Thomas Alva Edison
In Menlo Park, NJ

Edison in 1878







Published in New York by Harper Brothers, 1929



MILTON ADAMS was working in the office of the Franklin Telegraph Company in Boston when he received Edison's appeal from Port Huron, and with characteristic impetuosity at once made it his business to secure a position for his friend. There was no opening in the Franklin office, so Adams went over to the Western Union office, and asked the manager, Mr. George F. Milliken, if he did not want an operator who, like young Lochinvar, came out of the West. "What kind of copy does he make?" was the cautious response. "I passed Edison's letter through the window for his inspection. Milliken read it, and a look of surprise came over his countenance as he asked me if he could take it off the line like that. I said he certainly could, and that there was nobody who could stick him. Milliken said that if he was that kind of an operator I could send for him, and I wrote to Edison to come on, as I had a job for him in the main office of the Western Union." Meantime Edison had secured his pass over the Grand Trunk Railroad, and spent four days and nights on the journey, suffering extremes of cold and hunger. Franklin's arrival in Philadelphia finds its parallel in the very modest debut of Adams's friend in Boston.

It took only five minutes for Edison to get the "job," for Superintendent Milliken, a fine type of telegraph official, saw quickly through the superficialities, and realized that it was no ordinary young operator he was engaging. Edison himself tells the story of what happened. "The manager asked me when I was ready to go to work. `Now,' I replied I was then told to return at 5.30 P.M., and punctually at that hour I entered the main operating-room and was introduced to the night manager. The weather being cold, and being clothed poorly, my peculiar appearance caused much mirth, and, as I afterward learned, the night operators had consulted together how they might `put up a job on the jay from the woolly West.' I was given a pen and assigned to the New York No. 1 wire. After waiting an hour, I was told to come over to a special table and take a special report for the Boston Herald, the conspirators having arranged to have one of the fastest senders in New York send the despatch and `salt' the new man. I sat down unsuspiciously at the table, and the New York man started slowly. Soon he increased his speed, to which I easily adapted my pace. This put my rival on his mettle, and he put on his best powers, which, however, were soon reached. At this point I happened to look up, and saw the operators all looking over my shoulder, with their faces shining with fun and excitement. I knew then that they were trying to put up a job on me, but kept my own counsel. The New York man then commenced to slur over his words, running them together and sticking the signals; but I had been used to this style of telegraphy in taking report, and was not in the least discomfited. Finally, when I thought the fun had gone far enough, and having about completed the special, I quietly opened the key and remarked, telegraphically, to my New York friend: `Say, young man, change off and send with your other foot.' This broke the New York man all up, and he turned the job over to another man to finish."

Edison had a distaste for taking press report, due to the fact that it was steady, continuous work, and interfered with the studies and investigations that could be carried on in the intervals of ordinary commercial telegraphy. He was not lazy in any sense. While he had no very lively interest in the mere routine work of a telegraph office, he had the profoundest curiosity as to the underlying principles of electricity that made telegraphy possible, and he had an unflagging desire and belief in his own ability to improve the apparatus he handled daily. The whole intellectual atmosphere of Boston was favorable to the development of the brooding genius in this shy, awkward, studious youth, utterly indifferent to clothes and personal appearance, but ready to spend his last dollar on books and scientific paraphernalia. It is matter of record that he did once buy a new suit for thirty dollars in Boston, but the following Sunday, while experimenting with acids in his little workshop, the suit was spoiled. "That is what I get for putting so much money in a new suit," was the laconic remark of the youth, who was more than delighted to pick up a complete set of Faraday's works about the same time. Adams says that when Edison brought home these books at 4 A.M. he read steadily until breakfast-time, and then he remarked, enthusiastically: "Adams, I have got so much to do and life is so short, I am going to hustle." And thereupon he started on a run for breakfast. Edison himself says: "It was in Boston I bought Faraday's works. I think I must have tried about everything in those books. His explanations were simple. He used no mathematics. He was the Master Experimenter. I don't think there were many copies of Faraday's works sold in those days. The only people who did anything in electricity were the telegraphers and the opticians making simple school apparatus to demonstrate the principles." One of these firms was Palmer & Hall, whose catalogue of 1850 showed a miniature electric locomotive made by Mr. Thomas Hall, and exhibited in operation the following year at the Charitable Mechanics' Fair in Boston. In 1852 Mr. Hall made for a Dr. A. L. Henderson, of Buffalo, New York, a model line of railroad with electric-motor engine, telegraph line, and electric railroad signals, together with a figure operating the signals at each end of the line automatically. This was in reality the first example of railroad trains moved by telegraph signals, a practice now so common and universal as to attract no comment. To show how little some fundamental methods can change in fifty years, it may be noted that Hall conveyed the current to his tiny car through forty feet of rail, using the rail as conductor, just as Edison did more than thirty years later in his historic experiments for Villard at Menlo Park; and just as a large pro- portion of American trolley systems do at this present moment.

It was among such practical, investigating folk as these that Edison was very much at home. Another notable man of this stamp, with whom Edison was thrown in contact, was the late Mr. Charles Williams, who, beginning his career in the electrical field in the forties, was at the height of activity as a maker of apparatus when Edison arrived in the city; and who afterward, as an associate of Alexander Graham Bell, enjoyed the distinction of being the first manufacturer in the world of telephones. At his Court Street workshop Edison was a frequent visitor. Telegraph repairs and experiments were going on constantly, especially on the early fire-alarm telegraphs[1] of Farmer and Gamewell, and with the aid of one of the men there--probably George Anders--Edison worked out into an operative model his first invention, a vote- recorder, the first Edison patent, for which papers were executed on October 11, 1868, and which was taken out June 1, 1869, No. 90,646. The purpose of this particular device was to permit a vote in the National House of Representatives to be taken in a minute or so, complete lists being furnished of all members voting on the two sides of any question Mr. Edison, in recalling the circumstances, says: "Roberts was the telegraph operator who was the financial backer to the extent of $100. The invention when completed was taken to Washington. I think it was exhibited before a committee that had something to do with the Capitol. The chairman of the committee, after seeing how quickly and perfectly it worked, said: `Young man, if there is any invention on earth that we don't want down here, it is this. One of the greatest weapons in the hands of a minority to prevent bad legislation is filibustering on votes, and this instrument would prevent it.' I saw the truth of this, because as press operator I had taken miles of Congressional proceedings, and to this day an enormous amount of time is wasted during each session of the House in foolishly calling the members' names and recording and then adding their votes, when the whole operation could be done in almost a moment by merely pressing a particular button at each desk. For filibustering purposes, however, the present methods are most admirable." Edison determined from that time forth to devote his inventive faculties only to things for which there was a real, genuine demand, something that subserved the actual necessities of humanity. This first patent was taken out for him by the late Hon. Carroll D. Wright, afterward U. S. Commissioner of Labor, and a well-known publicist, then practicing patent law in Boston. He describes Edison as uncouth in manner, a chewer rather than a smoker of tobacco, but full of intelligence and ideas.

[1] The general scheme of a fire-alarm telegraph system embodies a central office to which notice can be sent from any number of signal boxes of the outbreak of a fire in the district covered by the box, the central office in turn calling out the nearest fire engines, and warning the fire department in general of the occurrence. Such fire alarms can be exchanged automatically, or by operators, and are sometimes associated with a large fire-alarm bell or whistle. Some boxes can be operated by the passing public; others need special keys. The box mechanism is usually of the ratchet, step-by-step movement, familiar in district messenger call-boxes.

Edison's curiously practical, though imaginative, mind demanded realities to work upon, things that belong to "human nature's daily food," and he soon harked back to telegraphy, a domain in which he was destined to succeed, and over which he was to reign supreme as an inventor. He did not, however, neglect chemistry, but indulged his tastes in that direction freely, although we have no record that this work was anything more, at that time, than the carrying out of experiments outlined in the books. The foundations were being laid for the remarkable chemical knowledge that later on grappled successfully with so many knotty problems in the realm of chemistry; notably with the incandescent lamp and the storage battery. Of one incident in his chemical experiments he tells the following story: "I had read in a scientific paper the method of making nitroglycerine, and was so fired by the wonderful properties it was said to possess, that I determined to make some of the compound. We tested what we considered a very small quantity, but this produced such terrible and unexpected results that we became alarmed, the fact dawning upon us that we had a very large white elephant in our possession. At 6 A.M. I put the explosive into a sarsaparilla bottle, tied a string to it, wrapped it in a paper, and gently let it down into the sewer, corner of State and Washington Streets." The associate in this was a man whom he had found endeavoring to make electrical apparatus for sleight-of-hand performances.

In the Boston telegraph office at that time, as perhaps at others, there were operators studying to en- ter college; possibly some were already in attendance at Harvard University. This condition was not unusual at one time; the first electrical engineer graduated from Columbia University, New York, followed up his studies while a night operator, and came out brilliantly at the head of his class. Edison says of these scholars that they paraded their knowledge rather freely, and that it was his delight to go to the second-hand book stores on Cornhill and study up questions which he could spring upon them when he got an occasion. With those engaged on night duty he got midnight lunch from an old Irishman called "the Cake Man," who appeared regularly with his wares at 12 midnight. "The office was on the ground floor, and had been a restaurant previous to its occupation by the Western Union Telegraph Company. It was literally loaded with cockroaches, which lived between the wall and the board running around the room at the floor, and which came after the lunch. These were such a bother on my table that I pasted two strips of tinfoil on the wall at my desk, connecting one piece to the positive pole of the big battery supplying current to the wires and the negative pole to the other strip. The cockroaches moving up on the wall would pass over the strips. The moment they got their legs across both strips there was a flash of light and the cockroaches went into gas. This automatic electrocuting device attracted so much attention, and got half a column in an evening paper, that the manager made me stop it." The reader will remember that a similar plan of campaign against rats was carried out by Edison while in the West.

About this time Edison had a narrow escape from injury that might easily have shortened his career, and he seems to have provoked the trouble more or less innocently by using a little elementary chemistry. "After being in Boston several months," he says, "working New York wire No. 1, I was requested to work the press wire, called the `milk route,' as there were so many towns on it taking press simultaneously. New York office had reported great delays on the wire, due to operators constantly interrupting, or `breaking,' as it was called, to have words repeated which they had failed to get; and New York claimed that Boston was one of the worst offenders. It was a rather hard position for me, for if I took the report without breaking, it would prove the previous Boston operator incompetent. The results made the operator have some hard feelings against me. He was put back on the wire, and did much better after that. It seems that the office boy was down on this man. One night he asked me if I could tell him how to fix a key so that it would not `break,' even if the circuit-breaker was open, and also so that it could not be easily detected. I told him to jab a penful of ink on the platinum points, as there was sugar enough to make it sufficiently thick to hold up when the operator tried to break--the current still going through the ink so that he could not break.

"The next night about 1 A.M. this operator, on the press wire, while I was standing near a House printer studying it, pulled out a glass insulator, then used upside down as a substitute for an ink-bottle, and threw it with great violence at me, just missing my head. It would certainly have killed me if it had not missed. The cause of the trouble was that this operator was doing the best he could not to break, but being compelled to, opened his key and found he couldn't. The press matter came right along, and he could not stop it. The office boy had put the ink in a few minutes before, when the operator had turned his head during a lull. He blamed me instinctively as the cause of the trouble. Later on we became good friends. He took his meals at the same emaciator that I did. His main object in life seemed to be acquiring the art of throwing up wash-pitchers and catching them without breaking them. About one-third of his salary was used up in paying for pitchers."

One day a request reached the Western Union Telegraph office in Boston, from the principal of a select school for young ladies, to the effect that she would like some one to be sent up to the school to exhibit and describe the Morse telegraph to her "children." There has always been a warm interest in Boston in the life and work of Morse, who was born there, at Charlestown, barely a mile from the birthplace of Franklin, and this request for a little lecture on Morse's telegraph was quite natural. Edison, who was always ready to earn some extra money for his experiments, and was already known as the best- informed operator in the office, accepted the invitation. What happened is described by Adams as follows: "We gathered up a couple of sounders, a battery, and sonic wire, and at the appointed time called on her to do the stunt. Her school-room was about twenty by twenty feet, not including a small platform. We rigged up the line between the two ends of the room, Edison taking the stage while I was at the other end of the room. All being in readiness, the principal was told to bring in her children. The door opened and in came about twenty young ladies elegantly gowned, not one of whom was under seventeen. When Edison saw them I thought he would faint. He called me on the line and asked me to come to the stage and explain the mysteries of the Morse system. I replied that I thought he was in the right place, and told him to get busy with his talk on dots and dashes. Always modest, Edison was so overcome he could hardly speak, but he managed to say, finally, that as his friend Mr. Adams was better equipped with cheek than he was, we would change places, and he would do the demonstrating while I explained the whole thing. This caused the bevy to turn to see where the lecturer was. I went on the stage, said something, and we did some telegraphing over the line. I guess it was satisfactory; we got the money, which was the main point to us." Edison tells the story in a similar manner, but insists that it was he who saved the situation. "I managed to say that I would work the apparatus, and Mr. Adams would make the explanations. Adams was so embarrassed that he fell over an ottoman. The girls tittered, and this increased his embarrassment until he couldn't say a word. The situation was so desperate that for a reason I never could explain I started in myself and talked and explained better than I ever did before or since. I can talk to two or three persons; but when there are more they radiate some unknown form of influence which paralyzes my vocal cords. However, I got out of this scrape, and many times afterward when I chanced with other operators to meet some of the young ladies on their way home from school, they would smile and nod, much to the mystification of the operators, who were ignorant of this episode."

Another amusing story of this period of impecuniosity and financial strain is told thus by Edison: "My friend Adams was working in the Franklin Telegraph Company, which competed with the Western Union. Adams was laid off, and as his financial resources had reached absolute zero centigrade, I undertook to let him sleep in my hall bedroom. I generally had hall bedrooms, because they were cheap and I needed money to buy apparatus. I also had the pleasure of his genial company at the boarding-house about a mile distant, but at the sacrifice of some apparatus. One morning, as we were hastening to breakfast, we came into Tremont Row, and saw a large crowd in front of two small `gents' furnishing goods stores. We stopped to ascertain the cause of the excitement. One store put up a paper sign in the display window which said: `Three-hundred pairs of stockings received this day, five cents a pair--no connection with the store next door.' Presently the other store put up a sign stating they had received three hundred pairs, price three cents per pair, and stated that they had no connection with the store next door. Nobody went in. The crowd kept increasing. Finally, when the price had reached three pairs for one cent, Adams said to me: `I can't stand this any longer; give me a cent.' I gave him a nickel, and he elbowed his way in; and throwing the money on the counter, the store being filled with women clerks, he said: `Give me three pairs.' The crowd was breathless, and the girl took down a box and drew out three pairs of baby socks. `Oh!' said Adams, `I want men's size.' `Well, sir, we do not permit one to pick sizes for that amount of money.' And the crowd roared; and this broke up the sales."

It has generally been supposed that Edison did not take up work on the stock ticker until after his arrival a little later in New York; but he says: "After the vote-recorder I invented a stock ticker, and started a ticker service in Boston; had thirty or forty subscribers, and operated from a room over the Gold Exchange. This was about a year after Callahan started in New York." To say the least, this evidenced great ability and enterprise on the part of the youth. The dealings in gold during the Civil War and after its close had brought gold indicators into use, and these had soon been followed by "stock tickers," the first of which was introduced in New York in 1867. The success of this new but still primitively crude class of apparatus was immediate. Four manufacturers were soon busy trying to keep pace with the demands for it from brokers; and the Gold & Stock Telegraph Company formed to exploit the system soon increased its capital from $200,000 to $300,000, paying 12 per cent. dividends on the latter amount. Within its first year the capital was again increased to $1,000,000, and dividends of 10 per cent. were paid easily on that sum also. It is needless to say that such facts became quickly known among the operators, from whose ranks, of course, the new employees were enlisted; and it was a common ambition among the more ingenious to produce a new ticker. From the beginning, each phase of electrical development--indeed, each step in mechanics--has been accompanied by the well-known phenomenon of invention; namely, the attempt of the many to perfect and refine and even re-invent where one or two daring spirits have led the way. The figures of capitalization and profit just mentioned were relatively much larger in the sixties than they are to-day; and to impressionable young operators they spelled illimitable wealth. Edison was, how ever, about the only one in Boston of whom history makes record as achieving any tangible result in this new art; and he soon longed for the larger telegraphic opportunity of New York. His friend, Milt Adams, went West with quenchless zest for that kind of roving life and aimless adventure of which the serious minded Edison had already had more than enough. Realizing that to New York he must look for further support in his efforts, Edison, deep in debt for his embryonic inventions, but with high hope and courage, now made the next momentous step in his career. He was far riper in experience and practice of his art than any other telegrapher of his age, and had acquired, moreover, no little knowledge of the practical business of life. Note has been made above of his invention of a stock ticker in Boston, and of his establishing a stock-quotation circuit. This was by no means all, and as a fitting close to this chapter he may be quoted as to some other work and its perils in experimentation: "I also engaged in putting up private lines, upon which I used an alphabetical dial instrument for telegraphing between business establishments, a forerunner of modern telephony. This instrument was very simple and practical, and any one could work it after a few minutes' explanation. I had these instruments made at Mr. Hamblet's, who had a little shop where he was engaged in experimenting with electric clocks. Mr. Hamblet was the father and introducer in after years of the Western Union Telegraph system of time distribution. My laboratory was the headquarters for the men, and also of tools and supplies for those private lines. They were put up cheaply, as I used the roofs of houses, just as the Western Union did. It never occurred to me to ask permission from the owners; all we did was to go to the store, etc., say we were telegraph men, and wanted to go up to the wires on the roof; and permission was always granted.

"In this laboratory I had a large induction coil which I had borrowed to make some experiments with. One day I got hold of both electrodes of the coil, and it clinched my hand on them so that I couldn't let go. The battery was on a shelf. The only way I could get free was to back off and pull the coil, so that the battery wires would pull the cells off the shelf and thus break the circuit. I shut my eyes and pulled, but the nitric acid splashed all over my face and ran down my back. I rushed to a sink, which was only half big enough, and got in as well as I could and wiggled around for several minutes to permit the water to dilute the acid and stop the pain. My face and back were streaked with yellow; the skin was thoroughly oxidized. I did not go on the street by daylight for two weeks, as the appearance of my face was dreadful. The skin, however, peeled off, and new skin replaced it without any damage."


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Last updated by Jim Halpin on 9/17/99.