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THOMAS ALVA EDISON




THE BOY'S
LIFE OF EDISON



BY
WILLIAM H. MEADOWCROFT

OF THE EDISON LABORATORY. AUTHOR OF
ABC OF ELECTRICITY" "ABC OF THE X-RAYS"

WITH AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOTES

BY MR. EDISON



ILLUSTRATED





HARPER fcf BROTHERS PUBLISHERS
NEW YORK AND LONDON




COPYRIGHT, 1911, BY HARPER ft BROTHERS

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

PUBLISHED NOVEMBER. 1811



This hook, designed for toys
and girls, is published with
my cons en*




ILLUSTRATIONS

THOMAS ALVA EDISON 19 1 1 Frontispiece

EDISON WHEN ABOUT FOURTEEN OR FIFTEEN

YEARS OF AGE Facing p. 34

"TROUBLE ON THE 'QUAD'" ** 148

MR. EDISON AT THE CLOSE OF FIVE DAYS AND
NIGHTS OF CONTINUED WORK IN PERFECTING
THE EARLY WAX-CYLINDER TYPE OF PHONO-
GRAPH JUNE 1 6, l888 " 1 80

THE EDISON ELECTRIC RAILWAY AT MENLO PARK

l88o ! " 232

EDISON AT THE OFFICE DOOR OF THE ORE-CON-
CENTRATING PLANT AT EDISON, NEW JERSEY,

IN THE NINETIES " 246

EDISON AT THE DRAUGHTING-BOARD 274

EDISON AT WORK IN ONE OF THE CHEMICAL ROOMS

AT THE ORANGE LABORATORY " I2



CONTENTS

CHAP. PAGB

INTRODUCTION ix

I. THE EARLY DAYS OP ELECTRICITY .... i

II. EDISON'S FAMILY 6

III. EDISON'S EARLY BOYHOOD 19

IV. THE YOUNG NEWSBOY 27

V. A FEW STORIES OP EDISON'S NEWSBOY DAYS 42

VI. THE YOUNG TELEGRAPH OPERATOR ... 55

VII. ADVENTURES OP A TELEGRAPH OPERATOR . 66

VIII. WORK AND INVENTION IN BOSTON .... 102

IX. FROM POVERTY TO INDEPENDENCE .... 119

X. A BUSY YOUNG INVENTOR 137

XI. THE TELEPHONE, MOTOGRAPH, AND MICRO-

PHONE 159

XII. MAKING A MACHINE TALK 175

XIII. A NEW LIGHT IN THE WORLD 183

XIV. MENLO PARK 197

XV. BEGINNING THE ELECTRIC LIGHT BUSINESS . 208

XVI. THE FIRST EDISON CENTRAL STATION . . . 219

XVII. EDISON'S ELECTRIC RAILWAY 229

XVIII. GRINDING MOUNTAINS TO DUST , 239

XIX. EDISON MAKES PORTLAND CEMENT .... 253

XX. MOTION-PICTURES *. . . 264

XXI. EDISON INVENTS A NEW STORAGE BATTERY. 274

XXII. EDISON'S MISCELLANEOUS INVENTIONS . . . 284

XXIII. EDISON'S METHOD IN INVENTING .... 294

XXIV. EDISON'S LABORATORY AT ORANGE .... 306

XXV. EDISON HIMSELF 3 l8

INDEX 3 2 7



INTRODUCTION

THIS is the story of a great inventor, the
most conspicuous figure of the age of
electricity.

The story is largely autobiography, for,
through the author's association with Mr.
Edison, it has been possible often to obtain
his own narrative of his life. For nearly
thirty-one years the author has had the
privilege of a connection with Mr. Edison and
the Edison companies, and at present he is
acting as Mr. Edison's assistant. Every page
of the book has been read by Mr. Edison him-
self, and it is published with his approval as
the authoritative story of his life to the
present time.

It is probably as a worker of wonders, an
interpreter of the secrets of Nature, an actual
wizard of science, that Edison fascinates the
imagination of almost every boy. In this pic-

ix



INTRODUCTION

ture of the actual facts of the inventor's life
the reader will find that while Edison is just as
great as imagined, yet this greatness has not
been reached by chance, but honestly earned
by the hardest kind of hard work and the most
intense and earnest application. The wonder-
ful things that he has accomplished have been
the things that he purposely set out to do, and
are not the result of some happy thought, or
blind luck, or chance.

Mr. Edison is still in the enjoyment of life,
and still hard at work. There is no telling
what other inventions he may yet make to
benefit the world, but if he never added any-
thing to what he has already done, his life and
achievements afford the telling of one of the
most remarkable stories in the history of the
world.

The author has had the honor and pleasure
of assisting in the preparation of a large and
comprehensive biography entitled, Edison:
His Life and Inventions, by Frank L. Dyer
and T. Commerford Martin, published by the
publishers of the present volume. He grate-
fully acknowledges the fact that certain fea-
tures of this book have been adapted from



INTRODUCTION

the pages of that elaborate biography. For
the permission to do this he tenders his thanks
to his friends Frank L. Dyer and T. Commer-
ford Martin.

WILLIAM H. MEADOWCROFT.

October 12, 1911.



THE BOY'S LIFE OF
EDISON



THE EARLY DAYS OF ELECTRICITY

HTHIS is the life story of the greatest of
* inventors in the field of electricity. It
is true that Thomas A. Edison has helped the
progress of the world by many other inven-
tions and discoveries quite outside of elec-
tricity, but it is in this field that ,he is best
known. Now, in this age of electricity, it
happens very fortunately that a close personal
association with Mr. Edison makes it possible
at last to tell younger readers the real story
of Mr. Edison's life, partly in his own words.
It has been a life full of surprises as well as of
great achievements, and one of the surprises
which we meet at the start is that, unlike
Mozart, who showed his musical genius in



t^tE OF EDISON

infancy, and unlike others devoted to one
thing from the outset, Edison took up elec-
tricity almost by accident.

Yet this is not so strange when we think how
little electricity there was to take up in
the middle of the nineteenth century. Elec-
tricity was not studied in the schools. It was
not a separate art or business. Men of science
had occupied themselves with electricity for
a long time, but they really did not know as
much about it as a bright boy in the upper
grammar grades to-day. Speaking in a very
general way, we may say that simple fric-
tional electricity 1 was an old story, that
Franklin had discovered the identity of elec-
tricity and lightning, and that Galvani had
discovered in 1790 and Volta had developed
in 1 80 1 the generating of electric currents
from batteries composed of zinc and copper
plates immersed in sulphuric acid.

But it was not until 1835, only twelve years
before Edison was born, that Samuel F. B.
Morse applied electrical currents to the send-
ing of an alphabet of dots and dashes by wire.

1 Made by rubbing certain objects together, like amber and
silk, the original discovery over two thousand years ago.



EARLY DAYS OF ELECTRICITY

Thus it was in the infancy of telegraphy that
Edison first saw the light.

Telegraph apparatus in those early days was
of a crude and cumbersome kind quite dif-
ferent from that which young students ex-
periment with at the present time. For in-
stance, the receiving magnets of the earliest
telegraphs, which performed the same office
as the modern sounders, weighed seventy- five
pounds instead of a few ounces.

It was a very difficult undertaking for
Morse to establish the telegraph after he had
invented it. It was such a new idea that the
public could not seem to understand its use
and possibilities. People would not believe
that it was possible to send messages regularly
over a long stretch of wire, and, even if it were
possible, that it would be of much use any-
way. It took him a long time to raise money
to put up a telegraph line between Baltimore
and Washington. Before this, he had offered
to sell the whole invention outright to the
United States Government for one hundred
thousand dollars ; but the Government did not
buy, as the invention was not thought to be
worth that much money.

3



THE BOY'S LIFE OF EDISON

In 1847, the year Edison was born, there
were only a few telegraph circuits in existence.
The farthest line to the west was in Pittsburg,
Pennsylvania. It was in this early telegraph
office that Andrew Carnegie was a messenger
boy. We could name a great many more
notable men in our country who began their
careers in a similar way, or as telegraph opera-
tors, in the early days of telegraphy, but space
forbids.

Within a few years after Edison was born
there came a great boom in telegraphy, and
new lines were put up all over the country.
Thus, by the time he had grown to boyhood
the telegraph was a well-established business,
and the first great electrical industry became
a pronounced success.

There were no other electrical industries at
this time, except electro-plating to a limited
extent. The chief reason of this was prob-
ably that the only means of obtaining electrical
current was by means of chemical batteries,
as mechanical generators had not been de-
veloped at that time.

While the principles of the dynamo-electric
machine had been disco verecL and few of



EARLY DAYS OF ELECTRICITY

these machines and small electric motors had
been made by scientists, in the middle of
the nineteenth century such machines were
little more than scientific toys, and not to be
compared with the generators of modern days.

Edison, therefore, was born at the very
beginning of "The Age of Electricity," which
can be said to have actually begun about 1840,
or soon after.

It is not too much to say that the many
important and practical inventions that he
has since contributed to the electrical arts
have had no small weight in causing the
present time to be known as "The Age of
Electricity."



II

EDISON'S FAMILY

TT AD there not been a family difference of

* 1 opinion about the War of Independence,
we might never have had Edison the great
inventor.

The first Edisons in this country came over
from Holland about the year 1730. They
were descendants of a family of millers on the
Zuyder Zee, and when they came to America
they first settled near Caldwell, New Jersey.

Later on they removed to some land along
the Passaic River. It is a curious and inter-
esting coincidence that a hundred and sixty
years later Mr. Edison established the home
he now occupies in the Orange Mountains,
which is in the same general neighborhood.

The family must have gotten along well in
the world, for we find the name of Thomas
Edison, as a bank official on Manhattan
Island, signed to Continental currency in



EDISON'S FAMILY

1778. This was Mr. Edison's great-grand-
father, who lived to be one hundred and four
years of age.

It will be seen from the date, 1778, that
this was during the time of the War of In-
dependence. This Thomas Edison was a
stanch patriot, who thoroughly believed in
American independence. He had a son named
John, who differed with his father in political
principles and favored a continuance of
British rule.

After the war was over John left the coun-
try, and, with many other Loyalists, emi-
grated to Nova Scotia and settled there.
While he still lived there a son was born to
him, at Digby, in 1804. This son was named
Samuel, who became the father of Thomas
Alva Edison, the inventor.

Seven years later John Edison, as a Loyal-
ist, became entitled under the laws of Canada
to a grant of six hundred acres of land, and
moved westward with his family to take pos-
session of it. He made his way through the
State of New York in wagons drawn by oxen
to the township of Bay field, in upper Canada,
on Lake Huron, and there settled down,

7



THE BOY'S LIFE OF EDISON

Some time afterward John Edison moved
from Bayfield to Vienna, Ontario, on the
northern bank of Lake Erie. As will be un-
derstood from the above, he was the grand-
father of Mr. Edison, who gives this recollec-
tion of the old man 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 a carriage from Milan,
Ohio, to a railroad, then to a port on Lake
Erie, thence by a canal-boat in a tow of
several miles 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
one hundred and tw T o 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-traveled 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

8



EDISON'S FAMILY

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 died at the age of one hundred and two.
Little is known of the early manhood of his
son Samuel (Thomas A. Edison's father),
until we find him keeping a hotel at Vienna,
and in 1828 marrying Miss Nancy Elliott, who
was a school-teacher there.

He was six feet in height,, and was possessed
of great strength and vigor. He took a
lively share in the troublous politics of the
period.

In 1837 the Canadian Rebellion broke out.
The cause of it was the same as that which
led to the War of Independence in America
taxation without representation.

Samuel Edison was so ardently interested
and of such strong character that he became
a captain in the insurgent forces that rallied
under the banners of Papineau and Mackenzie.

The rebellion failed, however, and those who
had taken part in it were severely dealt with.
Many of the insurgents went in exile to

9



THE BOY'S LIFE OF EDISON

Bermuda, but Samuel Edison preferred the
perils of a flight to the United States. He
therefore departed from Canada with his wife,
hurriedly and secretly.

There was a romantic and thrilling journey
of one hundred and eighty-two miles toward
safety. The country through which they
passed was then very wild and infested with
Indians of unfriendly disposition, and the
journey was made almost entirely without
food or sleep.

They arrived safely in the United States,
however, and, after a few years spent in
various towns along the shores of Lake Erie,
finally came to Milan, Ohio, in 1842. Here
they settled down and made their home, for
the place gave great promise of abundance of
business and prosperity.

In those days railroads were few and far
between, and there was none near Milan. The
great quantities of grain that were grown in
the surrounding country were sent to Eastern
ports by sailing vessels over the lake. Milan
was connected by a wide canal with the Huron
River, which emptied into Lake Erie. Thus
the town became a busy port, with grain ware-



EDISON'S FAMILY

houses and elevators, at which as many as
twenty sailing vessels were loaded in a single
day.

There also sprang up a brisk ship-building
industry, for which the abundant forests of
the region supplied the necessary lumber.

You will see, therefore, that Mr. Edison's
father gave evidence of shrewd judgment
when he decided to make his permanent home
at Milan, for there was plenty of occupation,\^
with every prospect of prosperity. He was
always ready to look on the brightest side of
everything, and could and did turn his hand
to many occupations.

He decided to make his chief business the
manufacture of shingles, for which there was a
large demand, both in the neighborhood and
along the shores of the lake. The shingles
were made mostly of Canadian wood, which
was imported for the purpose. They were
made entirely by hand and of first-class wood,
and so well did they last that a house in Milan
on which these shingles were put in 1844 was
still in excellent condition forty-two years
later. Samuel Edison did well in this busi-
ness and employed a number of men.



ii



THE BOY'S LIFE OF EDISON

In a few years after the family had made
their home at Milan, Thomas Alva Edison
was born there, on February n, 1847.

jjrlis mother was an attractive and highly
educated woman, and her influence upon his
disposition has been profound and lasting.
She was born in Chenango County, New York,
in 1 8 10, and was the daughter of the Rev.
John Elliott, a Baptist minister, and descend-
ant of an old Revolutionary soldier, Capt.
Ebenezer Elliott, of Scotch descent.

The Elliott family was evidently one of
considerable culture and deep religious feel-
ing, for two of Mrs. Edison's uncles and two
brothers were also in the Baptist ministry.
As a young woman she became a teacher in
the public high school at Vienna, Ontario,
and thus met her husband, who was residing
there.

The Edison family consisted of three chil-
dren, two boys and a girl. Besides Thomas
Alva, there was an elder brother, William Pitt,
and a sister named Tannie. Both brother and
sister had considerable ability, although in
different lines. "fWilliam Pitt Edison was
clever with his pencil, and there was at one

12



EDISON'S FAMILY

time an idea of having him become an art
student; but evidently the notion was not
carried out, for later in life he was manager of
the local street-railway lines at Port Huron,
Michigan, in which he was heavily interested.

This talent for sketching seems to run in
the family, for Thomas A. Edison's first im-
pulse in discussing any mechanical question is
to take up the nearest piece of paper and
make drawings. Scarcely a day passes that
this does not happen. His immense num-
ber of note-books contain thousands of such
sketches.

His sister, who in later life became Mrs.
Tannie Edison Bailey, had, on the other hand/
a great deal of literary ability, and spent much
qf her time in writing. X-

<VA* As a child the great inventor was -not at all
strong, and was of fragile appearance: His
head was well shaped but very large, and it is
said that local doctors feared he might have
brain trouble.

On account of his supposed delicacy, he was
not allowed to go to school at as early an age as
is usual. And when he did go, it was not for a
long time. He was usually at the foot of his

13



THE BOY'S LIFE OF EDISON

class, and the teacher had spoken of the boy
to a school inspector as being " addled."

Perhaps the reader can imagine the indig-
nation of his mother on hearing of this teach-
er's report. She had watched and studied
heir boy closely, and knew that he had a mind
/unusually receptive and mental powers far
v beyond those of other children. So she re-
solved to take him out of school arid educate
him herself.

It was fortunate that Mr. Edison had a
mother who was not only loving, observing,
and wise, but at the same time well informed
and ambitious. From her experience as a
teacher, she was able to give him an education
better than could be had in the local schools
of that day.

Under her care the boy formed studious
habits and a taste for good literature that
have lasted to this day. He is a great reader,
and what has once been read by him is never
forgotten if it is in any way useful.

When Edison was a child he was deeply
interested in the busy scenes of the canal and
grain warehouses, and particularly in the ship-
building yards.

14



EDISON'S FAMILY

He asked so many questions that he fairly
tired out his father, although the older man
had no small ability. It has been reported
that other members of the family regarded
the boy as being mentally unbalanced and
likely to be a lifelong care to his parents.

Even while he was quite a young child his
mechanical tendencies showed themselves in
his fondness for building little plank road^x"
from the pieces of wood thrown out by the
ship-building yards and the sawmills. One
day he was found in the village square labori-
ously copying the signs of the stores.!

To this day Mr. Edison is not inclined to
accept a statement unless he can prove it for
himself by experiment. Once, when he was
about six years old, he watched a goose sitting
on her eggs and saw them hatch. 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
and hen eggs he had collected, trying to hatch
them out.

His remarkable memory was noticeable'
even when he was a child, for before he was
'five years old he had learned all the songs of
2 15



THE BOY'S LIFE OF EDISON

the lumber gangs and of the canal men. Even
now his recollection goes back to 1850, when,
as a child three or four years old, he saw
camped in front of his home six covered
wagons, " prairie schooners/' and witnessed
their departure for California, where gold had
just been discovered.

Another of his recollections of childhood is
of a sadder nature. He went off one day with
another boy to bathe in the creek. Soon after
they entered the water the other boy dis-
appeared. Young Edison waited around for
about half an hour, and then, as it was grow-
ing dark, went home, puzzled and lonely, but
said nothing about the matter. 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 com-
panion with whom he had last been seen.
Edison told all the circumstances with a
painful sense of being in some way guilty.
The creek was at once dragged, and then the
body was recovered.

Edison himself had more than one narrow
escape. Of course, he fell into the canal and
was nearly drowned few boys in Milan worth

16



EDISON'S FAMILY

their salt omitted that performance. On an-
other occasion he fell into a pile of wheat in a
grain elevator and was almost smothered.
Holding the end of a skate-strap, that another
lad might cut it with an ax, he lost the top of
a finger. Fire also had its peril. He built
a fire in a barn, but the flames spread so
rapidly that, although he escaped himself, the
barn was wholly destroyed. He was publicly
whipped in the village square as a warning to
other youths. Equally well remembered is a
dangerous encounter with a ram which at-
tacked him while he was busily engaged dig-
ging out a bumblebee's nest near an orchard
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.

Meanwhile railroad building had been going
on rapidly, and the new Columbus, Sandusky
& Hocking Railroad had reached Milan and
quickly deprived it of its flourishing grain
trade. The town, formerly so bustling and
busy, no longer offered to so active a man as
Mr. Edison's father the opportunity of cpn-

?7



THE BOY'S LIFE OF EDISON

ducting a prosperous business, so he decided
to move away, \^e was well-to-do, but he
determined to do better elsewhere. In 1854
he and his family removed to Port Huron,
Michigan, where they occupied a large Colonial
house standing in the middle of an old Govern-
ment fort reservation of ten acres, overlooking
the St. Clair River just after it leaves Lake
Huron.

The old house at Milan where Mr. Edison
was born is still in existence, and is occupied
at this time (1911) by Mr. S. O. Edison, a
half-brother of Edison's father, and a man of
much ability.

This birthplace of Edison still remains the
plain, substantial brick house it was originally,
one-storied, with rooms finished on the attic
floor.



Ill

EDISON'S EARLY BOYHOOD

IT was when he was about seven years old
* that Edison's parents moved to Port Huron,
Michigan, and it was there, a few years later,
that he began his active life by becoming a
newsboy.

With his mother he found study easy and
pleasant. The quality of the education she
gave him may be judged from the fact that
before he was twelve years old he had studied
the usual rudiments and had read, with his
mother's help, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the
Roman Empire, Hume's History of England,
Sears's History of the World, Burton's Anatomy
of Melancholy, and the Dictionary of Sciences.

They even tried to struggle through New-
ton's Principia, but the mathematics were too
much for both teacher and student. To this
day Edison has little personal use for arith-
metic beyond that which is called "mental."

19



THE BOY'S LIFE OF EDISON

He said to a friend, "I can always hire some
mathematicians, bub they can't hire me."

His father always encouraged his literary
tastes, and paid him a small sum for each
book which he mastered. Although there is
no fiction in the list, Edison has all his life
enjoyed it, particularly the works of such
writers as Victor Hugo. Indeed, later on,
when he became a telegraph operator, he was
nicknamed by his associates "Victor Hugo
Edison" possibly because of his great ad-
miration for that writer.

When he was about eleven years old he
became greatly interested in chemistry. He
got a copy of Parker's School Philosophy, an
elementary book on physics, and tried almost
every experiment in it. He also experi-
mented on his own account. It is said that
he once persuaded a boy employed by the
family to swallow a large quantity of Seidlitz


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