EDISON HIS LIFE AND INVENTIONS
By Frank Lewis Dyer
General Counsel For The Edison Laboratory And Allied Interests
Thomas Commerford Martin
Ex-President Of The American Institute Of Electrical Engineers
INTRODUCTION I. THE AGE OF ELECTRICITY II. EDISON'S PEDIGREE III. BOYHOOD AT PORT HURON, MICHIGAN IV. THE YOUNG TELEGRAPH OPERATOR V. ARDUOUS YEARS IN THE CENTRAL WEST VI. WORK AND INVENTION IN BOSTON VII. THE STOCK TICKER VIII. AUTOMATIC, DUPLEX, AND QUADRUPLEX TELEGRAPHY IX. THE TELEPHONE, MOTOGRAPH, AND MICROPHONE X. THE PHONOGRAPH XI. THE INVENTION OF THE INCANDESCENT LAMP XII. MEMORIES OF MENLO PARK XIII. A WORLD-HUNT FOR FILAMENT MATERIAL XIV. INVENTING A COMPLETE SYSTEM OF LIGHTING XV. INTRODUCTION OF THE EDISON ELECTRIC LIGHT XVI. THE FIRST EDISON CENTRAL STATION XVII. OTHER EARLY STATIONS—THE METER XVIII. THE ELECTRIC RAILWAY XIX. MAGNETIC ORE MILLING WORK XX. EDISON PORTLAND CEMENT XXI. MOTION PICTURES XXII. THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE EDISON STORAGE BATTERY XXIII. MISCELLANEOUS INVENTIONS XXIV. EDISON'S METHOD IN INVENTING XXV. THE LABORATORY AT ORANGE AND THE STAFF XXVI. EDISON IN COMMERCE AND MANUFACTURE XXVII. THE VALUE OF EDISON'S INVENTIONS TO THE WORLD XXVIII. THE BLACK FLAG XXIX. THE SOCIAL SIDE OF EDISON APPENDIX LIST OF UNITED STATES PATENTS FOREIGN PATENTS INDEX
PRIOR to this, no complete, authentic, and authorized record of the work of Mr. Edison, during an active life, has been given to the world. That life, if there is anything in heredity, is very far from finished; and while it continues there will be new achievement.
An insistently expressed desire on the part of the public for a definitive biography of Edison was the reason for the following pages. The present authors deem themselves happy in the confidence reposed in them, and in the constant assistance they have enjoyed from Mr. Edison while preparing these pages, a great many of which are altogether his own. This co-operation in no sense relieves the authors of responsibility as to any of the views or statements of their own that the book contains. They have realized the extreme reluctance of Mr. Edison to be made the subject of any biography at all; while he has felt that, if it must be written, it were best done by the hands of friends and associates of long standing, whose judgment and discretion he could trust, and whose intimate knowledge of the facts would save him from misrepresentation.
The authors of the book are profoundly conscious of the fact that the extraordinary period of electrical development embraced in it has been prolific of great men. They have named some of them; but there has been no idea of setting forth various achievements or of ascribing distinctive merits. This treatment is devoted to one man whom his fellow-citizens have chosen to regard as in many ways representative of the American at his finest flowering in the field of invention during the nineteenth century.
It is designed in these pages to bring the reader face to face with Edison; to glance at an interesting childhood and a youthful period marked by a capacity for doing things, and by an insatiable thirst for knowledge; then to accompany him into the great creative stretch of forty years, during which he has done so much. This book shows him plunged deeply into work for which he has always had an incredible capacity, reveals the exercise of his unsurpassed inventive ability, his keen reasoning powers, his tenacious memory, his fertility of resource; follows him through a series of innumerable experiments, conducted methodically, reaching out like rays of search-light into all the regions of science and nature, and finally exhibits him emerging triumphantly from countless difficulties bearing with him in new arts the fruits of victorious struggle.
These volumes aim to be a biography rather than a history of electricity, but they have had to cover so much general ground in defining the relations and contributions of Edison to the electrical arts, that they serve to present a picture of the whole development effected in the last fifty years, the most fruitful that electricity has known. The effort has been made to avoid technique and abstruse phrases, but some degree of explanation has been absolutely necessary in regard to each group of inventions. The task of the authors has consisted largely in summarizing fairly the methods and processes employed by Edison; and some idea of the difficulties encountered by them in so doing may be realized from the fact that one brief chapter, for example,—that on ore milling—covers nine years of most intense application and activity on the part of the inventor. It is something like exhibiting the geological eras of the earth in an outline lantern slide, to reduce an elaborate series of strenuous experiments and a vast variety of ingenious apparatus to the space of a few hundred words.
A great deal of this narrative is given in Mr. Edison's own language, from oral or written statements made in reply to questions addressed to him with the object of securing accuracy. A further large part is based upon the personal contributions of many loyal associates; and it is desired here to make grateful acknowledgment to such collaborators as Messrs. Samuel Insull, E. H. Johnson, F. R. Upton, R. N Dyer, S. B. Eaton, Francis Jehl, W. S. Andrews, W. J. Jenks, W. J. Hammer, F. J. Sprague, W. S. Mallory, and C. L. Clarke, and others, without whose aid the issuance of this book would indeed have been impossible. In particular, it is desired to acknowledge indebtedness to Mr. W. H. Meadowcroft not only for substantial aid in the literary part of the work, but for indefatigable effort to group, classify, and summarize the boundless material embodied in Edison's note-books and memorabilia of all kinds now kept at the Orange laboratory. Acknowledgment must also be made of the courtesy and assistance of Mrs. Edison, and especially of the loan of many interesting and rare photographs from her private collection.
EDISON HIS LIFE AND INVENTIONS
THE AGE OF ELECTRICITY
THE year 1847 marked a period of great territorial acquisition by the American people, with incalculable additions to their actual and potential wealth. By the rational compromise with England in the dispute over the Oregon region, President Polk had secured during 1846, for undisturbed settlement, three hundred thousand square miles of forest, fertile land, and fisheries, including the whole fair Columbia Valley. Our active "policy of the Pacific" dated from that hour. With swift and clinching succession came the melodramatic Mexican War, and February, 1848, saw another vast territory south of Oregon and west of the Rocky Mountains added by treaty to the United States. Thus in about eighteen months there had been pieced into the national domain for quick development and exploitation a region as large as the entire Union of Thirteen States at the close of the War of Independence. Moreover, within its boundaries was embraced all the great American gold-field, just on the eve of discovery, for Marshall had detected the shining particles in the mill-race at the foot of the Sierra Nevada nine days before Mexico signed away her rights in California and in all the vague, remote hinterland facing Cathayward.
Equally momentous were the times in Europe, where the attempt to secure opportunities of expansion as well as larger liberty for the individual took quite different form. The old absolutist system of government was fast breaking up, and ancient thrones were tottering. The red lava of deep revolutionary fires oozed up through many glowing cracks in the political crust, and all the social strata were shaken. That the wild outbursts of insurrection midway in the fifth decade failed and died away was not surprising, for the superincumbent deposits of tradition and convention were thick. But the retrospect indicates that many reforms and political changes were accomplished, although the process involved the exile of not a few ardent spirits to America, to become leading statesmen, inventors, journalists, and financiers. In 1847, too, Russia began her tremendous march eastward into Central Asia, just as France was solidifying her first gains on the littoral of northern Africa. In England the fierce fervor of the Chartist movement, with its violent rhetoric as to the rights of man, was sobering down and passing pervasively into numerous practical schemes for social and political amelioration, constituting in their entirety a most profound change throughout every part of the national life.
Into such times Thomas Alva Edison was born, and his relations to them and to the events of the past sixty years are the subject of this narrative. Aside from the personal interest that attaches to the picturesque career, so typically American, there is a broader aspect in which the work of the "Franklin of the Nineteenth Century" touches the welfare and progress of the race. It is difficult at any time to determine the effect of any single invention, and the investigation becomes more difficult where inventions of the first class have been crowded upon each other in rapid and bewildering succession. But it will be admitted that in Edison one deals with a central figure of the great age that saw the invention and introduction in practical form of the telegraph, the submarine cable, the telephone, the electric light, the electric railway, the electric trolley-car, the storage battery, the electric motor, the phonograph, the wireless telegraph; and that the influence of these on the world's affairs has not been excelled at any time by that of any other corresponding advances in the arts and sciences. These pages deal with Edison's share in the great work of the last half century in abridging distance, communicating intelligence, lessening toil, improving illumination, recording forever the human voice; and on behalf of inventive genius it may be urged that its beneficent results and gifts to mankind compare with any to be credited to statesman, warrior, or creative writer of the same period.
Viewed from the standpoint of inventive progress, the first half of the nineteenth century had passed very profitably when Edison appeared—every year marked by some notable achievement in the arts and sciences, with promise of its early and abundant fruition in commerce and industry. There had been exactly four decades of steam navigation on American waters. Railways were growing at the rate of nearly one thousand miles annually. Gas had become familiar as a means of illumination in large cities. Looms and tools and printing-presses were everywhere being liberated from the slow toil of man-power. The first photographs had been taken. Chloroform, nitrous oxide gas, and ether had been placed at the service of the physician in saving life, and the revolver, guncotton, and nitroglycerine added to the agencies for slaughter. New metals, chemicals, and elements had become available in large numbers, gases had been liquefied and solidified, and the range of useful heat and cold indefinitely extended. The safety-lamp had been given to the miner, the caisson to the bridge-builder, the anti-friction metal to the mechanic for bearings. It was already known how to vulcanize rubber, and how to galvanize iron. The application of machinery in the harvest-field had begun with the embryonic reaper, while both the bicycle and the automobile were heralded in primitive prototypes. The gigantic expansion of the iron and steel industry was foreshadowed in the change from wood to coal in the smelting furnaces. The sewing-machine had brought with it, like the friction match, one of the most profound influences in modifying domestic life, and making it different from that of all preceding time.
Even in 1847 few of these things had lost their novelty, most of them were in the earlier stages of development. But it is when we turn to electricity that the rich virgin condition of an illimitable new kingdom of discovery is seen. Perhaps the word "utilization" or "application" is better than discovery, for then, as now, an endless wealth of phenomena noted by experimenters from Gilbert to Franklin and Faraday awaited the invention that could alone render them useful to mankind. The eighteenth century, keenly curious and ceaselessly active in this fascinating field of investigation, had not, after all, left much of a legacy in either principles or appliances. The lodestone and the compass; the frictional machine; the Leyden jar; the nature of conductors and insulators; the identity of electricity and the thunder-storm flash; the use of lightning-rods; the physiological effects of an electrical shock—these constituted the bulk of the bequest to which philosophers were the only heirs. Pregnant with possibilities were many of the observations that had been recorded. But these few appliances made up the meagre kit of tools with which the nineteenth century entered upon its task of acquiring the arts and conveniences now such an intimate part of "human nature's daily food" that the average American to-day pays more for his electrical service than he does for bread.
With the first year of the new century came Volta's invention of the chemical battery as a means of producing electricity. A well-known Italian picture represents Volta exhibiting his apparatus before the young conqueror Napoleon, then ravishing from the Peninsula its treasure of ancient art and founding an ephemeral empire. At such a moment this gift of despoiled Italy to the world was a noble revenge, setting in motion incalculable beneficent forces and agencies. For the first time man had command of a steady supply of electricity without toil or effort. The useful results obtainable previously from the current of a frictional machine were not much greater than those to be derived from the flight of a rocket. While the frictional appliance is still employed in medicine, it ranks with the flint axe and the tinder-box in industrial obsolescence. No art or trade could be founded on it; no diminution of daily work or increase of daily comfort could be secured with it. But the little battery with its metal plates in a weak solution proved a perennial reservoir of electrical energy, safe and controllable, from which supplies could be drawn at will. That which was wild had become domesticated; regular crops took the place of haphazard gleanings from brake or prairie; the possibility of electrical starvation was forever left behind.
Immediately new processes of inestimable value revealed themselves; new methods were suggested. Almost all the electrical arts now employed made their beginnings in the next twenty-five years, and while the more extensive of them depend to-day on the dynamo for electrical energy, some of the most important still remain in loyal allegiance to the older source. The battery itself soon underwent modifications, and new types were evolved—the storage, the double-fluid, and the dry. Various analogies next pointed to the use of heat, and the thermoelectric cell emerged, embodying the application of flame to the junction of two different metals. Davy, of the safety-lamp, threw a volume of current across the gap between two sticks of charcoal, and the voltaic arc, forerunner of electric lighting, shed its bright beams upon a dazzled world. The decomposition of water by electrolytic action was recognized and made the basis of communicating at a distance even before the days of the electromagnet. The ties that bind electricity and magnetism in twinship of relation and interaction were detected, and Faraday's work in induction gave the world at once the dynamo and the motor. "Hitch your wagon to a star," said Emerson. To all the coal-fields and all the waterfalls Faraday had directly hitched the wheels of industry. Not only was it now possible to convert mechanical energy into electricity cheaply and in illimitable quantities, but electricity at once showed its ubiquitous availability as a motive power. Boats were propelled by it, cars were hauled, and even papers printed. Electroplating became an art, and telegraphy sprang into active being on both sides of the Atlantic.
At the time Edison was born, in 1847, telegraphy, upon which he was to leave so indelible an imprint, had barely struggled into acceptance by the public. In England, Wheatstone and Cooke had introduced a ponderous magnetic needle telegraph. In America, in 1840, Morse had taken out his first patent on an electromagnetic telegraph, the principle of which is dominating in the art to this day. Four years later the memorable message "What hath God wrought!" was sent by young Miss Ellsworth over his circuits, and incredulous Washington was advised by wire of the action of the Democratic Convention in Baltimore in nominating Polk. By 1847 circuits had been strung between Washington and New York, under private enterprise, the Government having declined to buy the Morse system for $100,000. Everything was crude and primitive. The poles were two hundred feet apart and could barely hold up a wash-line. The slim, bare, copper wire snapped on the least provocation, and the circuit was "down" for thirty-six days in the first six months. The little glass-knob insulators made seductive targets for ignorant sportsmen. Attempts to insulate the line wire were limited to coating it with tar or smearing it with wax for the benefit of all the bees in the neighborhood. The farthest western reach of the telegraph lines in 1847 was Pittsburg, with three-ply iron wire mounted on square glass insulators with a little wooden pentroof for protection. In that office, where Andrew Carnegie was a messenger boy, the magnets in use to receive the signals sent with the aid of powerful nitric-acid batteries weighed as much as seventy-five pounds apiece. But the business was fortunately small at the outset, until the new device, patronized chiefly by lottery-men, had proved its utility. Then came the great outburst of activity. Within a score of years telegraph wires covered the whole occupied country with a network, and the first great electrical industry was a pronounced success, yielding to its pioneers the first great harvest of electrical fortunes. It had been a sharp struggle for bare existence, during which such a man as the founder of Cornell University had been glad to get breakfast in New York with a quarter-dollar picked up on Broadway.
THOMAS ALVA EDISON was born at Milan Ohio, February 11, 1847. The State that rivals Virginia as a "Mother of Presidents" has evidently other titles to distinction of the same nature. For picturesque detail it would not be easy to find any story excelling that of the Edison family before it reached the Western Reserve. The story epitomizes American idealism, restlessness, freedom of individual opinion, and ready adjustment to the surrounding conditions of pioneer life. The ancestral Edisons who came over from Holland, as nearly as can be determined, in 1730, were descendants of extensive millers on the Zuyder Zee, and took up patents of land along the Passaic River, New Jersey, close to the home that Mr. Edison established in the Orange Mountains a hundred and sixty years later. They landed at Elizabethport, New Jersey, and first settled near Caldwell in that State, where some graves of the family may still be found. President Cleveland was born in that quiet hamlet. It is a curious fact that in the Edison family the pronunciation of the name has always been with the long "e" sound, as it would naturally be in the Dutch language. The family prospered and must have enjoyed public confidence, for we find the name of Thomas Edison, as a bank official on Manhattan Island, signed to Continental currency in 1778. According to the family records this Edison, great-grandfather of Thomas Alva, reached the extreme old age of 104 years. But all was not well, and, as has happened so often before, the politics of father and son were violently different. The Loyalist movement that took to Nova Scotia so many Americans after the War of Independence carried with it John, the son of this stalwart Continental. Thus it came about that Samuel Edison, son of John, was born at Digby, Nova Scotia, in 1804. Seven years later John Edison who, as a Loyalist or United Empire emigrant, had become entitled under the laws of Canada to a grant of six hundred acres of land, moved westward to take possession of this property. He made his way through the State of New York in wagons drawn by oxen to the remote and primitive township of Bayfield, in Upper Canada, on Lake Huron. Although the journey occurred in balmy June, it was necessarily attended with difficulty and privation; but the new home was situated in good farming country, and once again this interesting nomadic family settled down.
John Edison moved from Bayfield to Vienna, Ontario, on the northern bank of Lake Erie. Mr. Edison supplies an interesting reminiscence of the old man and his environment in those early Canadian days. "When I was five years old I was taken by my father and mother on a visit to Vienna. We were driven by carriage from Milan, Ohio, to a railroad, then to a port on Lake Erie, thence by a canal-boat in a tow of several to Port Burwell, in Canada, across the lake, and from there we drove to Vienna, a short distance away. I remember my grandfather perfectly as he appeared, at 102 years of age, when he died. In the middle of the day he sat under a large tree in front of the house facing a well-travelled road. His head was covered completely with a large quantity of very white hair, and he chewed tobacco incessantly, nodding to friends as they passed by. He used a very large cane, and walked from the chair to the house, resenting any assistance. I viewed him from a distance, and could never get very close to him. I remember some large pipes, and especially a molasses jug, a trunk, and several other things that came from Holland."
John Edison was long-lived, like his father, and reached the ripe old age of 102, leaving his son Samuel charged with the care of the family destinies, but with no great burden of wealth. Little is known of the early manhood of this father of T. A. Edison until we find him keeping a hotel at Vienna, marrying a school-teacher there (Miss Nancy Elliott, in 1828), and taking a lively share in the troublous politics of the time. He was six feet in height, of great bodily vigor, and of such personal dominance of character that he became a captain of the insurgent forces rallying under the banners of Papineau and Mackenzie. The opening years of Queen Victoria's reign witnessed a belated effort in Canada to emphasize the principle that there should not be taxation without representation; and this descendant of those who had left the United States from disapproval of such a doctrine, flung himself headlong into its support.
It has been said of Earl Durham, who pacified Canada at this time and established the present system of government, that he made a country and marred a career. But the immediate measures of repression enforced before a liberal policy was adopted were sharp and severe, and Samuel Edison also found his own career marred on Canadian soil as one result of the Durham administration. Exile to Bermuda with other insurgents was not so attractive as the perils of a flight to the United States. A very hurried departure was effected in secret from the scene of trouble, and there are romantic traditions of his thrilling journey of one hundred and eighty-two miles toward safety, made almost entirely without food or sleep, through a wild country infested with Indians of unfriendly disposition. Thus was the Edison family repatriated by a picturesque political episode, and the great inventor given a birthplace on American soil, just as was Benjamin Franklin when his father came from England to Boston. Samuel Edison left behind him, however, in Canada, several brothers, all of whom lived to the age of ninety or more, and from whom there are descendants in the region.
After some desultory wanderings for a year or two along the shores of Lake Erie, among the prosperous towns then springing up, the family, with its Canadian home forfeited, and in quest of another resting-place, came to Milan, Ohio, in 1842. That pretty little village offered at the moment many attractions as a possible Chicago. The railroad system of Ohio was still in the future, but the Western Reserve had already become a vast wheat-field, and huge quantities of grain from the central and northern counties sought shipment to Eastern ports. The Huron River, emptying into Lake Erie, was navigable within a few miles of the village, and provided an admirable outlet. Large granaries were established, and proved so successful that local capital was tempted into the project of making a tow-path canal from Lockwood Landing all the way to Milan itself. The quaint old Moravian mission and quondam Indian settlement of one hundred inhabitants found itself of a sudden one of the great grain ports of the world, and bidding fair to rival Russian Odessa. A number of grain warehouses, or primitive elevators, were built along the bank of the canal, and the produce of the region poured in immediately, arriving in wagons drawn by four or six horses with loads of a hundred bushels. No fewer than six hundred wagons came clattering in, and as many as twenty sail vessels were loaded with thirty-five thousand bushels of grain, during a single day. The canal was capable of being navigated by craft of from two hundred to two hundred and fifty tons burden, and the demand for such vessels soon led to the development of a brisk ship-building industry, for which the abundant forests of the region supplied the necessary lumber. An evidence of the activity in this direction is furnished by the fact that six revenue cutters were launched at this port in these brisk days of its prime.
Samuel Edison, versatile, buoyant of temper, and ever optimistic, would thus appear to have pitched his tent with shrewd judgment. There was plenty of occupation ready to his hand, and more than one enterprise received his attention; but he devoted his energies chiefly to the making of shingles, for which there was a large demand locally and along the lake. Canadian lumber was used principally in this industry. The wood was imported in "bolts" or pieces three feet long. A bolt made two shingles; it was sawn asunder by hand, then split and shaved. None but first-class timber was used, and such shingles outlasted far those made by machinery with their cross-grain cut. A house in Milan, on which some of those shingles were put in 1844, was still in excellent condition forty-two years later. Samuel Edison did well at this occupation, and employed several men, but there were other outlets from time to time for his business activity and speculative disposition.
Edison's mother was an attractive and highly educated woman, whose influence upon his disposition and intellect has been profound and lasting. She was born in Chenango County, New York, in 1810, and was the daughter of the Rev. John Elliott, a Baptist minister and descendant of an old Revolutionary soldier, Capt. Ebenezer Elliott, of Scotch descent. The old captain was a fine and picturesque type. He fought all through the long War of Independence—seven years—and then appears to have settled down at Stonington, Connecticut. There, at any rate, he found his wife, "grandmother Elliott," who was Mercy Peckham, daughter of a Scotch Quaker. Then came the residence in New York State, with final removal to Vienna, for the old soldier, while drawing his pension at Buffalo, lived in the little Canadian town, and there died, over 100 years old. The family was evidently one of considerable culture and deep religious feeling, for two of Mrs. Edison's uncles and two brothers were also in the same Baptist ministry. As a young woman she became a teacher in the public high school at Vienna, and thus met her husband, who was residing there. The family never consisted of more than three children, two boys and a girl. A trace of the Canadian environment is seen in the fact that Edison's elder brother was named William Pitt, after the great English statesman. Both his brother and the sister exhibited considerable ability. William Pitt Edison as a youth was so clever with his pencil that it was proposed to send him to Paris as an art student. In later life he was manager of the local street railway lines at Port Huron, Michigan, in which he was heavily interested. He also owned a good farm near that town, and during the ill-health at the close of his life, when compelled to spend much of the time indoors, he devoted himself almost entirely to sketching. It has been noted by intimate observers of Thomas A. Edison that in discussing any project or new idea his first impulse is to take up any piece of paper available and make drawings of it. His voluminous note-books are a mass of sketches. Mrs-Tannie Edison Bailey, the sister, had, on the other hand, a great deal of literary ability, and spent much of her time in writing.
The great inventor, whose iron endurance and stern will have enabled him to wear down all his associates by work sustained through arduous days and sleepless nights, was not at all strong as a child, and was of fragile appearance. He had an abnormally large but well-shaped head, and it is said that the local doctors feared he might have brain trouble. In fact, on account of his assumed delicacy, he was not allowed to go to school for some years, and even when he did attend for a short time the results were not encouraging—his mother being hotly indignant upon hearing that the teacher had spoken of him to an inspector as "addled." The youth was, indeed, fortunate far beyond the ordinary in having a mother at once loving, well-informed, and ambitious, capable herself, from her experience as a teacher, of undertaking and giving him an education better than could be secured in the local schools of the day. Certain it is that under this simple regime studious habits were formed and a taste for literature developed that have lasted to this day. If ever there was a man who tore the heart out of books it is Edison, and what has once been read by him is never forgotten if useful or worthy of submission to the test of experiment.
But even thus early the stronger love of mechanical processes and of probing natural forces manifested itself. Edison has said that he never saw a statement in any book as to such things that he did not involuntarily challenge, and wish to demonstrate as either right or wrong. As a mere child the busy scenes of the canal and the grain warehouses were of consuming interest, but the work in the ship-building yards had an irresistible fascination. His questions were so ceaseless and innumerable that the penetrating curiosity of an unusually strong mind was regarded as deficiency in powers of comprehension, and the father himself, a man of no mean ingenuity and ability, reports that the child, although capable of reducing him to exhaustion by endless inquiries, was often spoken of as rather wanting in ordinary acumen. This apparent dulness is, however, a quite common incident to youthful genius.
The constructive tendencies of this child of whom his father said once that he had never had any boyhood days in the ordinary sense, were early noted in his fondness for building little plank roads out of the debris of the yards and mills. His extraordinarily retentive memory was shown in his easy acquisition of all the songs of the lumber gangs and canal men before he was five years old. One incident tells how he was found one day in the village square copying laboriously the signs of the stores. A highly characteristic event at the age of six is described by his sister. He had noted a goose sitting on her eggs and the result. One day soon after, he was missing. By-and-by, after an anxious search, his father found him sitting in a nest he had made in the barn, filled with goose-eggs and hens' eggs he had collected, trying to hatch them out.
One of Mr. Edison's most vivid recollections goes back to 1850, when as a child three of four years old he saw camped in front of his home six covered wagons, "prairie schooners," and witnessed their departure for California. The great excitement over the gold discoveries was thus felt in Milan, and these wagons, laden with all the worldly possessions of their owners, were watched out of sight on their long journey by this fascinated urchin, whose own discoveries in later years were to tempt many other argonauts into the auriferous realms of electricity.
Another vivid memory of this period concerns his first realization of the grim mystery of death. He went off one day with the son of the wealthiest man in the town to bathe in the creek. Soon after they entered the water the other boy disappeared. Young Edison waited around the spot for half an hour or more, and then, as it was growing dark, went home puzzled and lonely, but silent as to the occurrence. About two hours afterward, when the missing boy was being searched for, a man came to the Edison home to make anxious inquiry of the companion with whom he had last been seen. Edison told all the circumstances with a painful sense of being in some way implicated. The creek was at once dragged, and then the body was recovered.
Edison had himself more than one narrow escape. Of course he fell in the canal and was nearly drowned; few boys in Milan worth their salt omitted that performance. On another occasion he encountered a more novel peril by falling into the pile of wheat in a grain elevator and being almost smothered. Holding the end of a skate-strap for another lad to shorten with an axe, he lost the top of a finger. Fire also had its perils. He built a fire in a barn, but the flames spread so rapidly that, although he escaped himself, the barn was wholly destroyed, and he was publicly whipped in the village square as a warning to other youths. Equally well remembered is a dangerous encounter with a ram that attacked him while he was busily engaged digging out a bumblebee's nest near an orchard fence. The animal knocked him against the fence, and was about to butt him again when he managed to drop over on the safe side and escape. He was badly hurt and bruised, and no small quantity of arnica was needed for his wounds.
Meantime little Milan had reached the zenith of its prosperity, and all of a sudden had been deprived of its flourishing grain trade by the new Columbus, Sandusky & Hocking Railroad; in fact, the short canal was one of the last efforts of its kind in this country to compete with the new means of transportation. The bell of the locomotive was everywhere ringing the death-knell of effective water haulage, with such dire results that, in 1880, of the 4468 miles of American freight canal, that had cost $214,000,000, no fewer than 1893 miles had been abandoned, and of the remaining 2575 miles quite a large proportion was not paying expenses. The short Milan canal suffered with the rest, and to-day lies well-nigh obliterated, hidden in part by vegetable gardens, a mere grass-grown depression at the foot of the winding, shallow valley. Other railroads also prevented any further competition by the canal, for a branch of the Wheeling & Lake Erie now passes through the village, while the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern runs a few miles to the south.
The owners of the canal soon had occasion to regret that they had disdained the overtures of enterprising railroad promoters desirous of reaching the village, and the consequences of commercial isolation rapidly made themselves felt. It soon became evident to Samuel Edison and his wife that the cozy brick home on the bluff must be given up and the struggle with fortune resumed elsewhere. They were well-to-do, however, and removing, in 1854, to Port Huron, Michigan, occupied a large colonial house standing in the middle of an old Government fort reservation of ten acres overlooking the wide expanse of the St. Clair River just after it leaves Lake Huron. It was in many ways an ideal homestead, toward which the family has always felt the strongest attachment, but the association with Milan has never wholly ceased. The old house in which Edison was born is still occupied (in 1910) by Mr. S. O. Edison, a half-brother of Edison's father, and a man of marked inventive ability. He was once prominent in the iron-furnace industry of Ohio, and was for a time associated in the iron trade with the father of the late President McKinley. Among his inventions may be mentioned a machine for making fuel from wheat straw, and a smoke-consuming device.
This birthplace of Edison remains the plain, substantial little brick house it was originally: one-storied, with rooms finished on the attic floor. Being built on the hillside, its basement opens into the rear yard. It was at first heated by means of open coal grates, which may not have been altogether adequate in severe winters, owing to the altitude and the north-eastern exposure, but a large furnace is one of the more modern changes. Milan itself is not materially unlike the smaller Ohio towns of its own time or those of later creation, but the venerable appearance of the big elm-trees that fringe the trim lawns tells of its age. It is, indeed, an extremely neat, snug little place, with well-kept homes, mostly of frame construction, and flagged streets crossing each other at right angles. There are no poor—at least, everybody is apparently well-to-do. While a leisurely atmosphere pervades the town, few idlers are seen. Some of the residents are engaged in local business; some are occupied in farming and grape culture; others are employed in the iron-works near-by, at Norwalk. The stores and places of public resort are gathered about the square, where there is plenty of room for hitching when the Saturday trading is done at that point, at which periods the fitful bustle recalls the old wheat days when young Edison ran with curiosity among the six and eight horse teams that had brought in grain. This square is still covered with fine primeval forest trees, and has at its centre a handsome soldiers' monument of the Civil War, to which four paved walks converge. It is an altogether pleasant and unpretentious town, which cherishes with no small amount of pride its association with the name of Thomas Alva Edison.
In view of Edison's Dutch descent, it is rather singular to find him with the name of Alva, for the Spanish Duke of Alva was notoriously the worst tyrant ever known to the Low Countries, and his evil deeds occupy many stirring pages in Motley's famous history. As a matter of fact, Edison was named after Capt. Alva Bradley, an old friend of his father, and a celebrated ship-owner on the Lakes. Captain Bradley died a few years ago in wealth, while his old associate, with equal ability for making money, was never able long to keep it (differing again from the Revolutionary New York banker from whom his son's other name, "Thomas," was taken).
BOYHOOD AT PORT HURON, MICHIGAN
THE new home found by the Edison family at Port Huron, where Alva spent his brief boyhood before he became a telegraph operator and roamed the whole middle West of that period, was unfortunately destroyed by fire just after the close of the Civil War. A smaller but perhaps more comfortable home was then built by Edison's father on some property he had bought at the near-by village of Gratiot, and there his mother spent the remainder of her life in confirmed invalidism, dying in 1871. Hence the pictures and postal cards sold largely to souvenir-hunters as the Port Huron home do not actually show that in or around which the events now referred to took place.
It has been a romance of popular biographers, based upon the fact that Edison began his career as a newsboy, to assume that these earlier years were spent in poverty and privation, as indeed they usually are by the "newsies" who swarm and shout their papers in our large cities. While it seems a pity to destroy this erroneous idea, suggestive of a heroic climb from the depths to the heights, nothing could be further from the truth. Socially the Edison family stood high in Port Huron at a time when there was relatively more wealth and general activity than to-day. The town in its pristine prime was a great lumber centre, and hummed with the industry of numerous sawmills. An incredible quantity of lumber was made there yearly until the forests near-by vanished and the industry with them. The wealth of the community, invested largely in this business and in allied transportation companies, was accumulated rapidly and as freely spent during those days of prosperity in St. Clair County, bringing with it a high standard of domestic comfort. In all this the Edisons shared on equal terms.
Thus, contrary to the stories that have been so widely published, the Edisons, while not rich by any means, were in comfortable circumstances, with a well-stocked farm and large orchard to draw upon also for sustenance. Samuel Edison, on moving to Port Huron, became a dealer in grain and feed, and gave attention to that business for many years. But he was also active in the lumber industry in the Saginaw district and several other things. It was difficult for a man of such mercurial, restless temperament to stay constant to any one occupation; in fact, had he been less visionary he would have been more prosperous, but might not have had a son so gifted with insight and imagination. One instance of the optimistic vagaries which led him incessantly to spend time and money on projects that would not have appealed to a man less sanguine was the construction on his property of a wooden observation tower over a hundred feet high, the top of which was reached toilsomely by winding stairs, after the payment of twenty-five cents. It is true that the tower commanded a pretty view by land and water, but Colonel Sellers himself might have projected this enterprise as a possible source of steady income. At first few visitors panted up the long flights of steps to the breezy platform. During the first two months Edison's father took in three dollars, and felt extremely blue over the prospect, and to young Edison and his relatives were left the lonely pleasures of the lookout and the enjoyment of the telescope with which it was equipped. But one fine day there came an excursion from an inland town to see the lake. They picnicked in the grove, and six hundred of them went up the tower. After that the railroad company began to advertise these excursions, and the receipts each year paid for the observatory.
It might be thought that, immersed in business and preoccupied with schemes of this character, Mr. Edison was to blame for the neglect of his son's education. But that was not the case. The conditions were peculiar. It was at the Port Huron public school that Edison received all the regular scholastic instruction he ever enjoyed—just three months. He might have spent the full term there, but, as already noted, his teacher had found him "addled." He was always, according to his own recollection, at the foot of the class, and had come almost to regard himself as a dunce, while his father entertained vague anxieties as to his stupidity. The truth of the matter seems to be that Mrs. Edison, a teacher of uncommon ability and force, held no very high opinion of the average public-school methods and results, and was both eager to undertake the instruction of her son and ambitious for the future of a boy whom she knew from pedagogic experience to be receptive and thoughtful to a very unusual degree. With her he found study easy and pleasant. The quality of culture in that simple but refined home, as well as the intellectual character of this youth without schooling, may be inferred from the fact that before he had reached the age of twelve he had read, with his mother's help, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Hume's History of England, Sears' History of the World, Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, and the Dictionary of Sciences; and had even attempted to struggle through Newton's Principia, whose mathematics were decidedly beyond both teacher and student. Besides, Edison, like Faraday, was never a mathematician, and has had little personal use for arithmetic beyond that which is called "mental." He said once to a friend: "I can always hire some mathematicians, but they can't hire me." His father, by-the-way, always encouraged these literary tastes, and paid him a small sum for each new book mastered. It will be noted that fiction makes no showing in the list; but it was not altogether excluded from the home library, and Edison has all his life enjoyed it, particularly the works of such writers as Victor Hugo, after whom, because of his enthusiastic admiration—possibly also because of his imagination—he was nicknamed by his fellow-operators, "Victor Hugo Edison."
Electricity at that moment could have no allure for a youthful mind. Crude telegraphy represented what was known of it practically, and about that the books read by young Edison were not redundantly informational. Even had that not been so, the inclinations of the boy barely ten years old were toward chemistry, and fifty years later there is seen no change of predilection. It sounds like heresy to say that Edison became an electrician by chance, but it is the sober fact that to this pre-eminent and brilliant leader in electrical achievement escape into the chemical domain still has the aspect of a delightful truant holiday. One of the earliest stories about his boyhood relates to the incident when he induced a lad employed in the family to swallow a large quantity of Seidlitz powders in the belief that the gases generated would enable him to fly. The agonies of the victim attracted attention, and Edison's mother marked her displeasure by an application of the switch kept behind the old Seth Thomas "grandfather clock." The disastrous result of this experiment did not discourage Edison at all, as he attributed failure to the lad rather than to the motive power. In the cellar of the Edison homestead young Alva soon accumulated a chemical outfit, constituting the first in a long series of laboratories. The word "laboratory" had always been associated with alchemists in the past, but as with "filament" this untutored stripling applied an iconoclastic practicability to it long before he realized the significance of the new departure. Goethe, in his legend of Faust, shows the traditional or conventional philosopher in his laboratory, an aged, tottering, gray-bearded investigator, who only becomes youthful upon diabolical intervention, and would stay senile without it. In the Edison laboratory no such weird transformation has been necessary, for the philosopher had youth, fiery energy, and a grimly practical determination that would submit to no denial of the goal of something of real benefit to mankind. Edison and Faust are indeed the extremes of philosophic thought and accomplishment.
The home at Port Huron thus saw the first Edison laboratory. The boy began experimenting when he was about ten or eleven years of age. He got a copy of Parker's School Philosophy, an elementary book on physics, and about every experiment in it he tried. Young Alva, or "Al," as he was called, thus early displayed his great passion for chemistry, and in the cellar of the house he collected no fewer than two hundred bottles, gleaned in baskets from all parts of the town. These were arranged carefully on shelves and all labelled "Poison," so that no one else would handle or disturb them. They contained the chemicals with which he was constantly experimenting. To others this diversion was both mysterious and meaningless, but he had soon become familiar with all the chemicals obtainable at the local drug stores, and had tested to his satisfaction many of the statements encountered in his scientific reading. Edison has said that sometimes he has wondered how it was he did not become an analytical chemist instead of concentrating on electricity, for which he had at first no great inclination.
Deprived of the use of a large part of her cellar, tiring of the "mess" always to be found there, and somewhat fearful of results, his mother once told the boy to clear everything out and restore order. The thought of losing all his possessions was the cause of so much ardent distress that his mother relented, but insisted that he must get a lock and key, and keep the embryonic laboratory closed up all the time except when he was there. This was done. From such work came an early familiarity with the nature of electrical batteries and the production of current from them. Apparently the greater part of his spare time was spent in the cellar, for he did not share to any extent in the sports of the boys of the neighborhood, his chum and chief companion, Michael Oates, being a lad of Dutch origin, many years older, who did chores around the house, and who could be recruited as a general utility Friday for the experiments of this young explorer—such as that with the Seidlitz powders.
Such pursuits as these consumed the scant pocket-money of the boy very rapidly. He was not in regular attendance at school, and had read all the books within reach. It was thus he turned newsboy, overcoming the reluctance of his parents, particularly that of his mother, by pointing out that he could by this means earn all he wanted for his experiments and get fresh reading in the shape of papers and magazines free of charge. Besides, his leisure hours in Detroit he would be able to spend at the public library. He applied (in 1859) for the privilege of selling newspapers on the trains of the Grand Trunk Railroad, between Port Huron and Detroit, and obtained the concession after a short delay, during which he made an essay in his task of selling newspapers.
Edison had, as a fact, already had some commercial experience from the age of eleven. The ten acres of the reservation offered an excellent opportunity for truck-farming, and the versatile head of the family could not avoid trying his luck in this branch of work. A large "market garden" was laid out, in which Edison worked pretty steadily with the help of the Dutch boy, Michael Oates—he of the flying experiment. These boys had a horse and small wagon intrusted to them, and every morning in the season they would load up with onions, lettuce, peas, etc., and go through the town.
As much as $600 was turned over to Mrs. Edison in one year from this source. The boy was indefatigable but not altogether charmed with agriculture. "After a while I tired of this work, as hoeing corn in a hot sun is unattractive, and I did not wonder that it had built up cities. Soon the Grand Trunk Railroad was extended from Toronto to Port Huron, at the foot of Lake Huron, and thence to Detroit, at about the same time the War of the Rebellion broke out. By a great amount of persistence I got permission from my mother to go on the local train as a newsboy. The local train from Port Huron to Detroit, a distance of sixty-three miles, left at 7 A.M. and arrived again at 9.30 P.M. After being on the train for several months, I started two stores in Port Huron—one for periodicals, and the other for vegetables, butter, and berries in the season. These were attended by two boys who shared in the profits. The periodical store I soon closed, as the boy in charge could not be trusted. The vegetable store I kept up for nearly a year. After the railroad had been opened a short time, they put on an express which left Detroit in the morning and returned in the evening. I received permission to put a newsboy on this train. Connected with this train was a car, one part for baggage and the other part for U. S. mail, but for a long time it was not used. Every morning I had two large baskets of vegetables from the Detroit market loaded in the mail-car and sent to Port Huron, where the boy would take them to the store. They were much better than those grown locally, and sold readily. I never was asked to pay freight, and to this day cannot explain why, except that I was so small and industrious, and the nerve to appropriate a U. S. mail-car to do a free freight business was so monumental. However, I kept this up for a long time, and in addition bought butter from the farmers along the line, and an immense amount of blackberries in the season. I bought wholesale and at a low price, and permitted the wives of the engineers and trainmen to have the benefit of the discount. After a while there was a daily immigrant train put on. This train generally had from seven to ten coaches filled always with Norwegians, all bound for Iowa and Minnesota. On these trains I employed a boy who sold bread, tobacco, and stick candy. As the war progressed the daily newspaper sales became very profitable, and I gave up the vegetable store."
The hours of this occupation were long, but the work was not particularly heavy, and Edison soon found opportunity for his favorite avocation—chemical experimentation. His train left Port Huron at 7 A.M., and made its southward trip to Detroit in about three hours. This gave a stay in that city from 10 A.M. until the late afternoon, when the train left, arriving at Port Huron about 9.30 P.M. The train was made up of three coaches—baggage, smoking, and ordinary passenger or "ladies." The baggage-car was divided into three compartments—one for trunks and packages, one for the mail, and one for smoking. In those days no use was made of the smoking-compartment, as there was no ventilation, and it was turned over to young Edison, who not only kept papers there and his stock of goods as a "candy butcher," but soon had it equipped with an extraordinary variety of apparatus. There was plenty of leisure on the two daily runs, even for an industrious boy, and thus he found time to transfer his laboratory from the cellar and re-establish it on the train.
His earnings were also excellent—so good, in fact, that eight or ten dollars a day were often taken in, and one dollar went every day to his mother. Thus supporting himself, he felt entitled to spend any other profit left over on chemicals and apparatus. And spent it was, for with access to Detroit and its large stores, where he bought his supplies, and to the public library, where he could quench his thirst for technical information, Edison gave up all his spare time and money to chemistry. Surely the country could have presented at that moment no more striking example of the passionate pursuit of knowledge under difficulties than this newsboy, barely fourteen years of age, with his jars and test-tubes installed on a railway baggage-car.
Nor did this amazing equipment stop at batteries and bottles. The same little space a few feet square was soon converted by this precocious youth into a newspaper office. The outbreak of the Civil War gave a great stimulus to the demand for all newspapers, noticing which he became ambitious to publish a local journal of his own, devoted to the news of that section of the Grand Trunk road. A small printing-press that had been used for hotel bills of fare was picked up in Detroit, and type was also bought, some of it being placed on the train so that composition could go on in spells of leisure. To one so mechanical in his tastes as Edison, it was quite easy to learn the rudiments of the printing art, and thus the Weekly Herald came into existence, of which he was compositor, pressman, editor, publisher, and newsdealer. Only one or two copies of this journal are now discoverable, but its appearance can be judged from the reduced facsimile here shown. The thing was indeed well done as the work of a youth shown by the date to be less than fifteen years old. The literary style is good, there are only a few trivial slips in spelling, and the appreciation is keen of what would be interesting news and gossip. The price was three cents a copy, or eight cents a month for regular subscribers, and the circulation ran up to over four hundred copies an issue. This was by no means the result of mere public curiosity, but attested the value of the sheet as a genuine newspaper, to which many persons in the railroad service along the line were willing contributors. Indeed, with the aid of the railway telegraph, Edison was often able to print late news of importance, of local origin, that the distant regular papers like those of Detroit, which he handled as a newsboy, could not get. It is no wonder that this clever little sheet received the approval and patronage of the English engineer Stephenson when inspecting the Grand Trunk system, and was noted by no less distinguished a contemporary than the London Times as the first newspaper in the world to be printed on a train in motion. The youthful proprietor sometimes cleared as much as twenty to thirty dollars a month from this unique journalistic enterprise.
But all this extra work required attention, and Edison solved the difficulty of attending also to the newsboy business by the employment of a young friend, whom he trained and treated liberally as an understudy. There was often plenty of work for both in the early days of the war, when the news of battle caused intense excitement and large sales of papers. Edison, with native shrewdness already so strikingly displayed, would telegraph the station agents and get them to bulletin the event of the day at the front, so that when each station was reached there were eager purchasers waiting. He recalls in particular the sensation caused by the great battle of Shiloh, or Pittsburg Landing, in April, 1862, in which both Grant and Sherman were engaged, in which Johnston died, and in which there was a ghastly total of 25,000 killed and wounded.
In describing his enterprising action that day, Edison says that when he reached Detroit the bulletin-boards of the newspaper offices were surrounded with dense crowds, which read awestricken the news that there were 60,000 killed and wounded, and that the result was uncertain. "I knew that if the same excitement was attained at the various small towns along the road, and especially at Port Huron, the sale of papers would be great. I then conceived the idea of telegraphing the news ahead, went to the operator in the depot, and by giving him Harper's Weekly and some other papers for three months, he agreed to telegraph to all the stations the matter on the bulletin-board. I hurriedly copied it, and he sent it, requesting the agents to display it on the blackboards used for stating the arrival and departure of trains. I decided that instead of the usual one hundred papers I could sell one thousand; but not having sufficient money to purchase that number, I determined in my desperation to see the editor himself and get credit. The great paper at that time was the Detroit Free Press. I walked into the office marked 'Editorial' and told a young man that I wanted to see the editor on important business—important to me, anyway, I was taken into an office where there were two men, and I stated what I had done about telegraphing, and that I wanted a thousand papers, but only had money for three hundred, and I wanted credit. One of the men refused it, but the other told the first spokesman to let me have them. This man, I afterward learned, was Wilbur F. Storey, who subsequently founded the Chicago Times, and became celebrated in the newspaper world. By the aid of another boy I lugged the papers to the train and started folding them. The first station, called Utica, was a small one where I generally sold two papers. I saw a crowd ahead on the platform, and thought it some excursion, but the moment I landed there was a rush for me; then I realized that the telegraph was a great invention. I sold thirty-five papers there. The next station was Mount Clemens, now a watering-place, but then a town of about one thousand. I usually sold six to eight papers there. I decided that if I found a corresponding crowd there, the only thing to do to correct my lack of judgment in not getting more papers was to raise the price from five cents to ten. The crowd was there, and I raised the price. At the various towns there were corresponding crowds. It had been my practice at Port Huron to jump from the train at a point about one-fourth of a mile from the station, where the train generally slackened speed. I had drawn several loads of sand to this point to jump on, and had become quite expert. The little Dutch boy with the horse met me at this point. When the wagon approached the outskirts of the town I was met by a large crowd. I then yelled: 'Twenty-five cents apiece, gentlemen! I haven't enough to go around!' I sold all out, and made what to me then was an immense sum of money."
Such episodes as this added materially to his income, but did not necessarily increase his savings, for he was then, as now, an utter spendthrift so long as some new apparatus or supplies for experiment could be had. In fact, the laboratory on wheels soon became crowded with such equipment, most costly chemicals were bought on the instalment plan, and Fresenius' Qualitative Analysis served as a basis for ceaseless testing and study. George Pullman, who then had a small shop at Detroit and was working on his sleeping-car, made Edison a lot of wooden apparatus for his chemicals, to the boy's delight. Unfortunately a sudden change came, fraught with disaster. The train, running one day at thirty miles an hour over a piece of poorly laid track, was thrown suddenly out of the perpendicular with a violent lurch, and, before Edison could catch it, a stick of phosphorus was jarred from its shelf, fell to the floor, and burst into flame. The car took fire, and the boy, in dismay, was still trying to quench the blaze when the conductor, a quick-tempered Scotchman, who acted also as baggage-master, hastened to the scene with water and saved his car. On the arrival at Mount Clemens station, its next stop, Edison and his entire outfit, laboratory, printing-plant, and all, were promptly ejected by the enraged conductor, and the train then moved off, leaving him on the platform, tearful and indignant in the midst of his beloved but ruined possessions. It was lynch law of a kind; but in view of the responsibility, this action of the conductor lay well within his rights and duties.
It was through this incident that Edison acquired the deafness that has persisted all through his life, a severe box on the ears from the scorched and angry conductor being the direct cause of the infirmity. Although this deafness would be regarded as a great affliction by most people, and has brought in its train other serious baubles, Mr. Edison has always regarded it philosophically, and said about it recently: "This deafness has been of great advantage to me in various ways. When in a telegraph office, I could only hear the instrument directly on the table at which I sat, and unlike the other operators, I was not bothered by the other instruments. Again, in experimenting on the telephone, I had to improve the transmitter so I could hear it. This made the telephone commercial, as the magneto telephone receiver of Bell was too weak to be used as a transmitter commercially. It was the same with the phonograph. The great defect of that instrument was the rendering of the overtones in music, and the hissing consonants in speech. I worked over one year, twenty hours a day, Sundays and all, to get the word 'specie' perfectly recorded and reproduced on the phonograph. When this was done I knew that everything else could be done which was a fact. Again, my nerves have been preserved intact. Broadway is as quiet to me as a country village is to a person with normal hearing."
Saddened but not wholly discouraged, Edison soon reconstituted his laboratory and printing-office at home, although on the part of the family there was some fear and objection after this episode, on the score of fire. But Edison promised not to bring in anything of a dangerous nature. He did not cease the publication of the Weekly Herald. On the contrary, he prospered in both his enterprises until persuaded by the "printer's devil" in the office of the Port Huron Commercial to change the character of his journal, enlarge it, and issue it under the name of Paul Pry, a happy designation for this or kindred ventures in the domain of society journalism. No copies of Paul Pry can now be found, but it is known that its style was distinctly personal, that gossip was its specialty, and that no small offence was given to the people whose peculiarities or peccadilloes were discussed in a frank and breezy style by the two boys. In one instance the resentment of the victim of such unsought publicity was so intense he laid hands on Edison and pitched the startled young editor into the St. Clair River. The name of this violator of the freedom of the press was thereafter excluded studiously from the columns of Paul Pry, and the incident may have been one of those which soon caused the abandonment of the paper. Edison had great zest in this work, and but for the strong influences in other directions would probably have continued in the newspaper field, in which he was, beyond question, the youngest publisher and editor of the day.
Before leaving this period of his career, it is to be noted that it gave Edison many favorable opportunities. In Detroit he could spend frequent hours in the public library, and it is matter of record that he began his liberal acquaintance with its contents by grappling bravely with a certain section and trying to read it through consecutively, shelf by shelf, regardless of subject. In a way this is curiously suggestive of the earnest, energetic method of "frontal attack" with which the inventor has since addressed himself to so many problems in the arts and sciences.
The Grand Trunk Railroad machine-shops at Port Huron were a great attraction to the boy, who appears to have spent a good deal of his time there. He who was to have much to do with the evolution of the modern electric locomotive was fascinated by the mechanism of the steam locomotive; and whenever he could get the chance Edison rode in the cab with the engineer of his train. He became thoroughly familiar with the intricacies of fire-box, boiler, valves, levers, and gears, and liked nothing better than to handle the locomotive himself during the run. On one trip, when the engineer lay asleep while his eager substitute piloted the train, the boiler "primed," and a deluge overwhelmed the young driver, who stuck to his post till the run and the ordeal were ended. Possibly this helped to spoil a locomotive engineer, but went to make a great master of the new motive power. "Steam is half an Englishman," said Emerson. The temptation is strong to say that workaday electricity is half an American. Edison's own account of the incident is very laughable: "The engine was one of a number leased to the Grand Trunk by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. It had bright brass bands all over, the woodwork beautifully painted, and everything highly polished, which was the custom up to the time old Commodore Vanderbilt stopped it on his roads. After running about fifteen miles the fireman couldn't keep his eyes open (this event followed an all-night dance of the trainmen's fraternal organization), and he agreed to permit me to run the engine. I took charge, reducing the speed to about twelve miles an hour, and brought the train of seven cars to her destination at the Grand Trunk junction safely. But something occurred which was very much out of the ordinary. I was very much worried about the water, and I knew that if it got low the boiler was likely to explode. I hadn't gone twenty miles before black damp mud blew out of the stack and covered every part of the engine, including myself. I was about to awaken the fireman to find out the cause of this when it stopped. Then I approached a station where the fireman always went out to the cowcatcher, opened the oil-cup on the steam-chest, and poured oil in. I started to carry out the procedure when, upon opening the oil-cup, the steam rushed out with a tremendous noise, nearly knocking me off the engine. I succeeded in closing the oil-cup and got back in the cab, and made up my mind that she would pull through without oil. I learned afterward that the engineer always shut off steam when the fireman went out to oil. This point I failed to notice. My powers of observation were very much improved after this occurrence. Just before I reached the junction another outpour of black mud occurred, and the whole engine was a sight—so much so that when I pulled into the yard everybody turned to see it, laughing immoderately. I found the reason of the mud was that I carried so much water it passed over into the stack, and this washed out all the accumulated soot."
One afternoon about a week before Christmas Edison's train jumped the track near Utica, a station on the line. Four old Michigan Central cars with rotten sills collapsed in the ditch and went all to pieces, distributing figs, raisins, dates, and candies all over the track and the vicinity. Hating to see so much waste, Edison tried to save all he could by eating it on the spot, but as a result "our family doctor had the time of his life with me in this connection."
An absurd incident described by Edison throws a vivid light on the free-and-easy condition of early railroad travel and on the Southern extravagance of the time. "In 1860, just before the war broke out there came to the train one afternoon, in Detroit, two fine-looking young men accompanied by a colored servant. They bought tickets for Port Huron, the terminal point for the train. After leaving the junction just outside of Detroit, I brought in the evening papers. When I came opposite the two young men, one of them said: 'Boy, what have you got?' I said: 'Papers.' 'All right.' He took them and threw them out of the window, and, turning to the colored man, said: 'Nicodemus, pay this boy.' I told Nicodemus the amount, and he opened a satchel and paid me. The passengers didn't know what to make of the transaction. I returned with the illustrated papers and magazines. These were seized and thrown out of the window, and I was told to get my money of Nicodemus. I then returned with all the old magazines and novels I had not been able to sell, thinking perhaps this would be too much for them. I was small and thin, and the layer reached above my head, and was all I could possibly carry. I had prepared a list, and knew the amount in case they bit again. When I opened the door, all the passengers roared with laughter. I walked right up to the young men. One asked me what I had. I said 'Magazines and novels.' He promptly threw them out of the window, and Nicodemus settled. Then I came in with cracked hickory nuts, then pop-corn balls, and, finally, molasses candy. All went out of the window. I felt like Alexander the Great!—I had no more chance! I had sold all I had. Finally I put a rope to my trunk, which was about the size of a carpenter's chest, and started to pull this from the baggage-car to the passenger-car. It was almost too much for my strength, but at last I got it in front of those men. I pulled off my coat, shoes, and hat, and laid them on the chest. Then he asked: 'What have you got, boy?' I said: 'Everything, sir, that I can spare that is for sale.' The passengers fairly jumped with laughter. Nicodemus paid me $27 for this last sale, and threw the whole out of the door in the rear of the car. These men were from the South, and I have always retained a soft spot in my heart for a Southern gentleman."
While Edison was a newsboy on the train a request came to him one day to go to the office of E. B. Ward & Company, at that time the largest owners of steamboats on the Great Lakes. The captain of their largest boat had died suddenly, and they wanted a message taken to another captain who lived about fourteen miles from Ridgeway station on the railroad. This captain had retired, taken up some lumber land, and had cleared part of it. Edison was offered $15 by Mr. Ward to go and fetch him, but as it was a wild country and would be dark, Edison stood out for $25, so that he could get the companionship of another lad. The terms were agreed to. Edison arrived at Ridgeway at 8.30 P.M., when it was raining and as dark as ink. Getting another boy with difficulty to volunteer, he launched out on his errand in the pitch-black night. The two boys carried lanterns, but the road was a rough path through dense forest. The country was wild, and it was a usual occurrence to see deer, bear, and coon skins nailed up on the sides of houses to dry. Edison had read about bears, but couldn't remember whether they were day or night prowlers. The farther they went the more apprehensive they became, and every stump in the ravished forest looked like a bear. The other lad proposed seeking safety up a tree, but Edison demurred on the plea that bears could climb, and that the message must be delivered that night to enable the captain to catch the morning train. First one lantern went out, then the other. "We leaned up against a tree and cried. I thought if I ever got out of that scrape alive I would know more about the habits of animals and everything else, and be prepared for all kinds of mischance when I undertook an enterprise. However, the intense darkness dilated the pupils of our eyes so as to make them very sensitive, and we could just see at times the outlines of the road. Finally, just as a faint gleam of daylight arrived, we entered the captain's yard and delivered the message. In my whole life I never spent such a night of horror as this, but I got a good lesson."
An amusing incident of this period is told by Edison. "When I was a boy," he says, "the Prince of Wales, the late King Edward, came to Canada (1860). Great preparations were made at Sarnia, the Canadian town opposite Port Huron. About every boy, including myself, went over to see the affair. The town was draped in flags most profusely, and carpets were laid on the cross-walks for the prince to walk on. There were arches, etc. A stand was built raised above the general level, where the prince was to be received by the mayor. Seeing all these preparations, my idea of a prince was very high; but when he did arrive I mistook the Duke of Newcastle for him, the duke being a fine-looking man. I soon saw that I was mistaken: that the prince was a young stripling, and did not meet expectations. Several of us expressed our belief that a prince wasn't much, after all, and said that we were thoroughly disappointed. For this one boy was whipped. Soon the Canuck boys attacked the Yankee boys, and we were all badly licked. I, myself, got a black eye. That has always prejudiced me against that kind of ceremonial and folly." It is certainly interesting to note that in later years the prince for whom Edison endured the ignominy of a black eye made generous compensation in a graceful letter accompanying the gold Albert Medal awarded by the Royal Society of Arts.
Another incident of the period is as follows: "After selling papers in Port Huron, which was often not reached until about 9.30 at night, I seldom got home before 11.00 or 11.30. About half-way home from the station and the town, and within twenty-five feet of the road in a dense wood, was a soldiers' graveyard where three hundred soldiers were buried, due to a cholera epidemic which took place at Fort Gratiot, near by, many years previously. At first we used to shut our eyes and run the horse past this graveyard, and if the horse stepped on a twig my heart would give a violent movement, and it is a wonder that I haven't some valvular disease of that organ. But soon this running of the horse became monotonous, and after a while all fears of graveyards absolutely disappeared from my system. I was in the condition of Sam Houston, the pioneer and founder of Texas, who, it was said, knew no fear. Houston lived some distance from the town and generally went home late at night, having to pass through a dark cypress swamp over a corduroy road. One night, to test his alleged fearlessness, a man stationed himself behind a tree and enveloped himself in a sheet. He confronted Houston suddenly, and Sam stopped and said: 'If you are a man, you can't hurt me. If you are a ghost, you don't want to hurt me. And if you are the devil, come home with me; I married your sister!'"
It is not to be inferred, however, from some of the preceding statements that the boy was of an exclusively studious bent of mind. He had then, as now, the keen enjoyment of a joke, and no particular aversion to the practical form. An incident of the time is in point. "After the breaking out of the war there was a regiment of volunteer soldiers quartered at Fort Gratiot, the reservation extending to the boundary line of our house. Nearly every night we would hear a call, such as 'Corporal of the Guard, No. 1.' This would be repeated from sentry to sentry until it reached the barracks, when Corporal of the Guard, No. 1, would come and see what was wanted. I and the little Dutch boy, after returning from the town after selling our papers, thought we would take a hand at military affairs. So one night, when it was very dark, I shouted for Corporal of the Guard, No. 1. The second sentry, thinking it was the terminal sentry who shouted, repeated it to the third, and so on. This brought the corporal along the half mile, only to find that he was fooled. We tried him three nights; but the third night they were watching, and caught the little Dutch boy, took him to the lock-up at the fort, and shut him up. They chased me to the house. I rushed for the cellar. In one small apartment there were two barrels of potatoes and a third one nearly empty. I poured these remnants into the other barrels, sat down, and pulled the barrel over my head, bottom up. The soldiers had awakened my father, and they were searching for me with candles and lanterns. The corporal was absolutely certain I came into the cellar, and couldn't see how I could have gotten out, and wanted to know from my father if there was no secret hiding-place. On assurance of my father, who said that there was not, he said it was most extraordinary. I was glad when they left, as I was cramped, and the potatoes were rotten that had been in the barrel and violently offensive. The next morning I was found in bed, and received a good switching on the legs from my father, the first and only one I ever received from him, although my mother kept a switch behind the old Seth Thomas clock that had the bark worn off. My mother's ideas and mine differed at times, especially when I got experimenting and mussed up things. The Dutch boy was released next morning."
THE YOUNG TELEGRAPH OPERATOR
"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.