Metuchen Edison History Features

Recollections of

Boyhood Days

In Old Metuchen


David Trumbull Marshall

Published by The Case Publishing Co., Flushing NY 1930

(Second Edition)- (c) 1930


Edison Incandescent Light.

The story of the invention of the Edison Electric Light has been told many times.

On October 21, 1879, Mr. Edison produced an electric lamp which burned two days.

In December, 1879, a public demonstration of the light was made. About sixty lamps were installed in the fields and roads about the Laboratory at Menlo Park.

These electric lamps were mounted on poles.

Some time later while my brother Will was working for Edison at Menlo Park a more extended test of the electric lamp was made.

A large number of lamp posts made of wood were planted at intervals over the whole hill surrounding the Laboratory.

These posts, about eight feet high, were surmounted by a glass globe as large as a good-sized fish globe, each having a wide neck.

The lamp was fastened to the top of the post and the globe inverted over the whole.

One evening my brother was walking along the Pennsylvania Railroad on his way from Metuchen to Menlo Park. He fell into conversation with an old tramp and as they came out of the cut and rounded the curve just before you get to Menlo Park the old tramp stopped and exclaimed, "What is that place. I have travelled this road for thirty years but I never saw that place before." There before them was the whole round hill on which Menlo Park is built dotted all over with brilliant lights.

There was snow on the ground and very few trees or houses to obstruct the view. The sight was beautiful and in those days wonderful beyond belief.

About this time they were having great trouble in New York City and other cities with overhead wires. There were forests of poles down town in New York. The firemen had the greatest difficulty in raising their ladders.

Mr. Edison decided from the first that the light wires had to go underground.

The wires for this first practical test of the electric light were put underground.

I remember seeing John Winegar of Metuchen, putting in lead-covered cables. A furrow was ploughed in the soil and the lead cable laid in this furrow.

Later Mr. Edison had to invent a whole system of underground wires and conduits.

Some of the first conduits were made of pine scantling cut about four inches by four inches and sixteen feet long. In this lumber two grooves were cut, the two slots sludged with tar, the wires laid therein and a board four inches by one inch nailed on top of the slots.

I remember seeing men in the yard outside the Machine Shop at Menlo laboriously winding copper wires with roller bandages and slushing the whole with asphalt.

Later the cables were threaded through iron pipes and then the melted asphalt mixture was forced into the pipes.

I used as a boy to watch the dynamos in the little dynamo room at the north end of the Edison Machine shop.

The dynamos were run from overhead shafting driven by the big Brown Engine in the shop.

Twenty years afterward I saw one of the same dynamos being used as a motor in the Lamp Works at Harrison when I was working there; to drive an Archimede's screw-pump for lifting the mercury to the upper level of the Sprengle mercury pumps for exhausting the air from the lamps.

For aught that I know the old motor may be running yet.

When I was a boy, being a boy, and consequently of no account, I was allowed to roam through the Laboratory at Menlo Park.

I was extraordinarily interested in what was going on.

Everything was new and strange.

I remember seeing the tall lean Mr. Lawson firing the furnaces for carbonizing the lamp filaments.

My impression is that he was using gasoline gas for producing the heat.

One day I wandered into the lower floor of the Laboratory.

I was in great bodily distress.

I walked up to a well-dressed young gentleman and asked him a very intimate question. He straightened himself up and in a very lordly manner he said to me, "Young man, do you know whom you are addressing?"

I have heard much of this young man since, for he proved to be none other than W. J. Hammer. I have been sore on him ever since.

That was about fifty years ago.

I remember going into the little blacksmith shop on the south side of the Laboratory inclosure and there finding a blacksmith at work whom I had known in Metuchen.

He was making something out of copper and told me that "it was a very particular thing to be done."

He was having an argument with his helper because he had stated to his helper that in order to soften copper one must plunge the red-hot copper into water. This was directly contrary to what this village blacksmith had learned in regard to steel.

I remember the small shed next the blacksmith shop in which there were a number of kerosene lamps burning, the flame turned up purposely so that the flame would smoke and deposit soot.

This carbon or lamp-black was to be used to make carbon buttons for the Edison telephone transmitter.

I remember that next to the table where my brother Bruyn sat working the local telephone ex- change, there worked a Mr. Kenny.

Mr. Kenny was working on an automatic telegraph machine.

By means of this machine one could write a letter in one's own handwriting and transmit the writing over many miles of wire. That was about 1880. When I went to work at the Edison Laboratory in Orange in 1888 Mr. Kenny had a little room all by himself into which no one but Mr. Edison was allowed to enter.

Mr. Kenny was still working on the autographic telegraph.

If I had stuck to the job Mr. Edison gave me when I went to the Laboratory in 1888 I should be like Mr. Kenny, still at work at it after these forty years, for the problem never was solved and never will be.

Mr. Edison wanted me to produce an insulation for electric wires which should be at once fireproof, waterproof, flexible and a good insulator. A combination of properties which is utterly impossible.

Others had worked on the problem before me and others, many others, have worked on it since.

I worked on that problem two years when I concluded that the thing was impossible and quit.

I used to test these samples of insulation in this way:

I coated about four feet of No. 14 copper with insulation.

Attached the two ends of the wire to the two terminals of a bank of resistance lamps and gradually cut out the resistance until the copper wire melted and arced.

Every last sample of insulation fell down under this test.

I remember the day that Alfred Moss and I discovered the rubbish heap of the Edison Laboratory at Menlo.

We thought we had struck a gold mine.

Pieces of insulated copper wire, pieces of glass tubing, pieces of brass and the thousand and one things that drop on the floor and are swept up and thrown out by an ignorant or careless sweeper.

Remember, we boys didn't have a cent of money. Everything in the way of electrical apparatus had to be made of junk.

To be always compelled to contrive things of scrap and junk is a great stimulus to a boy's inventive capacity, albeit it may not be favorable to the finished product.

At one time I contrived to get hold of one of the discarded glass globes which were used to cover the lamps on the newly-installed electric lamp posts.

I conceived the idea of making a friction electric machine of it.

I had the frame made and the crank for turning the globe.

The globe rested on the floor next to a curtain between the room where I was working and the next.

My father came along and accidentally upset the globe and broke it. He felt very badly for he would at any time give me anything he owned that I needed in my experiments.

I didn't say a word but put the machine away, for there was no replacing the glass globe so the thing had to be given up.

I inherited from my father an even disposition and even at that age had learned to submit with grace to the inevitable and make no useless complaints.

I did make a frictional electric machine once out of a two-gallon bottle. I made some Leyden jars and charged them.

I bamboozled our hound dog into coming into the house and discharged the Leyden jars into his body.

He let one yelp out of him, and scooted out the door.

I never was able to get that hound into the house after that.

I remember the little shed in which the glass blowing was done. As I had never seen glass blowing done before, the making of glass vacuum pumps and the innumerable glass contrivances used in connection with the lamp experiments were all very wonderful.

In the same little building my friend and school- mate, Ed. Rowland, worked. Ed. went to the Laboratory from my father's school and what he knew of draughting and making patent drawings he learned from the draughtsman employed by Mr. Edison.

Most of Mr. Edison's patent drawings for years afterward were made by Ed. and his signature, "E. C. Rowland, Witness," adorns the bottom of the sheets. Ed. afterward worked as a patent draughtsman, having an office of his own in New York.



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Lasted updated 6/8/99 by Jim Halpin.