Frank Lewis Dyer.

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Produced by Charles Keller and David Widger


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




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

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




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

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

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.

Online LibraryFrank Lewis DyerEdison, His Life and Inventions → online text (page 1 of 64)