Wm. H. (William Henry) Meadowcroft.

The boy's life of Edison online

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shut off steam when the fireman went to oil.
This point I failed to notice.. My powers of
observation were very much improved after
this occurrence. Just before I reached the
junction another outpour of black mud oc-
curred, and the whole engine was a sight so
much so that when I pulled into the yard
everybody turned to see it, laughing im-
moderately. I found the reason of the mud
was that I carried so much water it passed
over into the stack, and this washed out all
the accumulated soot."

One afternoon, about a week before Christ-
mas, the train on which Edison was a news-
boy jumped the track. Four old cars with
rotten sills went all to pieces, distributing figs,
raisins, dates, and candies all over the track.
Hating to see so much waste, the boy tried to
save all he could by eating it on the spot, but,
as a result, he says, "our family doctor had
the time of his life with me."

Another incident, which shows free and
easy railroading and Southern extravagance,
is related by Edison, as follows;



"In 1860, just before the war broke out,
there came to the train one afternoon in
Detroit two fine-looking young men, accom-
panied by a colored servant. They bought
tickets for Port Huron, the terminal point for
the train. After leaving the junction just
outside of Detroit, I brought in the evening
papers. When I came opposite the two
young men, one of them said, 'Boy, what
have you got ?' I said, ' Papers/ 'All right.'
He took them and threw them out of the
window, and, turning to the colored man,
said, 'Nicodemus, pay this boy.' I told
Nicodemus the amount, and he opened a
satchel and paid me. The passengers didn't
know what to make of the transaction. I
returned with the illustrated papers and
magazines. These were seized and thrown
out of the window, and I was told to get my
money of Nicodemus. I then returned with
all the old magazines and novels I had not
been able to sell, thinking perhaps this would
be too much for them. I was small and thin,
and the layer reached above my head, and
was all I could possibly carry. I had pre-
pared a list, and knew the amount in case they



bit again. When I opened the door all the
passengers roared with laughter. I walked
right up to the young men. One asked me
what I had. I said, 'Magazines and novels.'
He promptly threw them out of the window,
and Nicodemus settled. Then I came in
with cracked hickory nuts, then popcorn
balls, and, finally, molasses candy. All went
out of the window. I felt like Alexander the
Great! I had no more chances! I had sold
all I had. Finally I put a rope to my trunk,
which was about the size of a carpenter's
chest, and started to pull this from the bag-
gage-car to the passenger-car. It was almost
too much for my strength, but at last I got it
in front of those men. I pulled off my coat
and hat and shoes and laid them on the chest.
Then the young man asked, * What have you
got, boy ?' I said, ' Everything, sir, that I can
spare that is for sale.' The passengers fairly
jumped with laughter. Nicodemus paid me
$27 for this last sale, and threw the whole out
of the door in the rear of the car. These men
were from the South, and I have always re-
tained a soft spot in my heart for a Southern



While Edison was a newsboy on the train
a request came to him one day to go to the
office of E. B. Ward & Co., at that time the
largest owners of steamboats on the Great
Lakes. The captain of their largest boat had
died suddenly, and they wanted a message
taken to another captain who lived about four-
teen miles from Ridgeway station on the rail-
road. This captain had retired, taken up some
lumber land, and had cleared part of it. Edi-
son was offered fifteen dollars by Mr. Ward to
go and fetch him, but as it was a wild country
and would be dark, Edison stood out for
twenty-five dollars, so that he could get the
companionship of another lad. The terms
were agreed to. Edison arrived at Ridgeway
at 8.30 P.M., when it was raining and as dark
as ink. Getting with difficulty another boy
to volunteer, he launched out on his errand
in the pitch-black night. The two boys
carried lanterns, but the road was a rough
path through dense forest. The country was
wild, and it was quite usual to see deer, bear,
and coon skins nailed up on the sides of houses
to dry. Edison had read about bears, but
couldn't remember whether they were day or
* 47


night prowlers. The farther they went, the
more afraid they became, and every stump in
the forest looked like a bear. The other lad
proposed seeking safety up a tree, but Edison
objected on the plea that bears could climb,
and that the message must be delivered that
night to enable the captain to catch the morn-
ing train. First one lantern went out, then
the other. Edison says: "We leaned up
against a tree and cried. I thought if I ever
got out of that scrape alive I would know more
about the habits of animals and everything
else, and be prepared for all kinds of mis-
chance when I again undertook an enterprise.
However, the intense darkness dilated the
pupils of our eyes so as to make them very
sensitive, and we could just see at times the
outline of the road. Finally, just as a faint
gleam of daylight arrived, we entered the
captain's yard and delivered the message. In
my whole life I never spent such a night of
horror as that, but I got a good lesson/*

An amusing incident of this period is told
by Edison. "When I was a boy," he says,
"the Prince of Wales, the late King Edward,
came to Canada (1860). Great preparations

4 8


were made at Sarnia, the Canadian town
opposite Port Huron. About every boy,
including myself, went over to see the affair.
The town was draped in flags most profusely,
and carpets were laid on the cross-walks for
the Prince to walk on. There were arches,
etc. A stand was built, raised above the
general level, where the Prince was to be
received by the Mayor. Seeing all these prep-
arations, my idea of a prince was very high;
but when he did arrive I mistook the Duke of
Newcastle for him, the Duke being a fine-
looking man. I soon saw that I was mis-
taken, that the Prince was a young stripling,
and did not meet expectations. Several of us
expressed our belief that a prince wasn't
much after all, and said that we were thor-
oughly disappointed. For this one boy was
whipped. Soon the Canuck boys attacked
the Yankee boys, and we were all badly licked.
I, myself, got a black eye. That has always
prejudiced me against that kind of ceremonial
and folly,"

Many years afterward, when Edison had
won fame by many inventions, including his
electric-light system, and had been awarded



the Albert Gold Medal by the Royal Society
of Arts, it was this same prince who wrote a
graceful letter which accompanied the medal.
Here is another of Mr. Edison's stories:
"After selling papers in Port Huron, which
was often not reached until about nine-thirty
at night, I seldom got home before eleven
or eleven-thirty. About half-way home from
the station and the town, and within twenty-
five feet of the road, in a dense wood, was a
soldiers' graveyard, where three hundred sol-
diers were buried, due to a cholera epidemic
which took place at Fort Gratiot, near by,
many years previously. At first we used to
shut our eyes and run the horse past this
graveyard, and if the horse stepped on a twig
my heart would give a violent movement,
and it is a wonder that I haven't some valvular
disease of that organ. But soon this running
of the horse became monotonous, and after
a while all fears of graveyards absolutely
disappeared from my system. I was in the
condition of Sam Houston, the pioneer and
founder of Texas, who, it was said, knew no
fear. Houston lived some distance from the
town, and generally went home late at night,


having to pass through a dark cypress swamp
over a corduroy road. One night, to test his
alleged fearlessness, a man stationed himself
behind a tree, and enveloped himself in a
sheet. He confronted Houston suddenly, and
Sam stopped and said: ' If you are a man, you
can't hurt me. If you are a ghost, you don't
want to hurt me. And if you are the devil,
come home with me; I married your sister!' '

We have already seen that Edison was of an
exceedingly studious nature and full of am-
bition to work, experiment, and hustle. The
serious side of his nature did not, however,
wholly prevail. He had a keen enjoyment of /
a joke, even as he has now, and in his boyhood
days had no particular objection if it took
a practical form. The following, as related
by him, is one of many:

" After the breaking out of the War there
was a regiment of volunteer soldiers quartered
at Fort Gratiot, the reservation extending to
the boundary line of our house. Nearly
every night we would hear a call such as
'Corporal of the Guard No. i.' This would
be repeated from sentry to sentry, until it
reached the barracks, when Corporal of the



Guard No. i would come and see what was
wanted. I and the little Dutch boy, upon
returning from the town after selling our
papers, thought we would take a hand at
military affairs. So one night, when it was
very dark, I shouted for Corporal of the
Guard No. i. The second sentry, thinking it
was the terminal sentry who shouted, repeated
it to the third, and so on. This brought the
corporal along the half mile, only to find that
he was fooled. We tried him three nights;
but the third night they were watching, and
caught the little Dutch boy, took him to the
lock-up at the fort, and shut him up. They
chased me to the house. I rushed for the cel-
lar. In one small compartment, where there
were two barrels of potatoes and a third one
nearly empty, I poured these remnants into the
other barrels, sat down, and pulled the empty
barrel over my head, bottom up. The sol-
diers had awakened my father, and they were
searching for me with candles and lanterns.
The corporal was absolutely certain I came
into the cellar, and couldn't see how I could
have gotten out, and wanted to know from
my father if there was no secret hiding-place.



On assurance of my father, who said that
there was not, he said it was most extraor-
dinary. I was glad when they left, as I was
cramped, and the potatoes that had been in
the barrel were rotten and violently offensive.
The next morning I was found in bed, and
received a good switching on the legs from
my father, the first and only one I ever re-
ceived from him, although my mother kept
behind the old Seth Thomas clock a switch
that had the bark worn off. My mother's
ideas and mine differed at times, especially
when I got experimenting and mussed up
things. The Dutch boy was released next

It may have seemed strange to you, on
reading this and the previous chapter, that a
lad so young as Edison was during the news-
boy period from about twelve to fifteen
years of age should have been allowed such
wide liberty. An extensive traveler for those
days, going early and returning late, an ex-
perimenter in chemistry, a publisher, printer,
newsdealer, amateur locomotive engineer, and
what not, covered a large range of experience
and action for one so youthful.



To others of the family than his mother he
was accounted a strange boy, some believing
him to be mentally unbalanced. His mother,
however, understood that his was no ordinary
mind, for she had studied him thoroughly.
While she watched him closely, she allowed
him the widest possible sphere of action and
encouraged his ever increasing studies.

A member of the family, in talking recently
with the writer, said that when any one ex-
pressed nervousness about young Edison dur-
ing his absences she would say: "Al is all
right. Nothing will happen to him. God is
taking care of him."



AFTER Edison's expulsion from the train
with his laboratory and belongings, his
career as a newsboy came to a sudden close.
But, while he felt some disappointment, he
was not discouraged and was none the less
busy. As we have seen, he published his
local paper for a while and also continued
his chemical experiments at home. In addi-
tion, he plunged deeply into the study of
telegraphy under Mr. Mackenzie's tuition.

Edison took to telegraphy enthusiastically,
giving to it no less than eighteen hours a day.
After some months he had made such progress
that he put up a telegraph line from the sta-
tion to the village, about a mile distant, and
opened an office in a drug store ; but the busi-
ness there was very light and the office was
not continued long.

A little later he became the regular operator


at Port Huron. The office was in the store of
a Mr. M. Walker, who sold jewelry and also
newspapers and periodicals. Edison was to
be found at the office both day and night, and
slept there.

He says: "I became quite valuable to Mr.
Walker. After working all day I worked at
the office nights as well, for the reason that
1 press reports ' came over one of the wires until
3 A.M., and I would cut in and copy it as well
as I could, to become proficient more rapidly.
The goal of the rural telegraph operator was
to be able to take press. Mr. Walker tried
to get my father to apprentice me at twenty
dollars per month, but they could not agree.
I then applied for a job on the Grand Trunk
Railroad as a railway operator, and was given
a place, nights, at Stratford Junction, Canada. "

Many years afterward Mr. Walker described
the boy of sixteen as engrossed intensely in his
experiments and scientific reading. The tele-
graph office was not a busy one, but some-
times messages taken in would remain unsent
while Edison was in the cellar busy on some
chemical problem.

He would be seen at times reading a scien-


tific paper and then disappearing to buy a few
sundries for experiments. Returning from
the drug store with his chemicals, he would
not be seen again until required by his duties,
or until he had found out for himself, if possi-
ble, the truth of the statement he had been
reading. If wanted for his experiment, he
did not hesitate to make free use of the watch-
maker's tools that lay on the table in the
front window. ^ His one idea was to do quickly
what he wanted to do; and this tendency is
still one of his marked characteristics. 1

The telegrapher's position at Stratford
Junction, Canada, was taken by Edison in
1863, when he was sixteen years old, and paid
him twenty-five dollars per month. In speak-
ing of it he has since remarked that there was
little difference between the telegraph of that
time and that of to-day. He says: "The
telegraph men couldn't explain how it worked,
and I was always trying to get them to do so.
I think they couldn't. I remember the best
explanation I got was from an old Scotch line
repairer employed by the Montreal Telegraph
Company, which operated the railroad wires.
He said that if you had a dog like a dachshund,



long enough to reach from Edinburgh to
London, if you pulled his tail in Edinburgh he
would bark in London. I could understand
that, but I never could get it through me
what went through the dog or over the wire."
Edison was ever keenly anxious to add to
his stock of experimental apparatus, as an
incident of this period shows: " While work-
ing at Stratford Junction," he says, "I was
told by one of the freight conductors that in
the freight-house at Goodrich there were
several boxes of old broken-up batteries. I
went there and found over eighty cells of the
well-known Grove nitric-acid battery. The
operator there, who was also agent, when
asked by me if I could have the electrodes of
each cell, which were made of sheet platinum,
gave his permission readily, thinking they
were of tin. I removed them all, and they
amounted to several ounces in weight. Plat-
inum even in those days was very expensive,
costing several dollars an ounce, and I owned
only three small strips. I was overjoyed at
this acquisition, and those very strips and the
reworked scrap are used to this day in my
laboratory, over forty years later."



It was while he was employed as a night
operator at Stratford Junction that Edison's
inventiveness was first displayed. In order
to make sure that the operators were not
asleep they were required to send the signal
" 6 " to the train despatcher's office every hour
during the night. Now, Edison spent all day
in study and experiment, but he needed sleep,
just as any healthy youth does, and so he
made a small wheel with notches on the rim
and attached it to the clock and line. At
night he connected it with the circuit, and at
each hour the wheel revolved and automati-
cally sent in the dots required for "sixing."

The invention was a success, but the train
despatcher soon noticed that frequently, in
spite of the regularity of the report, Edison's
office could not be raised even if a message
were sent immediately after. An investiga-
tion followed, which revealed this ingenious
device, and he received a reprimand.

A serious occurrence that might have re-
sulted in accident drove him soon after from
Canada, although the youth could hardly be
held to blame for it. Edison says: "This
night job just suited me, as I could have the



whole day to myself. I had the faculty of
sleeping in a chair any time for a few minutes
at a time. I taught the night yardman my
call, so I could get half an hour's sleep now
and then between trains, and in case the
station was called the watchman would
awaken me. One night I got an order to hold
a freight train, and I replied that I would.
I rushed out to find the signalman, but before
I could find him and get the signal set the
train ran past. I ran to the telegraph office,
and reported that I could not hold her. The
train despatcher, on the strength of my mes-
sage that I would hold the train, had per-
mitted another to leave the last station in the
opposite direction. There was a lower sta-
tion near the junction, where the day operator
slept. I started for it on foot. The night
was dark, and I fell into a culvert and was
knocked senseless."

Fortunately, the two engineers saw each
other approaching and stopped in time to
prevent an accident. Edison, however, was
summoned to the general manager's office to
be tried for neglect of duty. During the trial
two Englishmen called, and while they were


talking with the manager the youthful opera-
tor slipped out, jumped on a freight train
going to Sarnia, and was not happy until the
ferryboat from Sarnia had landed him safe on
the Michigan shore.

The same winter, of 1863-64, while at Port
Huron, Edison had a further opportunity of
showing his ingenuity. An ice -jam had
broken the telegraph cable laid in the bed of
the river across to Sarnia, and communication
was interrupted. The river is three-quarters
of a mile wide, and could not be crossed on
foot, nor could the cable be repaired.

Edison suggested using the steam whistle
of a locomotive to give the long and short
signals of the Morse code. An operator on
the Sarnia shore was quick enough to under-
stand the meaning of the strange whistling,
and thus messages were sent in wireless
fashion across the ice-floes in the river.

Young Edison had no inclination to return
to Canada after his late experience there. He
decided, however, that he would stick to
telegraphy as a business, and, after a short stay
at home in Port Huron, set out to find work as
an operator in another city. And thus he



commenced the roaming and drifting life which
in the next five years took him all over the
Middle States.

At this time the Civil War was in progress,
and many hundreds of skilled operators were
at the front with the army, engaged exclu-
sively in government service. Consequent-
ly there was a great scarcity of telegraphers
throughout all the cities and towns of the
country. For this reason it was not difficult
for an operator to get work wherever he might
go. Thus one might gratify a desire to travel
and get experience without running much
risk of privation.

There were a great many others besides
Edison who wandered about from city to city,
working awhile in one place and drifting to
another. As a rule, they were bright, happy-
go-lucky fellows, full of the spirit of good
comradeship, and willing to share bed, board,
and pocket-money with those who might tem-
porarily be less fortunate than themselves.

Many of them used telegraphy as a stepping-
stone to better themselves in life, while others,
unfortunately, became dissipated, and, becom-
ing unreliable through drink, could not hold a



position for long. Had Edison been by nature
less persistent and industrious than he was,
this miscellaneous companionship might have
tended to wreck his career, but all through
his life, from boyhood, he has been particu-
larly abstemious and has had a contempt for
the wastefulness of time, money, and health
entailed by the drink habit.

Throughout this period of his life Edison,
although wandering from place to place, never
ceased to study, explore, and experiment.
Referring to this beginning of his career, he
mentions a curious fact that throws light on
his ceaseless application. " After I became
a telegraph operator," he says, "I practised
for a long time to become a rapid reader of
print, and got so expert I could sense the
meaning of a whole line at once. This faculty,
I believe, should be taught in schools, as it
appears to be easily acquired. Then one can
read two or three books in a day, whereas if
each word at a time only is sensed reading is

During this wandering period of his life
Edison made many friends, one of the earliest
of whom was Milton F. Adams, who had a
5 63


strange career. Of him Edison says: ''Adams
was one of a class of operators never satisfied
to work at any place for any great length of
time. He had the 'wanderlust.' After en-
joying hospitality in Boston in 1868-69, on
the floor of my hall bedroom, which was a
paradise for the entomologist, while the
boarding-house itself was run on the Banting
system of flesh reduction, he came to me one
day and said: 'Good-by, Edison, I have got
sixty cents, and I am going to San Fran-
cisco.' And he did go. How, I never knew
personally. I learned afterward that he got
a job there, and then within a week they had a
telegraphers' strike. He got a big torch and
sold patent medicine on the streets at night
to support the strikers. Then he went to
Peru as partner of a man who had a grizzly
bear which they proposed entering against a
bull in the bull-ring in that city. The grizzly
was killed in five minutes, and so the scheme
died. Then Adams crossed the Andes, and
started a market report bureau in Buenos
Ayres. This didn't pay, so he started a
restaurant in Pernambuco, Brazil. There he
did very well, but something went wrong (as it



always does to a nomad), so he went to the
Transvaal, and ran a panorama called ' Para-
dise Lost' in the Kaffir kraals. This didn't
pay, and he became the editor of a newspaper;
then he went to England to raise money for
a railroad in Cape Colony. Next I heard of
him in New York, having just arrived from
Bogota, United States of Colombia, with a
power of attorney and two thousand dollars
from a native of that republic, who applied
for a patent for tightening a belt to prevent
it from slipping on a pulley a device which
he thought a new and great invention, but
which was in use ever since machinery was
invented. I gave Adams then a position as
salesman for electrical apparatus. This he
soon got tired of, and I lost sight of him."



THE first position that Edison took after
leaving Canada so hurriedly was at
Adrian, Michigan, and of what happened
there he tells a story typical of his wanderings
for several years to come.

"After leaving my first job at Stratford
Junction I got a position as operator on the
Lake Shore & Michigan Southern at Adrian,
Michigan, in the division superintendent's
office. As usual, I took the 'night trick,'

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Online LibraryWm. H. (William Henry) MeadowcroftThe boy's life of Edison → online text (page 3 of 15)