operator had to do was to wait three days and then go and sit on the stoop of Van Duzer's office all day, and he would be taken back. But Van Duzer swore he would never give in in this case. He said that if the operator had taken $800 and sent the message at the regular rate, which was twenty-five cents, it would have been all right, as the Jew would be punished for trying to bribe a military operator; but when the operator took the $800 and then sent the message deadhead, he couldn't stand it, and he would never relent."

A third typical story of this period deals with a cipher message for Thomas. Mr. Edison narrates it as follows: "When I was an operator in Cincinnati working the Louisville wire nights for a time, one night a man over on the Pittsburg wire yelled out: 'D. I. cipher,' which meant that there was a cipher message from the War Department at Washington and that it was coming—and he yelled out 'Louisville.' I started immediately to call up that place. It was just at the change of shift in the office. I could not get Louisville, and the cipher message began to come. It was taken by the operator on the other table direct from the War Department. It was for General Thomas, at Nashville. I called for about twenty minutes and notified them that I could not get Louisville. I kept at it for about fifteen minutes longer, and notified them that there was still no answer from Louisville. They then notified the War Department that they could not get Louisville. Then we tried to get it by all kinds of roundabout ways, but in no case could anybody get them at that office. Soon a message came from the War Department to send immediately for the manager of the Cincinnati office. He was brought to the office and several messages were exchanged, the contents of which, of course, I did not know, but the matter appeared to be very serious, as they were afraid of General Hood, of the Confederate Army, who was then attempting to march on Nashville; and it was very important that this cipher of about twelve hundred words or so should be got through immediately to General Thomas. I kept on calling up to 12 or 1 o'clock, but no Louisville. About 1 o'clock the operator at the Indianapolis office got hold of an operator on a wire which ran from Indianapolis to Louisville along the railroad, who happened to come into his office. He arranged with this operator to get a relay of horses, and the message was sent through Indianapolis to this operator who had engaged horses to carry the despatches to Louisville and find out the trouble, and get the despatches through without delay to General Thomas. In those days the telegraph fraternity was rather demoralized, and the discipline was very lax. It was found out a couple of days afterward that there were three night operators at Louisville. One of them had gone over to Jeffersonville and had fallen off a horse and broken his leg, and was in a hospital. By a remarkable coincidence another of the men had been stabbed in a keno-room, and was also in hospital while the third operator had gone to Cynthiana to see a man hanged and had got left by the train." I think the most important line of investigation is the production of Electricity direct from carbon. Edison 

Young Edison remained in Louisville for about two years, quite a long stay for one with such nomadic instincts. It was there that he perfected the peculiar vertical style of writing which, beginning with him in telegraphy, later became so much of a fad with teachers of penmanship and in the schools. He says of this form of writing, a current example of which is given above: "I developed this style in Louisville while taking press reports. My wire was connected to the 'blind' side of a repeater at Cincinnati, so that if I missed a word or sentence, or if the wire worked badly, I could not break in and get the last words, because the Cincinnati man had no instrument by which he could hear me. I had to take what came. When I got the job, the cable across the Ohio River at Covington, connecting with the line to Louisville, had a variable leak in it, which caused the strength of the signalling current to make violent fluctuations. I obviated this by using several relays, each with a different adjustment, working several sounders all connected with one sounding-plate. The clatter was bad, but I could read it with fair ease. When, in addition to this infernal leak, the wires north to Cleveland worked badly, it required a large amount of imagination to get the sense of what was being sent. An imagination requires an appreciable time for its exercise, and as the stuff was coming at the rate of thirty-five to forty words a minute, it was very difficult to write down what was coming and imagine what wasn't coming. Hence it was necessary to become a very rapid writer, so I started to find the fastest style. I found that the vertical style, with each letter separate and without any flourishes, was the most rapid, and that the smaller the letter the greater the rapidity. As I took on an average from eight to fifteen columns of news report every day, it did not take long to perfect this method." Mr. Edison has adhered to this characteristic style of penmanship down to the present time.

As a matter of fact, the conditions at Louisville at that time were not much better than they had been at Memphis. The telegraph operating-room was in a deplorable condition. It was on the second story of a dilapidated building on the principal street of the city, with the battery-room in the rear; behind which was the office of the agent of the Associated Press. The plastering was about one-third gone from the ceiling. A small stove, used occasionally in the winter, was connected to the chimney by a tortuous pipe. The office was never cleaned. The switchboard for manipulating the wires was about thirty-four inches square. The brass connections on it were black with age and with the arcing effects of lightning, which, to young Edison, seemed particularly partial to Louisville. "It would strike on the wires," he says, "with an explosion like a cannon-shot, making that office no place for an operator with heart-disease." Around the dingy walls were a dozen tables, the ends next to the wall. They were about the size of those seen in old-fashioned country hotels for holding the wash-bowl and pitcher. The copper wires connecting the instruments to the switchboard were small, crystallized, and rotten. The battery-room was filled with old record-books and message bundles, and one hundred cells of nitric-acid battery, arranged on a stand in the centre of the room. This stand, as well as the floor, was almost eaten through by the destructive action of the powerful acid. Grim and uncompromising as the description reads, it was typical of the equipment in those remote days of the telegraph at the close of the war.

Illustrative of the length to which telegraphers could go at a time when they were so much in demand, Edison tells the following story: "When I took the position there was a great shortage of operators. One night at 2 A.M. another operator and I were on duty. I was taking press report, and the other man was working the New York wire. We heard a heavy tramp, tramp, tramp on the rickety stairs. Suddenly the door was thrown open with great violence, dislodging it from one of the hinges. There appeared in the doorway one of the best operators we had, who worked daytime, and who was of a very quiet disposition except when intoxicated. He was a great friend of the manager of the office. His eyes were bloodshot and wild, and one sleeve had been torn away from his coat. Without noticing either of us he went up to the stove and kicked it over. The stove-pipe fell, dislocated at every joint. It was half full of exceedingly fine soot, which floated out and filled the room completely. This produced a momentary respite to his labors. When the atmosphere had cleared sufficiently to see, he went around and pulled every table away from the wall, piling them on top of the stove in the middle of the room. Then he proceeded to pull the switchboard away from the wall. It was held tightly by screws. He succeeded, finally, and when it gave way he fell with the board, and striking on a table cut himself so that he soon became covered with blood. He then went to the battery-room and knocked all the batteries off on the floor. The nitric acid soon began to combine with the plaster in the room below, which was the public receiving-room for messengers and bookkeepers. The excess acid poured through and ate up the account-books. After having finished everything to his satisfaction, he left. I told the other operator to do nothing. We would leave things just as they were, and wait until the manager came. In the mean time, as I knew all the wires coming through to the switchboard, I rigged up a temporary set of instruments so that the New York business could be cleared up, and we also got the remainder of the press matter. At 7 o'clock the day men began to appear. They were told to go down-stairs and wait the coming of the manager. At 8 o'clock he appeared, walked around, went into the battery-room, and then came to me, saying: 'Edison, who did this?' I told him that Billy L. had come in full of soda-water and invented the ruin before him. He walked backward and forward, about a minute, then coming up to my table put his fist down, and said: 'If Billy L. ever does that again, I will discharge him.' It was needless to say that there were other operators who took advantage of that kind of discipline, and I had many calls at night after that, but none with such destructive effects."

This was one aspect of life as it presented itself to the sensitive and observant young operator in Louisville. But there was another, more intellectual side, in the contact afforded with journalism and its leaders, and the information taken in almost unconsciously as to the political and social movements of the time. Mr. Edison looks back on this with great satisfaction. "I remember," he says, "the discussions between the celebrated poet and journalist George D. Prentice, then editor of the Courier-Journal, and Mr. Tyler, of the Associated Press. I believe Prentice was the father of the humorous paragraph of the American newspaper. He was poetic, highly educated, and a brilliant talker. He was very thin and small. I do not think he weighed over one hundred and twenty five pounds. Tyler was a graduate of Harvard, and had a very clear enunciation, and, in sharp contrast to Prentice, he was a large man. After the paper had gone to press, Prentice would generally come over to Tyler's office and start talking. Having while in Tyler's office heard them arguing on the immortality of the soul, etc., I asked permission of Mr. Tyler if, after finishing the press matter, I might come in and listen to the conversation, which I did many times after. One thing I never could comprehend was that Tyler had a sideboard with liquors and generally crackers. Prentice would pour out half a glass of what they call corn whiskey, and would dip the crackers in it and eat them. Tyler took it sans food. One teaspoonful of that stuff would put me to sleep."

Mr. Edison throws also a curious side-light on the origin of the comic column in the modern American newspaper, the telegraph giving to a new joke or a good story the ubiquity and instantaneity of an important historical event. "It was the practice of the press operators all over the country at that time, when a lull occurred, to start in and send jokes or stories the day men had collected; and these were copied and pasted up on the bulletin-board. Cleveland was the originating office for 'press,' which it received from New York, and sent it out simultaneously to Milwaukee, Chicago, Toledo, Detroit, Pittsburg, Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Vincennes, Terre Haute, St. Louis, and Louisville. Cleveland would call first on Milwaukee, if he had anything. If so, he would send it, and Cleveland would repeat it to all of us. Thus any joke or story originating anywhere in that area was known the next day all over. The press men would come in and copy anything which could be published, which was about three per cent. I collected, too, quite a large scrap-book of it, but unfortunately have lost it."

Edison tells an amusing story of his own pursuits at this time. Always an omnivorous reader, he had some difficulty in getting a sufficient quantity of literature for home consumption, and was in the habit of buying books at auctions and second-hand stores. One day at an auction-room he secured a stack of twenty unbound volumes of the North American Review for two dollars. These he had bound and delivered at the telegraph office. One morning, when he was free as usual at 3 o'clock, he started off at a rapid pace with ten volumes on his shoulder. He found himself very soon the subject of a fusillade. When he stopped, a breathless policeman grabbed him by the throat and ordered him to drop his parcel and explain matters, as a suspicious character. He opened the package showing the books, somewhat to the disgust of the officer, who imagined he had caught a burglar sneaking away in the dark alley with his booty. Edison explained that being deaf he had heard no challenge, and therefore had kept moving; and the policeman remarked apologetically that it was fortunate for Edison he was not a better shot.

The incident is curiously revelatory of the character of the man, for it must be admitted that while literary telegraphers are by no means scarce, there are very few who would spend scant savings on back numbers of a ponderous review at an age when tragedy, beer, and pretzels are far more enticing. Through all his travels Edison has preserved those books, and has them now in his library at Llewellyn Park, on Orange Mountain, New Jersey.

Drifting after a time from Louisville, Edison made his way as far north as Detroit, but, like the famous Duke of York, soon made his way back again. Possibly the severer discipline after the happy-go-lucky regime in the Southern city had something to do with this restlessness, which again manifested itself, however, on his return thither. The end of the war had left the South a scene of destruction and desolation, and many men who had fought bravely and well found it hard to reconcile themselves to the grim task of reconstruction. To them it seemed better to "let ill alone" and seek some other clime where conditions would be less onerous. At this moment a great deal of exaggerated talk was current as to the sunny life and easy wealth of Latin America, and under its influences many "unreconstructed" Southerners made their way to Mexico, Brazil, Peru, or the Argentine. Telegraph operators were naturally in touch with this movement, and Edison's fertile imagination was readily inflamed by the glowing idea of all these vague possibilities. Again he threw up his steady work and, with a couple of sanguine young friends, made his way to New Orleans. They had the notion of taking positions in the Brazilian Government telegraphs, as an advertisement had been inserted in some paper stating that operators were wanted. They had timed their departure from Louisville so as to catch a specially chartered steamer, which was to leave New Orleans for Brazil on a certain day, to convey a large number of Confederates and their families, who were disgusted with the United States and were going to settle in Brazil, where slavery still prevailed. Edison and his friends arrived in New Orleans just at the time of the great riot, when several hundred negroes were killed, and the city was in the hands of a mob. The Government had seized the steamer chartered for Brazil, in order to bring troops from the Yazoo River to New Orleans to stop the rioting. The young operators therefore visited another shipping-office to make inquiries as to vessels for Brazil, and encountered an old Spaniard who sat in a chair near the steamer agent's desk, and to whom they explained their intentions. He had lived and worked in South America, and was very emphatic in his assertion, as he shook his yellow, bony finger at them, that the worst mistake they could possibly make would be to leave the United States. He would not leave on any account, and they as young Americans would always regret it if they forsook their native land, whose freedom, climate, and opportunities could not be equalled anywhere on the face of the globe. Such sincere advice as this could not be disdained, and Edison made his way North again. One cannot resist speculation as to what might have happened to Edison himself and to the development of electricity had he made this proposed plunge into the enervating tropics. It will be remembered that at a somewhat similar crisis in life young Robert Burns entertained seriously the idea of forsaking Scotland for the West Indies. That he did not go was certainly better for Scottish verse, to which he contributed later so many immortal lines; and it was probably better for himself, even if he died a gauger. It is simply impossible to imagine Edison working out the phonograph, telephone, and incandescent lamp under the tropical climes he sought. Some years later he was informed that both his companions had gone to Vera Cruz, Mexico, and had died there of yellow fever.

Work was soon resumed at Louisville, where the dilapidated old office occupied at the close of the war had been exchanged for one much more comfortable and luxurious in its equipment. As before, Edison was allotted to press report, and remembers very distinctly taking the Presidential message and veto of the District of Columbia bill by President Johnson. As the matter was received over the wire he paragraphed it so that each printer had exactly three lines, thus enabling the matter to be set up very expeditiously in the newspaper offices. This earned him the gratitude of the editors, a dinner, and all the newspaper "exchanges" he wanted. Edison's accounts of the sprees and debauches of other night operators in the loosely managed offices enable one to understand how even a little steady application to the work in hand would be appreciated. On one occasion Edison acted as treasurer for his bibulous companions, holding the stakes, so to speak, in order that the supply of liquor might last longer. One of the mildest mannered of the party took umbrage at the parsimony of the treasurer and knocked him down, whereupon the others in the party set upon the assailant and mauled him so badly that he had to spend three weeks in hospital. At another time two of his companions sharing the temporary hospitality of his room smashed most of the furniture, and went to bed with their boots on. Then his kindly good-nature rebelled. "I felt that this was running hospitality into the ground, so I pulled them out and left them on the floor to cool off from their alcoholic trance."

Edison seems on the whole to have been fairly comfortable and happy in Louisville, surrounding himself with books and experimental apparatus, and even inditing a treatise on electricity. But his very thirst for knowledge and new facts again proved his undoing. The instruments in the handsome new offices were fastened in their proper places, and operators were strictly forbidden to remove them, or to use the batteries except on regular work. This prohibition meant little to Edison, who had access to no other instruments except those of the company. "I went one night," he says, "into the battery-room to obtain some sulphuric acid for experimenting. The carboy tipped over, the acid ran out, went through to the manager's room below, and ate up his desk and all the carpet. The next morning I was summoned before him, and told that what the company wanted was operators, not experimenters. I was at liberty to take my pay and get out."

The fact that Edison is a very studious man, an insatiate lover and reader of books, is well known to his associates; but surprise is often expressed at his fund of miscellaneous information. This, it will be seen, is partly explained by his work for years as a "press" reporter. He says of this: "The second time I was in Louisville, they had moved into a new office, and the discipline was now good. I took the press job. In fact, I was a very poor sender, and therefore made the taking of press report a specialty. The newspaper men allowed me to come over after going to press at 3 A.M. and get all the exchanges I wanted. These I would take home and lay at the foot of my bed. I never slept more than four or five hours' so that I would awake at nine or ten and read these papers until dinner-time. I thus kept posted, and knew from their activity every member of Congress, and what committees they were on; and all about the topical doings, as well as the prices of breadstuffs in all the primary markets. I was in a much better position than most operators to call on my imagination to supply missing words or sentences, which were frequent in those days of old, rotten wires, badly insulated, especially on stormy nights. Upon such occasions I had to supply in some cases one-fifth of the whole matter—pure guessing—but I got caught only once. There had been some kind of convention in Virginia, in which John Minor Botts was the leading figure. There was great excitement about it, and two votes had been taken in the convention on the two days. There was no doubt that the vote the next day would go a certain way. A very bad storm came up about 10 o'clock, and my wire worked very badly. Then there was a cessation of all signals; then I made out the words 'Minor Botts.' The next was a New York item. I filled in a paragraph about the convention and how the vote had gone, as I was sure it would. But next day I learned that instead of there being a vote the convention had adjourned without action until the day after." In like manner, it was at Louisville that Mr. Edison got an insight into the manner in which great political speeches are more frequently reported than the public suspects. "The Associated Press had a shorthand man travelling with President Johnson when he made his celebrated swing around the circle in a private train delivering hot speeches in defence of his conduct. The man engaged me to write out the notes from his reading. He came in loaded and on the verge of incoherence. We started in, but about every two minutes I would have to scratch out whole paragraphs and insert the same things said in another and better way. He would frequently change words, always to the betterment of the speech. I couldn't understand this, and when he got through, and I had copied about three columns, I asked him why those changes, if he read from notes. 'Sonny,' he said, 'if these politicians had their speeches published as they deliver them, a great many shorthand writers would be out of a job. The best shorthanders and the holders of good positions are those who can take a lot of rambling, incoherent stuff and make a rattling good speech out of it.'"

Going back to Cincinnati and beginning his second term there as an operator, Edison found the office in new quarters and with greatly improved management. He was again put on night duty, much to his satisfaction. He rented a room in the top floor of an office building, bought a cot and an oil-stove, a foot lathe, and some tools. He cultivated the acquaintance of Mr. Sommers, superintendent of telegraph of the Cincinnati & Indianapolis Railroad, who gave him permission to take such scrap apparatus as he might desire, that was of no use to the company. With Sommers on one occasion he had an opportunity to indulge his always strong sense of humor. "Sommers was a very witty man," he says, "and fond of experimenting. We worked on a self-adjusting telegraph relay, which would have been very valuable if we could have got it. I soon became the possessor of a second-hand Ruhmkorff induction coil, which, although it would only give a small spark, would twist the arms and clutch the hands of a man so that he could not let go of the apparatus. One day we went down to the round-house of the Cincinnati & Indianapolis Railroad and connected up the long wash-tank in the room with the coil, one electrode being connected to earth. Above this wash-room was a flat roof. We bored a hole through the roof, and could see the men as they came in. The first man as he entered dipped his hands in the water. The floor being wet he formed a circuit, and up went his hands. He tried it the second time, with the same result. He then stood against the wall with a puzzled expression. We surmised that he was waiting for somebody else to come in, which occurred shortly after—with the same result. Then they went out, and the place was soon crowded, and there was considerable excitement. Various theories were broached to explain the curious phenomenon. We enjoyed the sport immensely." It must be remembered that this was over forty years ago, when there was no popular instruction in electricity, and when its possibilities for practical joking were known to very few. To-day such a crowd of working-men would be sure to include at least one student of a night school or correspondence course who would explain the mystery offhand.

Note has been made of the presence of Ellsworth in the Cincinnati office, and his service with the Confederate guerrilla Morgan, for whom he tapped Federal wires, read military messages, sent false ones, and did serious mischief generally. It is well known that one operator can recognize another by the way in which he makes his signals—it is his style of handwriting. Ellsworth possessed in a remarkable degree the skill of imitating these peculiarities, and thus he deceived the Union operators easily. Edison says that while apparently a quiet man in bearing, Ellsworth, after the excitement of fighting, found the tameness of a telegraph office obnoxious, and that he became a bad "gun man" in the Panhandle of Texas, where he was killed. "We soon became acquainted," says Edison of this period in Cincinnati, "and he wanted me to invent a secret method of sending despatches so that an intermediate operator could not tap the wire and understand it. He said that if it could be accomplished, he could sell it to the Government for a large sum of money. This suited me, and I started in and succeeded in making such an instrument, which had in it the germ of my quadruplex now used throughout the world, permitting the despatch of four messages over one wire simultaneously. By the time I had succeeded in getting the apparatus to work, Ellsworth suddenly disappeared. Many years afterward I used this little device again for the same purpose. At Menlo Park, New Jersey, I had my laboratory. There were several Western Union wires cut into the laboratory, and used by me in experimenting at night. One day I sat near an instrument which I had left connected during the night. I soon found it was a private wire between New York and Philadelphia, and I heard among a lot of stuff a message that surprised me. A week after that I had occasion to go to New York, and, visiting the office of the lessee of the wire, I asked him if he hadn't sent such and such a message. The expression that came over his face was a sight. He asked me how I knew of any message. I told him the circumstances, and suggested that he had better cipher such communications, or put on a secret sounder. The result of the interview was that I installed for him my old Cincinnati apparatus, which was used thereafter for many years."

Edison did not make a very long stay in Cincinnati this time, but went home after a while to Port Huron. Soon tiring of idleness and isolation he sent "a cry from Macedonia" to his old friend "Milt" Adams, who was in Boston, and whom he wished to rejoin if he could get work promptly in the East.

Edison himself gives the details of this eventful move, when he went East to grow up with the new art of electricity. "I had left Louisville the second time, and went home to see my parents. After stopping at home for some time, I got restless, and thought I would like to work in the East. Knowing that a former operator named Adams, who had worked with me in the Cincinnati office, was in Boston, I wrote him that I wanted a job there. He wrote back that if I came on immediately he could get me in the Western Union office. I had helped out the Grand Trunk Railroad telegraph people by a new device when they lost one of the two submarine cables they had across the river, making the remaining cable act just as well for their purpose, as if they had two. I thought I was entitled to a pass, which they conceded; and I started for Boston. After leaving Toronto a terrific blizzard came up and the train got snowed under in a cut. After staying there twenty-four hours, the trainmen made snowshoes of fence-rail splints and started out to find food, which they did about a half mile away. They found a roadside inn, and by means of snowshoes all the passengers were taken to the inn. The train reached Montreal four days late. A number of the passengers and myself went to the military headquarters to testify in favor of a soldier who was on furlough, and was two days late, which was a serious matter with military people, I learned. We willingly did this, for this soldier was a great story-teller, and made the time pass quickly. I met here a telegraph operator named Stanton, who took me to his boarding-house, the most cheerless I have ever been in. Nobody got enough to eat; the bedclothes were too short and too thin; it was 28 degrees below zero, and the wash-water was frozen solid. The board was cheap, being only $1.50 per week.

"Stanton said that the usual live-stock accompaniment of operators' boarding-houses was absent; he thought the intense cold had caused them to hibernate. Stanton, when I was working in Cincinnati, left his position and went out on the Union Pacific to work at Julesburg, which was a cattle town at that time and very tough. I remember seeing him off on the train, never expecting to see him again. Six months afterward, while working press wire in Cincinnati, about 2 A.M., there was flung into the middle of the operating-room a large tin box. It made a report like a pistol, and we all jumped up startled. In walked Stanton. 'Gentlemen,' he said 'I have just returned from a pleasure trip to the land beyond the Mississippi. All my wealth is contained in my metallic travelling case and you are welcome to it.' The case contained one paper collar. He sat down, and I noticed that he had a woollen comforter around his neck with his coat buttoned closely. The night was intensely warm. He then opened his coat and revealed the fact that he had nothing but the bare skin. 'Gentlemen,' said he, 'you see before you an operator who has reached the limit of impecuniosity.'" Not far from the limit of impecuniosity was Edison himself, as he landed in Boston in 1868 after this wintry ordeal.

This chapter has run to undue length, but it must not close without one citation from high authority as to the service of the military telegraph corps so often referred to in it. General Grant in his Memoirs, describing the movements of the Army of the Potomac, lays stress on the service of his telegraph operators, and says: "Nothing could be more complete than the organization and discipline of this body of brave and intelligent men. Insulated wires were wound upon reels, two men and a mule detailed to each reel. The pack-saddle was provided with a rack like a sawbuck, placed crosswise, so that the wheel would revolve freely; there was a wagon provided with a telegraph operator, battery, and instruments for each division corps and army, and for my headquarters. Wagons were also loaded with light poles supplied with an iron spike at each end to hold the wires up. The moment troops were in position to go into camp, the men would put up their wires. Thus in a few minutes' longer time than it took a mule to walk the length of its coil, telegraphic communication would be effected between all the headquarters of the army. No orders ever had to be given to establish the telegraph."

Popular Posts