Edison His Life And Inventions / Frank Lewis Dyer / CHAPTER 4


"WHILE a newsboy on the railroad," says Edison, "I got very much interested in electricity, probably from visiting telegraph offices with a chum who had tastes similar to mine." It will also have been noted that he used the telegraph to get items for his little journal, and to bulletin his special news of the Civil War along the line. The next step was natural, and having with his knowledge of chemistry no trouble about "setting up" his batteries, the difficulties of securing apparatus were chiefly those connected with the circuits and the instruments. American youths to-day are given, if of a mechanical turn of mind, to amateur telegraphy or telephony, but seldom, if ever, have to make any part of the system constructed. In Edison's boyish days it was quite different, and telegraphic supplies were hard to obtain. But he and his "chum" had a line between their homes, built of common stove-pipe wire. The insulators were bottles set on nails driven into trees and short poles. The magnet wire was wound with rags for insulation, and pieces of spring brass were used for keys. With an idea of securing current cheaply, Edison applied the little that he knew about static electricity, and actually experimented with cats, which he treated vigorously as frictional machines until the animals fled in dismay, and Edison had learned his first great lesson in the relative value of sources of electrical energy. The line was made to work, however, and additional to the messages that the boys interchanged, Edison secured practice in an ingenious manner. His father insisted on 11.30 as proper bedtime, which left but a short interval after the long day on the train. But each evening, when the boy went home with a bundle of papers that had not been sold in the town, his father would sit up reading the "returnables." Edison, therefore, on some excuse, left the papers with his friend, but suggested that he could get the news from him by telegraph, bit by bit. The scheme interested his father, and was put into effect, the messages being written down and handed over for perusal. This yielded good practice nightly, lasting until 12 and 1 o'clock, and was maintained for some time until Mr. Edison became willing that his son should stay up for a reasonable time. The papers were then brought home again, and the boys amused themselves to their hearts' content until the line was pulled down by a stray cow wandering through the orchard. Meantime better instruments had been secured, and the rudiments of telegraphy had been fairly mastered.

The mixed train on which Edison was employed as newsboy did the way-freight work and shunting at the Mount Clemens station, about half an hour being usually spent in the work. One August morning, in 1862, while the shunting was in progress, and a laden box-car had been pushed out of a siding, Edison, who was loitering about the platform, saw the little son of the station agent, Mr. J. U. Mackenzie, playing with the gravel on the main track along which the car without a brakeman was rapidly approaching. Edison dropped his papers and his glazed cap, and made a dash for the child, whom he picked up and lifted to safety without a second to spare, as the wheel of the car struck his heel; and both were cut about the face and hands by the gravel ballast on which they fell. The two boys were picked up by the train-hands and carried to the platform, and the grateful father at once offered to teach the rescuer, whom he knew and liked, the art of train telegraphy and to make an operator of him. It is needless to say that the proposal was eagerly accepted.

Edison found time for his new studies by letting one of his friends look after the newsboy work on the train for part of the trip, reserving to himself the run between Port Huron and Mount Clemens. That he was already well qualified as a beginner is evident from the fact that he had mastered the Morse code of the telegraphic alphabet, and was able to take to the station a neat little set of instruments he had just finished with his own hands at a gun-shop in Detroit. This was probably a unique achievement in itself among railway operators of that day or of later times. The drill of the student involved chiefly the acquisition of the special signals employed in railway work, including the numerals and abbreviations applied to save time. Some of these have passed into the slang of the day, "73" being well known as a telegrapher's expression of compliments or good wishes, while "23" is an accident or death message, and has been given broader popular significance as a general synonym for "hoodoo." All of this came easily to Edison, who had, moreover, as his Herald showed, an unusual familiarity with train movement along that portion of the Grand Trunk road.

Three or four months were spent pleasantly and profitably by the youth in this course of study, and Edison took to it enthusiastically, giving it no less than eighteen hours a day. He then put up a little telegraph line from the station to the village, a distance of about a mile, and opened an office in a drug store; but the business was naturally very small. The telegraph operator at Port Huron knowing of his proficiency, and wanting to get into the United States Military Telegraph Corps, where the pay in those days of the Civil War was high, succeeded in convincing his brother-in-law, Mr. M. Walker, that young Edison could fill the position. Edison was, of course, well acquainted with the operators along the road and at the southern terminal, and took up his new duties very easily. The office was located in a jewelry store, where newspapers and periodicals were also sold. Edison was to be found at the office both day and night, sleeping there. "I became quite valuable to Mr. Walker. After working all day I worked at the office nights as well, for the reason that 'press report' came over one of the wires until 3 A.M., and I would cut in and copy it as well as I could, to become more rapidly proficient. The goal of the rural telegraph operator was to be able to take press. Mr. Walker tried to get my father to apprentice me at $20 per month, but they could not agree. I then applied for a job on the Grand Trunk Railroad as a railway operator, and was given a place, nights, at Stratford Junction, Canada." Apparently his friend Mackenzie helped him in the matter. The position carried a salary of $25 per month. No serious objections were raised by his family, for the distance from Port Huron was not great, and Stratford was near Bayfield, the old home from which the Edisons had come, so that there were doubtless friends or even relatives in the vicinity. This was in 1863.

Mr. Walker was an observant man, who has since that time installed a number of waterworks systems and obtained several patents of his own. He describes the boy of sixteen as engrossed intensely in his experiments and scientific reading, and somewhat indifferent, for this reason, to his duties as operator. This office was not particularly busy, taking from $50 to $75 a month, but even the messages taken in would remain unsent on the hook while Edison was in the cellar below trying to solve some chemical problem. The manager would see him studying sometimes an article in such a paper as the Scientific American, and then disappearing to buy a few sundries for experiments. Returning from the drug store with his chemicals, he would not be seen again until required by his duties, or until he had found out for himself, if possible, in this offhand manner, whether what he had read was correct or not. When he had completed his experiment all interest in it was lost, and the jars and wires would be left to any fate that might befall them. In like manner Edison would make free use of the watchmaker's tools that lay on the little table in the front window, and would take the wire pliers there without much thought as to their value as distinguished from a lineman's tools. The one idea was to do quickly what he wanted to do; and the same swift, almost headlong trial of anything that comes to hand, while the fervor of a new experiment is felt, has been noted at all stages of the inventor's career. One is reminded of Palissy's recklessness, when in his efforts to make the enamel melt on his pottery he used the very furniture of his home for firewood.

Mr. Edison remarks the fact that there was very little difference between the telegraph of that time and of to-day, except the general use of the old Morse register with the dots and dashes recorded by indenting paper strips that could be read and checked later at leisure if necessary. He says: "The telegraph men couldn't explain how it worked, and I was always trying to get them to do so. I think they couldn't. I remember the best explanation I got was from an old Scotch line repairer employed by the Montreal Telegraph Company, which operated the railroad wires. He said that if you had a dog like a dachshund, long enough to reach from Edinburgh to London, if you pulled his tail in Edinburgh he would bark in London. I could understand that, but I never could get it through me what went through the dog or over the wire." To-day Mr. Edison is just as unable to solve the inner mystery of electrical transmission. Nor is he alone. At the banquet given to celebrate his jubilee in 1896 as professor at Glasgow University, Lord Kelvin, the greatest physicist of our time, admitted with tears in his eyes and the note of tragedy in his voice, that when it came to explaining the nature of electricity, he knew just as little as when he had begun as a student, and felt almost as though his life had been wasted while he tried to grapple with the great mystery of physics.

Another episode of this period is curious in its revelation of the tenacity with which Edison has always held to some of his oldest possessions with a sense of personal attachment. "While working at Stratford Junction," he says, "I was told by one of the freight conductors that in the freight-house at Goodrich there were several boxes of old broken-up batteries. I went there and found over eighty cells of the well-known Grove nitric-acid battery. The operator there, who was also agent, when asked by me if I could have the electrodes of each cell, made of sheet platinum, gave his permission readily, thinking they were of tin. I removed them all, amounting to several ounces. Platinum even in those days was very expensive, costing several dollars an ounce, and I owned only three small strips. I was overjoyed at this acquisition, and those very strips and the reworked scrap are used to this day in my laboratory over forty years later."

It was at Stratford that Edison's inventiveness was first displayed. The hours of work of a night operator are usually from 7 P.M. to 7 A.M., and to insure attention while on duty it is often provided that the operator every hour, from 9 P.M. until relieved by the day operator, shall send in the signal "6" to the train dispatcher's office. Edison revelled in the opportunity for study and experiment given him by his long hours of freedom in the daytime, but needed sleep, just as any healthy youth does. Confronted by the necessity of sending in this watchman's signal as evidence that he was awake and on duty, he constructed a small wheel with notches on the rim, and attached it to the clock in such a manner that the night-watchman could start it when the line was quiet, and at each hour the wheel revolved and sent in accurately the dots required for "sixing." The invention was a success, the device being, indeed, similar to that of the modern district messenger box; but it was soon noticed that, in spite of the regularity of the report, "Sf" could not be raised even if a train message were sent immediately after. Detection and a reprimand came in due course, but were not taken very seriously.

A serious occurrence that might have resulted in accident drove him soon after from Canada, although the youth could hardly be held to blame for it. Edison says: "This night job just suited me, as I could have the whole day to myself. I had the faculty of sleeping in a chair any time for a few minutes at a time. I taught the night-yardman my call, so I could get half an hour's sleep now and then between trains, and in case the station was called the watchman would awaken me. One night I got an order to hold a freight train, and I replied that I would. I rushed out to find the signalman, but before I could find him and get the signal set, the train ran past. I ran to the telegraph office, and reported that I could not hold her. The reply was: 'Hell!' The train dispatcher, on the strength of my message that I would hold the train, had permitted another to leave the last station in the opposite direction. There was a lower station near the junction where the day operator slept. I started for it on foot. The night was dark, and I fell into a culvert and was knocked senseless." Owing to the vigilance of the two engineers on the locomotives, who saw each other approaching on the straight single track, nothing more dreadful happened than a summons to the thoughtless operator to appear before the general manager at Toronto. On reaching the manager's office, his trial for neglect of duty was fortunately interrupted by the call of two Englishmen; and while their conversation proceeded, Edison slipped quietly out of the room, hurried to the Grand Trunk freight depot, found a conductor he knew taking out a freight train for Sarnia, and was not happy until the ferry-boat from Sarnia had landed him once more on the Michigan shore. The Grand Trunk still owes Mr. Edison the wages due him at the time he thus withdrew from its service, but the claim has never been pressed.

The same winter of 1863-64, while at Port Huron, Edison had a further opportunity of displaying his ingenuity. An ice-jam had broken the light telegraph cable laid in the bed of the river across to Sarnia, and thus communication was interrupted. The river is three-quarters of a mile wide, and could not be crossed on foot; nor could the cable be repaired. Edison at once suggested using the steam whistle of the locomotive, and by manipulating the valve conversed the short and long outbursts of shrill sound into the Morse code. An operator on the Sarnia shore was quick enough to catch the significance of the strange whistling, and messages were thus sent in wireless fashion across the ice-floes in the river. It is said that such signals were also interchanged by military telegraphers during the war, and possibly Edison may have heard of the practice; but be that as it may, he certainly showed ingenuity and resource in applying such a method to meet the necessity. It is interesting to note that at this point the Grand Trunk now has its St. Clair tunnel, through which the trains are hauled under the river-bed by electric locomotives.

Edison had now begun unconsciously the roaming and drifting that took him during the next five years all over the Middle States, and that might well have wrecked the career of any one less persistent and industrious. It was a period of his life corresponding to the Wanderjahre of the German artisan, and was an easy way of gratifying a taste for travel without the risk of privation. To-day there is little temptation to the telegrapher to go to distant parts of the country on the chance that he may secure a livelihood at the key. The ranks are well filled everywhere, and of late years the telegraph as an art or industry has shown relatively slight expansion, owing chiefly to the development of telephony. Hence, if vacancies occur, there are plenty of operators available, and salaries have remained so low as to lead to one or two formidable and costly strikes that unfortunately took no account of the economic conditions of demand and supply. But in the days of the Civil War there was a great dearth of skilful manipulators of the key. About fifteen hundred of the best operators in the country were at the front on the Federal side alone, and several hundred more had enlisted. This created a serious scarcity, and a nomadic operator going to any telegraphic centre would be sure to find a place open waiting for him. At the close of the war a majority of those who had been with the two opposed armies remained at the key under more peaceful surroundings, but the rapid development of the commercial and railroad systems fostered a new demand, and then for a time it seemed almost impossible to train new operators fast enough. In a few years, however, the telephone sprang into vigorous existence, dating from 1876, drawing off some of the most adventurous spirits from the telegraph field; and the deterrent influence of the telephone on the telegraph had made itself felt by 1890. The expiration of the leading Bell telephone patents, five years later, accentuated even more sharply the check that had been put on telegraphy, as hundreds and thousands of "independent" telephone companies were then organized, throwing a vast network of toll lines over Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and other States, and affording cheap, instantaneous means of communication without any necessity for the intervention of an operator.

It will be seen that the times have changed radically since Edison became a telegrapher, and that in this respect a chapter of electrical history has been definitely closed. There was a day when the art offered a distinct career to all of its practitioners, and young men of ambition and good family were eager to begin even as messenger boys, and were ready to undergo a severe ordeal of apprenticeship with the belief that they could ultimately attain positions of responsibility and profit. At the same time operators have always been shrewd enough to regard the telegraph as a stepping-stone to other careers in life. A bright fellow entering the telegraph service to-day finds the experience he may gain therein valuable, but he soon realizes that there are not enough good-paying official positions to "go around," so as to give each worthy man a chance after he has mastered the essentials of the art. He feels, therefore, that to remain at the key involves either stagnation or deterioration, and that after, say, twenty-five years of practice he will have lost ground as compared with friends who started out in other occupations. The craft of an operator, learned without much difficulty, is very attractive to a youth, but a position at the key is no place for a man of mature years. His services, with rare exceptions, grow less valuable as he advances in age and nervous strain breaks him down. On the contrary, men engaged in other professions find, as a rule, that they improve and advance with experience, and that age brings larger rewards and opportunities.

The list of well-known Americans who have been graduates of the key is indeed an extraordinary one, and there is no department of our national life in which they have not distinguished themselves. The contrast, in this respect, between them and their European colleagues is highly significant. In Europe the telegraph systems are all under government management, the operators have strictly limited spheres of promotion, and at the best the transition from one kind of employment to another is not made so easily as in the New World. But in the United States we have seen Rufus Bullock become Governor of Georgia, and Ezra Cornell Governor of New York. Marshall Jewell was Postmaster-General of President Grant's Cabinet, and Daniel Lamont was Secretary of State in President Cleveland's. Gen. T. T. Eckert, past-President of the Western Union Telegraph Company, was Assistant Secretary of War under President Lincoln; and Robert J. Wynne, afterward a consul-general, served as Assistant Postmaster General. A very large proportion of the presidents and leading officials of the great railroad systems are old telegraphers, including Messrs. W. C. Brown, President of the New York Central Railroad, and Marvin Hughitt, President of the Chicago & North western Railroad. In industrial and financial life there have been Theodore N. Vail, President of the Bell telephone system; L. C. Weir, late President of the Adams Express; A. B. Chandler, President of the Postal Telegraph and Cable Company; Sir W. Van Home, identified with Canadian development; Robert C. Clowry, President of the Western Union Telegraph Company; D. H. Bates, Manager of the Baltimore & Ohio telegraph for Robert Garrett; and Andrew Carnegie, the greatest ironmaster the world has ever known, as well as its greatest philanthropist. In journalism there have been leaders like Edward Rosewater, founder of the Omaha Bee; W. J. Elverson, of the Philadelphia Press; and Frank A. Munsey, publisher of half a dozen big magazines. George Kennan has achieved fame in literature, and Guy Carleton and Harry de Souchet have been successful as dramatists. These are but typical of hundreds of men who could be named who have risen from work at the key to become recognized leaders in differing spheres of activity.

But roving has never been favorable to the formation of steady habits. The young men who thus floated about the country from one telegraph office to another were often brilliant operators, noted for speed in sending and receiving, but they were undisciplined, were without the restraining influences of home life, and were so highly paid for their work that they could indulge freely in dissipation if inclined that way. Subjected to nervous tension for hours together at the key, many of them unfortunately took to drink, and having ended one engagement in a city by a debauch that closed the doors of the office to them, would drift away to the nearest town, and there securing work, would repeat the performance. At one time, indeed, these men were so numerous and so much in evidence as to constitute a type that the public was disposed to accept as representative of the telegraphic fraternity; but as the conditions creating him ceased to exist, the "tramp operator" also passed into history. It was, however, among such characters that Edison was very largely thrown in these early days of aimless drifting, to learn something perhaps of their nonchalant philosophy of life, sharing bed and board with them under all kinds of adverse conditions, but always maintaining a stoic abstemiousness, and never feeling other than a keen regret at the waste of so much genuine ability and kindliness on the part of those knights errant of the key whose inevitable fate might so easily have been his own.

Such a class or group of men can always be presented by an individual type, and this is assuredly best embodied in Milton F. Adams, one of Edison's earliest and closest friends, to whom reference will be made in later chapters, and whose life has been so full of adventurous episodes that he might well be regarded as the modern Gil Blas. That career is certainly well worth the telling as "another story," to use the Kipling phrase. Of him Edison says: "Adams was one of a class of operators never satisfied to work at any place for any great length of time. He had the 'wanderlust.' After enjoying hospitality in Boston in 1868-69, on the floor of my hall-bedroom, which was a paradise for the entomologist, while the boarding-house itself was run on the banting system of flesh reduction, he came to me one day and said: 'Good-bye, Edison; I have got sixty cents, and I am going to San Francisco.' And he did go. How, I never knew personally. I learned afterward that he got a job there, and then within a week they had a telegraphers' strike. He got a big torch and sold patent medicine on the streets at night to support the strikers. Then he went to Peru as partner of a man who had a grizzly bear which they proposed entering against a bull in the bull-ring in that city. The grizzly was killed in five minutes, and so the scheme died. Then Adams crossed the Andes, and started a market-report bureau in Buenos Ayres. This didn't pay, so he started a restaurant in Pernambuco, Brazil. There he did very well, but something went wrong (as it always does to a nomad), so he went to the Transvaal, and ran a panorama called 'Paradise Lost' in the Kaffir kraals. This didn't pay, and he became the editor of a newspaper; then went to England to raise money for a railroad in Cape Colony. Next I heard of him in New York, having just arrived from Bogota, United States of Colombia, with a power of attorney and $2000 from a native of that republic, who had applied for a patent for tightening a belt to prevent it from slipping on a pulley—a device which he thought a new and great invention, but which was in use ever since machinery was invented. I gave Adams, then, a position as salesman for electrical apparatus. This he soon got tired of, and I lost sight of him." Adams, in speaking of this episode, says that when he asked for transportation expenses to St. Louis, Edison pulled out of his pocket a ferry ticket to Hoboken, and said to his associates: "I'll give him that, and he'll get there all right." This was in the early days of electric lighting; but down to the present moment the peregrinations of this versatile genius of the key have never ceased in one hemisphere or the other, so that as Mr. Adams himself remarked to the authors in April, 1908: "The life has been somewhat variegated, but never dull."

The fact remains also that throughout this period Edison, while himself a very Ishmael, never ceased to study, explore, experiment. Referring to this beginning of his career, he mentions a curious fact that throws light on his ceaseless application. "After I became a telegraph operator," he says, "I practiced for a long time to become a rapid reader of print, and got so expert I could sense the meaning of a whole line at once. This faculty, I believe, should be taught in schools, as it appears to be easily acquired. Then one can read two or three books in a day, whereas if each word at a time only is sensed, reading is laborious."

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