Wm. H. (William Henry) Meadowcroft.

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powders in the belief that the gases generated
would enable him to fly. The awful agonies
of the victim attracted attention, and Edi-
son's mother marked her displeasure by an
application of the switch kept behind the old
Seth Thomas "grandfather's clock."



It was as early as this that young Alva, or
" Al," as he was called, displayed a passion for
chemistry, which has never left him. He
used the cellar of the house for his ex-
periments and collected there no fewer than
two hundred bottles from various places.
They contained the chemicals with which he
was constantly experimenting, and were all
marked " Poison," so that no one else would
disturb them.

He soon became familiar with all the chemi-
cals to be had at the local drug stores, for he
did not believe the statements made in his
books until he had tested them for himself.

Edison used such a large part of his moth-
er's cellar for this, his first laboratory, that,
becoming tired of the "mess," she once or-
dered him to clear out everything. The boy
was so much distressed at this that she re-
lented, but insisted that he must keep things
under lock and key when he was not there.
L Most 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 at this time
was a Dutch boy, much older than himself,



named Michael Oates, who did chores around
the house. It was Michael upon whom the
Seidlitz powder experiment was tried. J

As Edison got deeper into his chemical
studies his limited pocket-money disappeared
rapidly. He was being educated by his
mother, and, therefore, not attending a regular
school, and he had read all the books within
reach. So he thought the matter out and
decided that if he became a train newsboy he
could earn all the money he wanted for his
experiments and also get fresh reading from
papers and magazines. Besides, if he could get
permission to go on the train he had in mind,
he would have some leisure hours in Detroit
and would be able to spend them at the public
library free of charge. His parents objected,
particularly his mother, but finally he ob-
tained their consent.

^flt has been thought by many people that
his" family was poor, and that it was on account
of their poverty that young Edison came to
sell newspapers on the train. This is not
true, for his father was a prosperous dealer in
grain and feed, and was also actively inter-
ested in the lumber industry and other things.



While he was not rich, he made money in his
business, and, having a well- stocked farm arid
a large orchard besides, was in comfortable
circumstances. Socially the family stood
high in the town, where at the time many
well-to-do people resided.

It was of his own choice and because of his \
never-satisfied desire for experiment and
knowledge that Edison became a newsboy.

In 1859, when he was twelve years old, he
applied for the privilege of selling newspapers
on the trains of the Grand Trunk Railroad
between Port Huron and Detroit. After -a
short delay the necessary permission was

Even before this he had had some business
experience. His father had laid out a " mar-
ket-garden" on the farmland young Edison,
at eleven years of age, and Michael Oates
had worked in it pretty steadily. In the
season the two-boys would load up a wagon
with onions, lettuce, pease, etc., and drive
through the town to sell their produce. As
much as $600 was turned over to Mrs. Edison
in one year from this source.

Edison was industrious, but he did not take


kindly to farming. He tells us about this

"After a while I tired of this work. Hoe-
ing corn in a hot sun is unattractive, and I did
not wonder that boys had left the farm for the
city. 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. v/By a great amount of persistence
I got permission from my mother to go on the
local train as 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 at Port Huron
one for periodicals and the other for vege-
tables, 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 United States 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, when the boy would take
them to the store. They were much better
than those grown locally, and sold readily. I /
never was asked for freight, and to this day /
cannot explain why, except that I was so
small and industrious and the nerve to appro-
priate a United States mail car to dc/ a free
freight business was so monumental How-
ever, I kept this up for a long time, and in
addition bought butter from the farmers along
the line and an immense amount of black-
berries 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 em-
ployed a boy who sold bread, tobacco, and

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stick candy. As the war progressed the daily
newspaper sales became very profitable, and
I gave up the vegetable store."

This shrewd commercial instinct, and the
capacity for carrying on successfully several
usiness undertakings at the same time, were
certainly remarkable in a boy only thirteen
years old. And now, having had a glimpse of
Edison's very early youth, let us begin a new
chapter and follow his further adventures as a
newsboy on a railway train.



C BISON'S train left Port Huron at seven
*-* o'clock in the morning and arrived at
Detroit in about three hours. It did not leave
Detroit again until quite late in the afternoon,
arriving at Port Huron about nine-thirty at
night. This made a long day for the boy,
but it gave him an opportunity to do just
what he wanted, which was to read, to buy
chemicals and apparatus, and to indulge in his
favorite occupation chemical experimenta-

The train was made up of three coaches
baggage, smoking, and ordinary passenger.
The baggage-car was divided into three com-
partments one for trunks and packages, one
for the mail, and one for smoking.

As there was no ventilation in this smoking-
compartment, no use was made of it. It was
therefore turned over to young Edison, who



not only kept his papers there and his stock of
goods as a " candy butcher," but he also trans-
ferred to it the contents of the precious labora-
tory from his mother's cellar. He found
plenty of leisure on the two daily runs of
the train to follow up his study of chem-

His earnings on the train were excellent,
for he often took in eight or ten dollars a day.
One dollar a day always went to his mother,
and, as he was thus supporting himself, he felt
entitled to spend any other profit left over on
chemicals and apparatus. Detroit being a
large city, he could obtain a greater variety
there than in his own small town. He spent
a great deal of time in reading up on his
favorite subject at the public library, where
he could find plenty of technical books.Xf hus
he gave up most of his time and all his money
to chemistry.

He did not confine himself entirely to chem-
istry in his reading at the Detroit public
/library, but sought to gain knowledge on
other subjects. It is a matter of record that
in the beginning of his reading he started in
with a certain section of the library and tried


to read it through, shelf by shelf, regardless
of subject.

x Edison went along in this manner for quite
a long time. When the Civil War broke out
he noticed that there was a much greater
demand for newspapers. He became am-
bitious to publish a local journal of his own.
So his little laboratory in the smoking-com-
partment received some additions which made
it also a newspaper office.

He picked up a second-hand printing-press
in Detroit and bought some type. With his
mechanical ability, it was not a difficult matter
to learn the rudiments of the printing art,
and as some of the type was kept on the train
he could set it up in moments of leisure.
Thus he became the compositor, pressman,
editor, proprietor, publisher, and newsdealer
of the Weekly Herald. 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. Only
one or two copies of this journal are now to
be found.

It was the first newspaper in the world
printed on a train in motion. It received the



patronage of the famous English engineer,
Stephenson, and was also noted by the London
Times. As the production of a boy of four-
teen it was certainly a clever sheet, and many
people were willing subscribers, for, by the aid
of the railway telegraph, Edison was often
able to print late news of local importance
which could not be found in regular papers,
like those of Detroit.

Edison's business grew so large that he
employed a boy friend to help him. There
was often plenty of work for both in the early
days of the war, when the news of battle
caused great excitement.

In order to increase the sales of newspapers,
Edison would telegraph the news ahead to
the agents of stations where the train
stopped and get them to put up bulletins,
so that, when the stations were reached, there
would usually be plenty of purchasers wait-

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 the Con-
federate General Johnston was killed, and in



which there was a great number of men killed
and wounded.

The bulletin-boards of the Detroit news-
papers were surrounded by dense crowds,
which read that there were about sixty thou-
sand killed and wounded, and that the result
was uncertain. Edison, in relating his experi-
ence^ bf that day, says:

\Jr\ knew if the same excitement was shown
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, on my 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

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Press. I walked into the office marked
'Editorial' and told a young man that I
wanted to see the editor on important busi-
ness 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 subse-
quently founded the Chicago Times and be-
came celebrated in the newspaper world.
With 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
was 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 population.
I usually sold six to eight papers there. I de-



cided 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 out-
skirts 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 out, and made what to me then was an
immense sum of money. "

But this and similar gains of money did not
increase Edison's savings, for all his spare
cash was spent for new chemicals and appa-
ratus. He had bought a copy of Fresenius's
Qualitative Analysis, and, with his ceaseless
testing and study of its advanced problems,
his little laboratory on the train was now



becoming crowded with additional equipment,
especially as he now added electricity to his

" While a newsboy on the railroad," says
Edison, " I got very much interested in elec-
tricity, probably from visiting telegraph offices
with a chum who had tastes similar to mine."

We have already seen that he wa& shrewd
enough to use the telegraph to get news items
for his own little journal and also to bulletin
his special news of the Civil War along the line.
To such a ceaseless experimenter as he was,
it was only natural that electricity should
come in for a share of his attention. With his
knowledge of chemistry, he had no trouble in
" setting up" batteries, but his difficulty lay
in obtaining instruments and material for cir-

To-day any youth who desires to experi-
ment with telegraphy or telephony can find
plenty of stores where apparatus can be
bought ready made, or he can make many
things himself by following the instruc-
tions in Harper's Electricity Book for Boys.
But in Edison's boyish days it was quite
different. Telegraph supplies were hard to




obtain, and amateurs were usually obliged to
make their own apparatus.

However, he and his chum had a line be-
tween 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 insula-
tion, and pieces of spring brass were used for
telegraph keys.

With the idea of securing current cheaply,
Edison applied the little he knew about static
electricity, and actually experimented with
cats. He treated them vigorously as fric-
tional machines until the animals fled in dis-
may, leaving their marks to remind the young
inventor of his first great lesson in the relative
value of sources of electrical energy. Resort-
ing to batteries, however, the line was made to
work, and the two boys exchanged messages.

Edison wanted lots of practice, and secured
it in an ingenious manner. If he could have
had his way he would have sat up until the
small hours of the morning, but his father
insisted on eleven-thirty as the proper bed-
time, which left but a short interval after a
long day on the train.



Now, each evening, when the boy went
home with newspapers that had not been sold,
his father would sit up to read them. So
Edison on some excuse had his friend take the
papers, but suggested to his father that he
could get the news from the chum by tele-
graph bit by bit. The scheme interested the
father, and was put into effect, the messages
over the wire being written down by Edison
and handed to the old gentleman to read.

This gave good practice every night until
twelve or one o'clock, and was kept up for
some time, until the father became willing that
his son should sit up for a reasonable time.
The papers were then brought home again,
and the boys practised to their hearts 'content,
until the line was pulled down by a stray cow
wandering through the orchard.

Now we come to the incident which may be
regarded as turning Edison's thoughts more
definitely to electricity. One August morn-
ing, in 1862, the mixed train on which he
worked as newsboy was doing some shunting
at Mount Clemens station. A laden box-car
had been pushed out of a siding, when 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 cap and
made a dash for the child, whom he picked up
and lifted to safety without a second to spare,
as the wheel struck his heel. Both were cut
about the face and hands by the gravel bal-
last on which they fell.

The two boys were picked up by the train-
hands and carried to the platform, and the
grateful father, who knew and liked the
rescuer, offered to teach him the art of train
telegraphy and to make an operator of him.
It is needless to say that the proposal was
most eagerly accepted.

Edison found time for his new studies by
letting one of his friends look after the news-
boy work on the train for part of the trip,
keeping for himself the run between Port
Huron and Mount Clemens. We have al-
ready seen that he was qualified as a beginner,
and, besides, he was able to take to the station
a neat little set of instruments he had just
finished at a gun shop in Detroit.



What with his business as newsboy, his
publication of the Weekly Herald, his reading
and chemical and electrical experiments, Edi-
son was leading a busy life and making rapid
progress, but unexpectedly there came dis-
aster, which brought about a sudden change.
One day, shortly after he had rescued Mr.
Mackenzie's child, as the train was running
swiftly over a piece of poorly laid track, there
was a sudden 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 Edison was trying in
vain to put out the blaze when the conductor,
a quick-tempered Scotchman, rushed in with
water and saved the car. On arriving at
the next station, Mount Clemens, the enraged
conductor promptly put the boy off with his
entire outfit, including his laboratory and

It was through this incident that Edison
acquired his lifelong deafness, for the con-
ductor boxed his ears so severely as to cause
this infirmity. To most people this would be
an affliction, but not so to Mr. Edison, who
said about it recently:



" This deafness has been of great advantage
to me in various ways. When in a telegraph
office I could hear only the instrument direct-
ly 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 trans-
mitter so that I could hear it. This made the
telephone commercial, as the magneto tele-
phone 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 J
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."

But we left young Edison on the station
platform, sorrowful and indignant, as the train
moved off, deserting him in the midst of his



beloved possessions. He was saddened, but
not altogether discouraged, and after some
trouble succeeded in making his way home,
where he again set up his laboratory and also
his printing-office. There was some objection
on the part of the family, as they feared that
they might also suffer from fire, but he prom-
ised not to bring in anything of a dangerous

He continued to publish the Weekly Herald,
but after a while was persuaded by a chum to
change its character and publish it under the
name of Paid Pry, making it a journal of town
gossip about local people and their affairs and

No copies of Paul Pry can now be found,
but it is known that its style was distinctly
personal, and the weaknesses of the towns-
people were discussed in it very freely and
frankly by the two boys. It caused no small
offense, and in one instance Edison was
pitched into the St. Clair River by one of the
victims whose affairs had been given such
unsought publicity.

Possibly this was one of the reasons that
caused Edison to give up the paper not very



long afterward. He had a great liking for
newspaper work, and might have continued in
that field had it not been for strong influences
in other directions. There is no question,
however, that he wait the youngest publisher
and editor of his time.


'""THE Grand Trunk Railroad machine shops
* at Port Huron had a great attraction for
young Edison. The boy who was to have
much to do with the evolution of the, modern
electric locomotive in later years "was fasci-
nated with the mechanism of the steam loco-
motive. Whenever he could get the chance
he would ride with the engineer in the cab, and
he liked nothing better than to handle the
locomotive himself during the run. Edison's
own account of what happened on one of
these trips is very laughable. He says:

"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, was beautifully painted, and
everything was highly polished, which was the
custom up to the time old Commodore Van-
derbilt stopped it on his roads. It was a



slow freight train. The engineer and fireman
had been out all night at a dance. After
running about fifteen miles they became so
sleepy that they couldn't keep their eyes
open, and 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 some-
thing occurred which was very much out of
the ordinary. I was greatly 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 cow-catcher, 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

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Online LibraryWm. H. (William Henry) MeadowcroftThe boy's life of Edison → online text (page 2 of 15)