Wm. H. (William Henry) Meadowcroft.

The boy's life of Edison online

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which most operators disliked, but which I
preferred, as it gave me more leisure to experi-
ment. I had obtained from the station agent
a small room, and had established a little shop
of my own. One day the day operator wanted
to get off, and I was on duty. About nine
o'clock the superintendent handed me a
despatch which he said was very important,
and which I must get off at once. The wire



at the time was very busy, and I asked if I
should break in. I got orders to do so, and,
acting under those orders of the superin-
tendent, I broke in and tried to send the
despatch; but the other operator would not
permit it, and the struggle continued for ten
minutes. Finally I got possession of the
wire and sent the message. The superin-
tendent of telegraph, who then lived in Adrian
and went to his office in Toledo every day,
happened that day to be in the Western
Union office up-town and it was the super-
intendent I was really struggling with! In
about twenty minutes he arrived, livid with
rage, and I was discharged on the spot. I
informed him that the general superintendent
had told me to break in and send the despatch,
but the general superintendent then and
there repudiated the whole thing. Their
families were socially close, so I was sacrificed.
My faith in human nature got a slight jar."

From Adrian Edison went to Toledo,
Ohio, and secured a position at Fort Wayne,
on the Pittsburg, Fort Wayne & Chicago
Railroad. This was a "day job," and he did
not like it. Two months later he drifted to



Indianapolis, arriving there in the fall of 1864,
when for the first time he entered the employ
of the Western Union Telegraph Company,
with which in later years he entered into closer
relationship. At this time, however, he was
assigned to duty at Union Station, at a salary
of seventy-five dollars a month.

He did not stay long in Indianapolis, how-
ever, leaving in February, 1865, and going
from there to Cincinnati. This change was
possibly caused by one of his early inventions,
which has been spoken of by an expert- as
probably the most simple and ingenious
arrangement of connections for a repeater.

His ambition was to take " press report,'*
which would come over the wire quite fast,
but finding, even after considerable practice,
that he " broke" frequently, he adjusted two
embossing Morse registers one to receive the
press matter and the other to repeat the dots
and dashes at a lower speed, so that the mes-
sage could be copied leisurely. Hence, he
could not be rushed or " broken" in receiving,
while he could turn out copy that was a marvel
of neatness and clearness. This went well
under ordinary conditions, but when an un-



dsual pressure occurred he fell behind, and
the newspapers complained of the slowness
with which the reports were delivered to
them. As to this device, Mr. Edison said
recently: " Together we took press for several
nights, my companion keeping the apparatus
in adjustment and I copying. The regular
press operator would go to the theater or take
a nap, only finishing the report after i A.M.
One of the newspapers complained of bad
copy toward the end of the report that is,
from i to 3 A.M. and requested that the
operators taking the report up to i A.M.,
which were ourselves, take it all, as the copy
then was perfectly unobjectionable. This led
to an investigation by the manager, and the
scheme was forbidden.

"This instrument many years afterward
was applied by me to transferring messages
from one wire to any other wire simultane-
ously or after any interval of time. It con-
sisted of a disk of paper, the indentations
being formed in a volute spiral, exactly as in
the disk phonograph to-day. It was this
instrument which gave me the idea of the
phonograph while working on the telephone."



Arriving in Cincinnati, Edison got employ-
ment in the Western Union Commercial Tele-
graph Department at sixty dollars per month.
Here he made the acquaintance of Milton F.
Adams, referred to in the preceding chapter.
Speaking of that time, Mr. Adams says:

" I can well recall when Edison drifted in to
take a job. He was a youth of about eighteen
years, decidedly unprepossessing in dress and
rather uncouth in manner. I was twenty-one,
and very dudish. He was quite thin in those
days, and his nose was very prominent, giving
a Napoleonic look to his face, although the
curious resemblance did not strike me at the
time. The boys did not take to him cheer-
fully, and he was lonesome. I sympathized
with him, and we became close companions.
As an operator he had no superiors, and very
few equals. Most of the time he was 'monkey-
ing' with the batteries and circuits, and de-
vising things to make the work of telegraphy
less irksome. He also relieved the monotony
of office work by fitting up the battery cir-
cuits to play jokes on his fellow-operators, and
to deal with the vermin that infested the
premises. He arranged in the cellar what he



called his 'rat paralyzer,' a very simple con-
trivance, consisting of two plates insulated
from each other and connected with the main
battery. They were so placed that when a
rat passed over them the fore feet on the one
plate and the hind feet on the other completed
the circuit, and the rat departed this life,

Shortly after Edison's arrival in Cincinnati
came the close of the Civil War and the assas-
sination of President Lincoln. One of Edi-
son's reminiscences is interesting as showing
the mechanical way in which some telegraph
operators do their work. "I noticed," he
says, "an immense crowd gathering in the
street outside a newspaper office. I called the
attention of the other operators to the crowd,
and we sent a messenger boy to find the cause
of the excitement. He returned in a few
minutes and shouted, 'Lincoln's shot!' In-
stinctively the operators looked from one face
to another to see which man had received the
news. All the faces were blank, and every
man said he had not taken a word about the
shooting. 'Look over your files,' said the
boss to the man handling the press stuff. For


a few moments we waited in suspense, and
then the man held up a sheet of paper con-
taining a short account of the shooting of the
President. The operator had worked so me-
chanically that he had handled the news with-
out the slightest realization of its significance."

Edison's diversions in Cincinnati were
characteristic of his life before and since. He
read a great deal, but spent most of his leisure
time experimenting. Occasionally he would
indulge in some form of amusement, but this
was not often. At this time he and Adams
were close friends, and Mr. Adams remarks:
" Edison and I were fond of tragedy. Forrest
and John McCullough were playing at the
National Theater, and when our capital was
sufficient we would go to see those eminent
tragedians alternate in Othello and lago.
Edison always enjoyed Othello greatly. Aside
from an occasional visit to the Loewen Garten,
'over the R'hine,' with a glass of beer and a
few pretzels consumed while listening to the
excellent music of a German band, the theater
was the sum and substance of our innocent

While Edison was in Cincinnati there came


one day a delegation of five trade-union
operators from Cleveland to form a local
branch in Cincinnati. The occasion was one
of great conviviality. Night came and many
of the operators were away. The Cleveland
wire was in special need, and Edison, almost
alone in the office, devoted himself to it all
through the night and until three o'clock next
morning, when he was relieved. He had been
previously getting eighty dollars a month,
and added to this by copying plays for a

His rating was that of a " plug, " or inferior
operator, but having determined to become
a first-class operator, he had kept up a prac-
tice of going to the office at night to take
"press," acting willingly as a substitute for
any operator who wanted to get off -for a few
hours which often meant all night.

Thus he had been unconsciously preparing
for the special ordeal which the conviviality of
the trade-unionists had brought about.

Speaking of that night's work, Edison says:
" My copy looked fine if viewed as a whole, as I
could write a perfectly straight line across the
wide sheet, which was not ruled. There were



no flourishes, but the individual letters would
not bear close inspection. When I missed
understanding a word there was no time to
think what it was, so I made an illegible one
to fill in, trusting to the printers to sense it.
I knew they could read anything, although
Mr. Bloss, an editor of the Inquirer, made such
bad copy that one of his editorials was pasted
up on the notice board in the telegraph office
with an offer of one dollar to any man who
could 'read twenty consecutive words.' No-
body ever did it. When I got through I was
too nervous to go home, and so I waited the
rest of the night for the day manager, Mr.
Stevens, to see what was to be the outcome of
this union formation and of my efforts. He
was an austere man, and I was afraid of him.
I got the morning papers, which came out at
4 A.M., and the press report read perfectly,
which surprised me greatly. I went to work
on my regular day wire to Portsmouth, Ohio,
and there was considerable excitement, but
nothing was said to me, neither did Mr. Ste-
vens examine the copy on the office hook,
which I was watching with great interest.
However, about 3 P.M. he went to the hook,



grabbed the bunch and looked at it as a whole
without examining it in detail, for which I
was thankful. Then he jabbed it back on
the hook, and I knew I was all right. He
walked over to me, and said: 'Young man,
I want you to work the Louisville wire nights ;
your salary will be one hundred and twenty-
five dollars.' Thus I got from the plug classi-
fication to that of a ' first-class man.' '

Not long after this promotion was secured
Edison started again on his wanderings. He
went south, while his friend Adams went
north, neither one having any difficulty in
making the trip. He says: "The boys in
those days had extraordinary facilities for
travel. As a usual thing it was only necessary
for them to board a train and tell the con-
ductor they were operators. Then trjey could
go as far as they liked. The number of oper-
ators was small, and they were in demand

Edison's next stopping place was Memphis,
Tennessee, where he got a position as operator.
Here again he began to invent and improve
on existing apparatus, with the result of being
obliged once more to "move on." He tells



the story as follows: " I was not the inventor
of the auto-repeater, but while in Memphis
I. worked on one. Learning that the chief
operator, who was a protege of the superin-
tendent, was trying in some way to put New
York and New Orleans together for the first
time since the close of the war, I redoubled
my efforts, and at two o'clock one morning I
had them speaking to each other. The office
of the Memphis Avalanche was in the same
building. The paper got wind of it and sent
messages. A column came out in the morn-
ing about it; but when I went to the office in
the afternoon to report for duty I was dis-
charged without explanation. The super-
intendent would not even give me a pass to
Nashville, so I had to pay my fare. I had so
little money left that I nearly starved at
Decatur, Alabama, and had to stay three
days before going on north to Nashville.
Arrived in that city, I went to the telegraph
office, got money enough to buy a little solid
food, and secured a pass to Louisville. I had
a companion with me who was also out of a
job. I arrived at Louisville on a bitterly
cold day, with ice in the gutters. I was



wearing a linen duster and was not much to
look at, but got a position at once, working
on a press wire. My traveling companion
was less successful on account of his 'record/
They had a limit even in those days when the
telegraph service was so demoralized.'*

After the Civil War was over the telegraph
service was in desperate condition, and some
of Mr. Edison's reminiscences of these times
are quite interesting. He says: "The tele-
graph was still under military control, not
having been turned over to the original
owners, the Southern Telegraph Company.
In addition to the regular force, there was an
extra force of two or three operators, and
some stranded ones, who were a burden to us,
for board was high. One of these derelicts
was a great source of worry to me personally.
He would come in at all hours and either
throw ink around or make a lot of noise. One
night he built a fire in the grate and started to
throw pistol cartridges into the flames. These
would explode, and I was twice hit by the
bullets, which left a black-and-blue mark.
Another night he came in and got from some
part of the building a lot of stationery with



'Confederate States' printed at the head.
He was a fine operator, and wrote a beautiful
hand. He would take a sheet of paper, write
capital 'A,' and then take another sheet and
make the 'A' differently; and so on through
the alphabet, each time crumpling the paper
up in his hand and throwing it on the floor.
He would keep this up until the room was
filled nearly flush with the table. Then he
would quit.

" Everything at that time was ' wide open. *
Disorganization reigned supreme. There was
no head to anything. At night myself and a
companion would go over to a gorgeously
furnished faro-bank and get our midnight
lunch. Everything was free. There were
over twenty keno-rooms running. One of
them that I visited was in a Baptist church,
the man with the wheel being in the pulpit
and the gamblers in the pews.

''While there, the manager of the telegraph
office was arrested for something I never
understood, and incarcerated in a military
prison about half a mile from the office. The
building was in plain sight from the office
and four stories high. He was kept strictly



incomunicado. One day, thinking he might
be confined in a room facing the office, I put
my arm out of the window and kept signaling
dots and dashes by the movement of the arm.
I tried this several times for two days. Finally
he noticed it, and, putting his arm through the
bars of the window, he established communi-
cation with me. He thus sent several mes-
sages to his friends, and was afterward set

Another curious story told by Edison con-
cerns a fellow operator on night duty at
Chattanooga Junction at the time he was at
Memphis: " When it was reported that Hood
was marching on Nashville, one night a Jew
came into the office about eleven o'clock in
great excitement, having heard the Hood,
rumor. He, being a large sutler, wanted to
send a message to save his goods. The opera-
tor said it was impossible that orders had
been given to send no private messages.
Then the Jew wanted to bribe my friend, who
steadfastly refused, for the reason, as he told
the Jew, that he might be court-martialed and
shot. Finally the Jew got up to eight hundred
dollars. The operator swore him to secrecy
6 79


and sent the message. No\fr, there was no
such order about private messages, and the
Jew, finding it out, complained to Captain
Van Duzer, chief of telegraphs, who investi-
gated the matter, and while he would not
discharge the operator, laid him off indefi-
nitely. Van Duzer was so lenient that if an
operator was to wait three days and then go
and sit on the stoop of Van Duzer's office all
day he would be taken back. But Van
Duzer swore that if the operator had taken
eight hundred dollars and sent the message at
the regular rate, which was twenty-five cents,
it would have been all right, as the Jew would
be punished for trying to bribe a military
operator; but when the operator took the
eight hundred dollars and then sent the mes-
sage deadhead he couldn't stand it, and he
would never relent."

A third typical story of this period relates
to a cipher message for General Thomas. Mr.
Edison narrates it as follows: " When I was an
operator in Cincinnati, working the Louisville
wire nights for a time, one night a man over
on the Pittsburg wire yelled out: 'D. I.
cipher/ which meant that there was a cipher



message from the War Department at Wash-
ington, and that it was coming, and he yelled
out 'Louisville.' I started immediately to
call up that place. It was just at the change
of shift in the office. I could not get Louis-
ville, and the cipher message began to come.
It was taken by the operator on the other
table, direct from the War Department. It
was for General Thomas, at Nashville. I
called for about twenty minutes and notified
them that I could not get Louisville. I kept
at it for about fifteen minutes longer, and
notified them that there was still no answer
from Louisville. They then notified the War
Department that they could not get Louisville.
Then we tried to get it by all kinds of round-
about ways, but in no case could anybody
get them at that office. Soon a message
came from the War Department to send im-
mediately for the manager of the Cincinnati
office. He was brought to the office and
several messages were exchanged, the con-
tents of which, of course, I did not know, but
the matter appeared to be very serious, as
they were afraid of General Hood, of the
Confederate Army, who was then attempting



to march on Nashville; and it was important
that this cipher of about twelve hundred
words or so should be got through immediately
to General Thomas. I kept on calling up to
twelve or one o'clock, but no Louisville.
About one o'clock the operator at the Indian-
apolis office got hold of an operator who hap-
pened to come into his office, which had a
wire which ran from Indianapolis to Louis-
ville along the railroad. He arranged with
this operator to get a relay of horses, and the
message was sent through Indianapolis to
this operator, who had engaged horses to
carry the despatches to Louisville and find out
the trouble, and get the despatches through
without delay to General Thomas. In those
days the telegraph fraternity was rather
demoralized, and the discipline was very lax.
It was found out a couple of days afterward
that there were three night operators at Louis-
ville. One of them had gone over to Jeffer-
sonville and had fallen off a horse and broken
his leg, and was in a hospital. By a remark-
able coincidence another of the men had been
stabbed in a keno-room, and was also in a
hospital, while the third operator had gone to



Cynthiana to see a man hanged and had got
left by the train."

From Memphis Edison went to Louisville.
Here he remained for about two years. It
was while he was there that he perfected the
peculiar vertical style of writing which has

production &

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since been his characteristic style. He says
of this form of writing, an example of which is
given above: "I developed this style in
Louisville while taking press reports. My
wire was connected to the 'blind' side of a
repeater at Cincinnati, so that if I missed a
word or sentence, or if the wire worked badly,
I could not break in and get the last words,



because the Cincinnati man had no instru-
ment by which he could hear me. I had to
take what came. When I got the job the
cable across the Ohio River at Covington,
connecting with the line to Louisville, had a
variable leak in it, which caused the strength
of the signaling current to make violent
fluctuations. I obviated this by using several
relays, each with a different adjustment,
working several sounders all connected with
one sounding-plate. The clatter was bad,
but I could read it with fair ease. When, in
addition to this infernal leak, the wires north
to Cleveland worked badly it required a
large amount of imagination to get the sense
of what was being sent. An imagination
requires an appreciable time for its exercise,
and as the stuff was coming at the rate of
thirty-five to forty words a minute, it was
very difficult to write down what was coming
and imagine what wasn't coming. Hence it
was necessary to become a very rapid writer,
so I started to find the fastest style. I found
that the vertical style, with each letter sepa-
rate and without any flourishes, was the most
rapid, and that, the smaller the letter, the

8 4


greater the rapidity. As I took on an average
from eight to fifteen columns of news report
every day, it did not take long to perfect this

The telegraph offices of those early days
were very crude as compared with the equip-
ments of modern times. The apparatus was
generally in a very poor condition, and the
wiring was of a haphazard kind. The con-
ditions during the time of the Civil War all
tended to demoralization, both of operators
and apparatus.

Indeed, the following story, related by
Edison, illustrates the lengths to which teleg-
raphers could go at a time when they were
in so much demand: " When I took the posi-
tion there was a great shortage of operators.
One night, at 2 A.M., another operator and I
were on duty. I was taking press report, and
the other man was working the New York
wire. We heard a heavy tramp, tramp, tramp
on the rickety stairs. Suddenly the door was
thrown open with great violence, dislodging it
from one of the hinges. There appeared in
the doorway one of the best operators we had,
who worked daytime, and who was of a very



quiet disposition except when intoxicated.
He was a great friend of the manager of the
office. His eyes were bloodshot and wild,
and one sleeve had been torn away from his
coat. Without noticing either of us, he went
up to the stove and kicked it over. The
stovepipe fell, dislocated at every joint. It
was half full of exceedingly fine soot, which
floated out and completely filled the room.
This produced a momentary respite to his
labors. When the atmosphere had cleared
sufficiently to see he went around and pulled
every table away from the wall, piling them on
top of the stove in the middle of the room.
Then he proceeded to pull the switchboard
away from the wall. It was held tightly by
screws. He succeeded, finally, and when it
gave way he fell with the board, and, striking
on a table, cut himself so that he soon became
covered, with blood. He then went to the
battery-room and knocked all the batteries
off on the floor. The nitric acid soon began
to combine with the plaster in the room below,
which was the public receiving-room for mes-
sengers and bookkeepers. The excess acid
poured through and ate up the account-books.



After having finished everything to his satis-
faction, he left. I told the other operators
to do nothing. We would leave things just
as they were, and wait until the manager
came. In the mean time, as I knew all the
wires coming through to the switchboard, I
rigged up a temporary set of instruments so
that the New York business could be cleared
up, and we also got the remainder of the press
matter. At seven o'clock the day men began
to appear. They were told to go down-
stairs and await the coming of the manager.
At eight o'clock he appeared, walked around,
went into the battery-room, and then came to
me, saying: * Edison, who did this?' I told
him that Billy L. had come in full of soda-
water and invented the ruin before him. He
walked back and forth about a minute, then,
coming up to my table, put his fist down,
and said: * If Billy L. ever does that again I
will discharge him.' It was needless to say
that there were other operators who took
advantage of that kind of discipline, and I had
many calls at night after that, but none with
such destructive effects."

Incidents such as these, together with the


daily life and work of an operator, presented
one aspect of life to our young operator in
Louisville. But there was another, more
intellectual side, in the contact afforded with
journalism and its leaders, on which Mr. Edi-
son looks back with great satisfaction. "I
remember/' he says, "the discussions between

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Online LibraryWm. H. (William Henry) MeadowcroftThe boy's life of Edison → online text (page 4 of 15)