Wm. H. (William Henry) Meadowcroft.

The boy's life of Edison online

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the celebrated poet and journalist George D.
Prentice, then editor of the Courier- Journal,
and Mr. Tyler, of the Associated Press. I be-
lieve Prentice was the father of the humorous
paragraph of the American newspaper. He
was poetic, highly educated, and a brilliant
talker. He was very thin and small. I do
not think he weighed over one hundred and
twenty- five pounds. Tyler was a graduate
of Harvard, and had a very clear enunciation,
and, in sharp contrast to Prentice, he was a
large man. After the paper had gone to press
Prentice would generally come over to Tyler's
office, where I heard them arguing on the im-
mortality of the soul, etc. I asked permission
of Mr. Tyler if, after finishing the press matter,
I might come in and listen to the conversation,
which I did many times after. One thing I
never could comprehend was that Tyler had a



sideboard with liquors and generally crackers.
Prentice would pour out half a glass of what
they call corn whisky, and would dip the
crackers in it and eat them. Tyler took it
sans food. One teaspoonful of that stuff
would put me to sleep."

Mr. Edison throws also a curious side-light
on the origin of the comic paragraph in the
modern American newspaper, as distributed
instantly throughout the country through the
telegraph. "It was the practice of the press
operators all over the country at that time,
when a lull occurred, to start in and send
jokes or stories the day men had collected;
and these were copied and pasted up on the
bulletin-board. Cleveland was the originat-
ing office for 'press,' which it received from
New York and sent out simultaneously to
Milwaukee, Chicago, Toledo, Detroit, Pitts-
burg, Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, Indian-
apolis, Vincennes, Terre Haute, St. Louis, and
Louisville. Cleveland would call first on Mil-
waukee and ask if he had anything. If so, he
would send it, and Cleveland would repeat it
to all of us. Thus any joke or story originat-
ing anywhere in that area was known the next



day all over. The press men would come in
and copy anything which could be published,
which was about three per cent. I collected,
too, quite a large scrap-book of it, but, un-
fortunately, I have lost it."

Edison was always a great reader, and was
in the habit of buying books at auctions and
becond-hand stores. One day at an auction
he bought twenty unbound volumes of the
North American Review for two dollars.
These he had bound and delivered at the
telegraph office. One morning, about three
o'clock, he started off for home at a rapid pace
with ten volumes on his shoulder. Very soon
he became conscious of the fact that bullets
were flying around him. He stopped, and a
breathless policeman came up and seized him
as a suspicious character, ordering him to drop
his parcel and explain matters. Opening the
package, he showed the books, somewhat to
the disgust of the officer, who imagined he had
caught a burglar sneaking away with his booty.
Edison explained that, being deaf, he had heard
no challenge, and therefore had kept moving;
and the policeman remarked, apologetically, it
was well for Edison he was not a better shot.



Through all his travels Edison has pre-
served these books, and he has them now in
his library at Llewelyn Park, Orange, New

After two years at Louisville, Edison went
back North as far as Detroit, but soon returned
to Louisville. At this time there was a great
deal of exaggerated talk and report about the
sunny life and easy wealth of South America.
This idea appealed especially to telegraph
operators, and young Edison, with his fertile
imagination, was readily inflamed with the
glowing idea of these great possibilities.

Once more he threw up his work, and, with
a couple of young friends, made his way to
New Orleans, where they expected to catch a
specially chartered steamer for Brazil.

They arrived in New Orleans just at the
time of the great riot, when the city was in the
hands of a mob. The government had seized
the steamer for carrying troops. The young
men therefore visited another shipping office
to make inquiries about vessels for Brazil.

Here they got into conversation with an old
Spaniard, to whom they explained their in-
tentions. He had lived and worked in South



America, and was very emphatic in advising
them that the worst thing they could do was
to leave the United States, whose freedom,
calm, and opportunities could not be equaled
anywhere on the face of the globe. Edison
took the Spaniard's advice, and made his way
North again. He heard later that his two
companions had gone to Vera Cruz and had
died there of yellow fever.

He returned to Louisville and resumed
work there. He seems to have been fairly
comfortable and happy at this time. He
surrounded himself with books and various
apparatus, and even indited a treatise on

It is well known that Edison is very studious
and a great reader, but his associates sometimes
felt surprised at his fund of general information.
His own words throw some light upon this sub-
ject : " The second time I was in Louisville the
Telegraph Company had moved into a new
office, and the discipline was now good. I
took the press job. In fact, I was a very poor
sender, and therefore made the taking of press
report a specialty. The newspaper men al-
lowed me to come over, after the paper went



to press, at 3 A.M., and get all the exchanges
I wanted. These I would take home and lay
at the foot of my bed. I never slept more
than four or five hours, so that I would awake
at nine or ten and read these papers until
dinner-time. I thus kept posted, and knew
from their activity every member of Congress,
and what committees they were on, and all
about the topical doings, as well as the prices
of breadstuffs in all the primary markets. I
was in a much better position than most
operators to call on my imagination to supply
missing words or sentences, which were fre-
quent in those days of old, rotten wires,
badly insulated, especially on stormy nights.
Upon such occasions I had to supply in some
cases one-fifth of the whole matter pure
guessing but I got caught only once. There
had been some kind of convention in Virginia,
in which John Minor Botts was the leading
figure. There was great excitement about it,
and two votes had been taken in the con-
vention on the two days. There was no
doubt that the vote the next day would go a
certain way. A very bad storm came up
about ten o'clock, and my wire worked badly,



and there was a cessation of all signals ; then I
made out the words ' Minor Botts.' The next
was a New York item. I filled in a paragraph
about the convention and how the vote had
gone as I was sure it would go. But next
day I learned that, instead of there being a
vote, the convention had adjourned without
action until the day after."

The insatiable thirst for knowledge beyond
known facts again proved Edison's undoing.
Operators were strictly forbidden to remove
instruments or to use batteries except on
extra work. This rule did not mean much to
Edison, who had access to no other instru-
ments except those of the company. "I
went one night," he says, "into the battery-
room to obtain some sulphuric acid for ex-
perimenting. The carboy tipped over, the
acid ran out, went through to the manager's
room below, and ate up his desk and all the
carpet. The next morning I was summoned
before him, and told that what the company
wanted was operators, not experimenters.
I was at liberty to take my pay and get out."

Thus he was once more thrown upon the
world. He went back to Cincinnati, and be-



gan his second term there as an operator.
He was again put on night duty, much to his
satisfaction. He rented a room on the top
floor of an office building, bought a cot and an
oil-stove, a foot lathe, and some tools.

He became acquainted with Mr. Sommers,
superintendent of telegraph of the Cincinnati
& Indianapolis Railroad, who gave him per-
mission to take such scrap apparatus as he
might desire that was of no, use to the com-

Edison and Sommers became very friendly,
and were congenial in many ways. Both of
them enjoyed jokes of a practical nature, and
Edison relates one of them as follows: " Som-
mers was a very witty man," he says, "and
fond of experimenting. We worked on a self-
adjusting telegraph relay, which would have
been very valuable if we could have got it.
I soon became the possessor of a second-hand
Ruhmkorff induction coil, which, although it
would only give a small spark, would twist
the arms and clutch the hands of a man so
that he could not let go of the apparatus.
One day we went down to the roundhouse
of the Cincinnati & Indianapolis Railroad and

7 95


connected up the long wash-tank in the room
with the coil, one electrode being connected
to earth. Above this wash-room was a flat
roof. We bored a hole through the roof, and
could see the men as they came in. The first
man as he entered dipped his hands in the
water. The floor, being wet, formed a circuit,
and up went his hands. He tried it the second
time, with the same result. He then stood
against the wall with a puzzled expression.
We surmised that he was waiting for some-
body else to come in, which occurred shortly
after, with the same result. Then they went
out, and the place was soon crowded and
there was considerable excitement. Vari-
ous theories were broached to explain the
curious phenomenon. We enjoyed the sport

The reader must remember this occurred
forty years ago, when electricity was not
popularly understood. Had it occurred to-day
the mystery would have soon been explained.

It is interesting to note that the germ of
Edison's quadruplex originated while he was
at the Cincinnati office. There he became
acquainted with George Ellsworth, a tele-



graph operator who left the regular telegraph
service to become an operator for the Con-
federate guerilla Morgan.

"We soon became acquainted," says Edi-
son of this period in Cincinnati, "and he
wanted me to invent a secret method of send-
ing despatches, so that an intermediate opera-
tor could not tap the wire and understand it.
He said that if it could be accomplished he
could sell it to the government for a large sum
of money. This suited me, and I started in
and succeeded in making such an instrument,
which had in it the germ of my quadruplex
now used throughout the world, permitting
the despatch of four messages over one wire
simultaneously. By the time I had succeeded
in getting the apparatus to work Ellsworth
suddenly disappeared. Many years after-
ward I used this little device again for the
same purpose. At Menlo Park, New Jersey,
I had my laboratory. There were several
Western Union wires cut into the laboratory
and used by me in experimenting at night.
One day I sat near an instrument which I
had left connected during the night. I soon
found it was a private wire between New York



and Philadelphia, and I heard among a lot of
stuff a message that surprised me. A week
after that I had occasion to go to New York,
and, visiting the office of the lessee of the wire,
I asked him if he hadn't sent such and such a
message. The expression that came over his
face was a sight. He asked me how I knew of
such message. I told him the circumstances,
and suggested that he had better cipher such
communications, or put on a secret sounder.
The result of the interview was that I installed
for him my old Cincinnati apparatus, which
was used thereafter for many years."

Edison's second term in Cincinnati was not
a very long one. After a while he left and
went home to Port Huron, where he stayed a
short time. He soon became tired of com-
parative idleness and communicated with his
old friend, Milton Adams, who was then work-
ing in Boston, and whom he wished to rejoin
if he could get work promptly in the East.

Edison himself gives the details of this
eventful move, when he went East to grow up
with the new art of electricity. " I had left
Louisville the second time, and went home to
see my parents. After stopping at home for



some time, I got restless, and thought I would
like to work in the East. Knowing that a
former operator named Adams, who had
worked with me in the Cincinnati office, was in
Boston, I wrote him that I wanted a job there.
He wrote back that if I came on immediately
he could get me in the Western Union office.
I had helped out the Grand Trunk Railroad
telegraph people by a new device when they
lost one of the two submarine cables they had
across the river, making the remaining cable
act just as well for their purpose as if they had
two. I thought I was entitled to a pass,
which they conceded, and I started for
Boston. After leaving Toronto a terrific
blizzard came up and the train got snowed
under in a cut. After staying there twenty-
four hours, the trainmen made snow-shoes of
fence-rail splints and started out to find food,
which they did about a half mile away. They
found a roadside inn, and by means of snow-
shoes all the passengers were taken to the inn.
The train reached Montreal four days late.
A number of the passengers and myself went
to the military headquarters to testify in favor
of a soldier who had been two days late in



returning from a furlough, which was a serious
matter with military people, I learned. We
willingly did this, for this soldier was a great
story-teller, and made the time pass quickly.
I met here a telegraph operator named Stan-
ton, who took me to his boarding-house, the
most cheerless I have ever been in. Nobody
got enough to eat; the bedclothes were too
short and too thin; it was twenty-eight de-
grees below zero, and the wash-water was
frozen solid. The board was cheap, being
only one dollar and fifty cents a week.

"Stanton said that the usual live-stock
accompaniment of operators' boarding-houses
was absent; he thought the intense cold had
caused them to hibernate. Stanton, when I
was working in Cincinnati, left his position
and went out on the Union Pacific to work at
Julesburg, which was a cattle town at that
time and very tough. I remember seeing him
off on the train, never expecting to meet him
again. Six months afterward, while working
press wire in Cincinnati, about 2 A.M., there
was flung into the middle of the operating-
room a large tin box. It made a report like
a pistol, and we all jumped up startled. In



walked Stanton. 'Gentlemen,' he said, 'I
have just returned from a pleasure trip to the
land beyond the Mississippi. All my wealth
is contained in my metallic traveling-case, and
you are welcome to it.' The case contained
one paper collar. He sat down, and I noticed
that he had a woolen comforter around his
neck, with his coat buttoned closely. The
night was intensely warm. He then opened
his coat and revealed the fact that he had
nothing but the bare skin. 'Gentlemen,'
said he, ' you see before you an operator who
has reached the limit of impecuniosity.' '



WHEN Milton Adams received Edison's
letter from Port Huron he at once went
over to the Western Union office and asked the
manager, Mr. George F. Milliken, if he did not
want a good operator from the West.

"What kind of copy does he make?" was
the cautious response. Adams says: "I
passed Edison 's letter through the window for
his inspection. Milliken read it and a look of
surprise came over his countenance as he
asked me if he could take it off the line like
that. I said he certainly could, and that
there was nobody who could stick him. Milli-
ken said if he was that kind of an operator I
could send for him; and I wrote Edison to
come on, as I had a job for him in the main
office of the Western Union/*

On reporting to Mr. Milliken in Boston,
Edison secured a " job" very quickly. As he



tells the story, he says: "The manager asked
me when I was ready to go to work. 'Now/
I replied . I was then told to return at 5 . 3 o P . M . ,
and punctually at that hour I entered the
main operating-room and was introduced to
the night manager. The weather being cold,
and being clothed poorly, my peculiar appear-
ance caused much mirth, and, as I afterward
learned, the night operators had consulted to-
gether how they might 'put up a job on the
jay from the woolly West/ I was given a
pen and assigned to the New York No. i wire.
After waiting an hour, I was told to come
over to a special table and take a special
report for the Boston Herald, the conspirators
having arranged to have one of the fastest
senders in New York send the despatch and
'salt' the new man. I sat down unsus-
piciously at the table, and the New York man
started slowly. Soon he increased his speed,
to which I easily adapted my pace. This put
my rival on his mettle, and he put on his best
powers, which, however, were soon reached.
At this point I happened to look up, and saw
the operators all looking over my shoulder,
with their faces shining with fun and excite-




ment. I knew then that they were trying to
put up a job on me, but kept my own counsel.
The New York man then commenced to slur
over his words, running them together and
sticking the signals; but I had been used to
this style of telegraphy in taking report, and
was not in the least discomfited. Finally,
when I thought the fun had gone far enough,
and having about completed the special,
quietly opened the key and remarked, tele-
graphically, to my New York friend, 'Say,
young man, change off and send with your
other foot/ This broke the New York man
all up, and he turned the job over to another
man to finish. "

Edison did not devote his whole life at this
time to the routine work of a telegraph office.
His insatiable desire for knowledge led him to
study deeply the underlying principles of
electricity that made telegraphy possible, and
he was constantly experimenting to improve
the apparatus he handled daily, as well as
pursuing his studies in chemistry.

One day he was more than delighted to
pick up a complete set of Faraday's works.
Mr. Adams says that when Edison brought



home these books, at 4 A.M., he read steadily
until breakfast time, and then he remarked,
enthusiastically, " Adams, I have got so
much to do and life is so short I am going to
hustle." And thereupon he started on a run
for breakfast. Edison himself says: " It was
in Boston I bought Faraday's works. I think
I must have tried about everything in those
books. His explanations were simple. He
used no mathematics. He was the master
experimenter. I don't think there were many
copies of Faraday's works sold in those days.
The only people who did anything in electric-
ity were the telegraphers and the opticians,
making simple school apparatus to demon-
strate the principles."

At this time there was a number of practical
investigators and electrical workers iri Boston,
and Edison with his congenial tastes soon
became very much at home with them. He
spent a great deal of time among them, and
especially in the electrical workshop of the
late Charles Williams, who afterward became
an associate of Alexander Graham Bell.

It was in this workshop that Edison worked
out into an operative model his first patented


invention, a vote recorder. This forms the
subject of Edison's first patent, for which
application was signed on October n, 1868,
the patent itself being taken out June i, 1869,
No. 90,646.

The purpose of this particular device was to
permit a vote in the National House of Repre-
sentatives to be taken in a minute or so.
Edison took the vote recorder to Washington
and exhibited it before a committee. In
recalling the circumstance, he says: "The
chairman of the committee, after seeing how
quickly and perfectly it worked, said : ' Young
man, if there is any invention on earth that
we don't want down here it is this. One of
the greatest weapons in the hands of a minor-
ity to prevent bad legislation is filibustering
on votes, and this instrument would prevent
it.' I saw the truth of this, because as press
operator I had taken miles of Congressional
proceedings, and to this day an enormous
amount of time is wasted during each session
of the House in foolishly calling the members'
names and recording, and then adding, their
votes, when the whole operation could be
done in almost a moment by merely pressing

1 06


a particular button at each desk. For fili-
bustering purposes, however, the present
methods are most admirable."

The outcome of this exhibition was a great
disappointment to the young inventor, but it
proved to be a wholesome lesson, for he deter-
mined from that time forth to devote his in-
ventive faculties only to things for which
there was a real, genuine demand. We shall
see later that he has ever since lived up to the
decision then made.

After the above incident Edison, with in-
creased earnestness, resumed his study of
electricity, especially in its application to
telegraphy. He did not neglect his chemistry,
however, but indulged his tastes freely in that
direction, thus laying the foundation for the
remarkable chemical knowledge that* enabled
him later to make some of his great inventions.

He tells an amusing incident of one of his
chemical experiments of this early period:
41 1 had read in a scientific paper the method
of making nitroglycerin, and was so fired by
the wonderful properties it was said to possess
that I determined to make some of the com-
pound. We tested what we considered a very



small quantity, but this produced such ter-
rible and unexpected results that we became
alarmed, the fact dawning upon us that we
had a very large white elephant in our posses-
sion. At 6 A.M. I put the explosive into a
sarsaparilla bottle, tied a string to it, wrapped
it in a paper, and gently let it down into the
sewer at the corner of State and Washington
Streets. "

The daily routine of a telegraph office and
the busy hours of reading and experimenting
employed Edison's time for eighteen to twenty
hours a day. Life, however, was never too
strenuous for him to indulge his humor, espe-
cially if it called for the exercise of some in-
genuity, as shown in the following incident
related by him : " The office was on the ground
floor, and had been a restaurant previous to
its occupation by the Western Union Tele-
graph Company. It was literally loaded with
cockroaches, which lived between the wall
and the board running around the room at the
floor, and which came after the lunch. These
were such a bother on my table that I pasted
two strips of tin-foil on the wall at my desk,
connecting one piece to the positive pole of the


big battery supplying current to the wires and
the negative pole to the other strip. The
cockroaches moving up on the wall would
pass over the strips. The moment they got
their legs across both strips there was a flash
of light and the cockroaches went into gas.
This automatic electrocuting device got half a
column in an evening paper, and attracted so
much attention that the manager made me
stop it."

About this time an innocent use of his
chemical knowledge gave Edison a narrow
escape from injury which might have shor-
tened his career. He tells the story as follows :
"After being in Boston several months, work-
ing New York wire No. i, I was requested to
work the press wire, called the 'milk route/
as there were so many towns on it taking
press simultaneously. New York office had
reported great delays on the wire, due to
'all operators constantly interrupting, or 'break-
Je ing,' as it was called, to have words repeated
which they had failed to get; and New York
$ claimed that Boston was one of the worst
st offenders. It was a rather hard position for

Ime, for if I took the report without breaking,


it would prove the previous Boston operator
incompetent. The results made the operator
have some hard feelings against me. He was
put back on the wire, and did much better
after that. It seems that the office boy was
down on this man. One night he asked me if
I could tell him how to fix a key so that it

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Online LibraryWm. H. (William Henry) MeadowcroftThe boy's life of Edison → online text (page 5 of 15)