Wm. H. (William Henry) Meadowcroft.

The boy's life of Edison online

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would not ' break, ' even if the circuit-breaker
was open, and also so that it could not be
easily detected. I told him to jab a penful of
ink on the platinum points, as there was sugar
enough in it to make it sufficiently thick to
hold up when the operator tried to break the
current still going through the ink, so that he
could not break.

"The next night about i A.M. this operator,
on the press wire, while I was standing near a
House printer studying it, pulled out a glass
insulator, then used upside down as a sub-
stitute for an ink-bottle, and threw it with
great violence at me, just missing my head.
It would certainly have killed me if it had not
missed. The cause of the trouble was that
this operator was doing the best he could not
to break, but, being compelled to open his
key, he found he couldn't. The press matter



came right along, and he could not stop it.
The office boy had put the ink in a few minutes
before, when the operator had turned his head
during a lull. He blamed me instinctively
as the cause of the trouble. Later we became
good friends. He took his meals at the same
'emaciator' that I did. His main object in
life seemed to be acquiring the art of throwing
up wash-pitchers and catching them without
breaking them. About a third of his salary
was used up in paying for pitchers."

One of the most amusing incidents of Edi-
son's life in Boston, occurred through a re-
quest received at the Western Union office one
day from the principal of a select school for
young ladies. The principal desired to have
some one sent up to the school to exhibit and
describe the Morse telegraph to her "chil-

Edison, who was always ready to earn some
extra money for his experiments, and was al-
ready known as the best-informed operator in
the office, accepted the task, inviting Adams
to accompany him. What happened is de-
scribed by Adams as follows: "We gathered
up a couple of sounders, a battery, and some
8 in


wire, and at the appointed time called on her
to do the stunt. Her school-room was about
twenty by twenty feet, not including a small
platform. We rigged up the line between the
two ends of the room, Edison taking the stage,
while I was at the other end of the room.
All being in readiness, the principal was told
to bring in her children. The door opened, and
in came about twenty young ladies elegantly
gowned, not one of whom was under seven-
teen. When Edison saw them I thought he
would faint. He called me on the line and
asked me to come to the stage and explain the
mysteries of the Morse system. I replied that
I thought he was in the right place, and told
him to get busy with his talk on dots and
dashes. Always modest, Edison was so over-
come he could hardly speak, but he managed
to say finally that, as his friend, Mr. Adams,
was better equipped with cheek than he was,
we would change places, and he would do the
demonstrating while I explained the whole
thing. This caused the bevy to turn to see
where the lecturer was. I went on the stage,
said something, and we did some telegfaphing
over the line. I guess it was satisfactory ; we



got the money, which was the main point to


Edison tells the story in a similar manner,
but insists that it was he who saved the situa-
tion. " I managed to say that I would work
the apparatus, and Mr. Adams would make
the explanations. Adams was so embarrassed
that he fell over an ottoman. The girls
tittered, and this increased his embarrassment
until he couldn't say a word. The situation
was so desperate that for a reason I never
could explain I started in myself and talked
and explained better than I ever did before or
since. I can talk to two or three persons,
but when there are more they radiate some
unknown form of influence which paralyzes
my vocal cords. However, I got out of this
scrape, and many times afterward, when I
chanced with other operators to meet some of
the young ladies on their way home from
school they would smile and nod, much to
the mystification of the operators, who were
ignorant of this episode."

The purchase of supplies and apparatus
for his constant experiments and studies kept
Edison's pocket-money at low ebb. He never



had a surplus of cash, and tells this amusing
story of those impecunious days :

"My friend Adams was working in the
Franklin Telegraph Company, which com-
peted with the Western Union. Adams was
laid off, and as his financial resources had
reached absolute zero centigrade, I under-
took to let him sleep in my hall bedroom.
I generally had hall bedrooms, because they
were cheap and I needed money to buy
apparatus. I also had the pleasure of his
genial company at the boarding-house about
a mile distant, but at the sacrifice of some
apparatus. One morning, as we were hasten-
ing to breakfast, we came into Tremont Row,
and saw a large crowd in front of two small
'gents" furnishing goods stores. We stopped
to ascertain the cause of the excitement. One
store put up a paper sign in the display win-
dow which said, * Three hundred pairs of
stockings received this day, five cents a pair
no connection with the store next door/
Presently the other store put up a sign stat-
ing they had received three hundred pairs,
price three cents a pair, also that they had
no connection with the store next door. No-



body went in. The crowd kept increasing.
Finally, when the price had reached three
pairs for one cent, Adams said to me: 'I
can't stand this any longer; give me a
cent.' I gave him a cent, and he elbowed
his way in; and throwing the money on the
counter, the store being filled with women
clerks, he said, 'Give me three pairs/ The
crowd was breathless, and the girl took down
a box and drew out three pairs of baby socks.
'Oh !' said Adams, ' I want men's size. ' ' Well,
sir, we do not permit one to pick sizes for
that amount of money/ (And the crowd
roared, and this broke up the sales."

During Edison's first stay in Boston he
began to weary of the monotonous routine of
a telegraph operator's life and took steps to
establish himself in an independent -business.
It was at this point that he began his career as
an inventor.

He says: "After the vote recorder I in-
vented a stock ticker, and started a ticker
service in Boston, had thirty or forty sub-
scribers, and operated from a room over the
Gold Exchange. This was about a year after
Callahan started in New York."


It has been generally supposed that Edison
did not take up stock ticker work until he left
Boston finally and went to New York in 1869.
But the above shows that he actually started
a ticker service in Boston in 1868.

The stock ticker had been invented about
a year before, 1867, by E. A. Callahan, and
had then been introduced into service in New
York. Its success was immediate, and it be-
came the common ambition of every operator
to invent a new ticker, as there seemed to be a
promise of great wealth in this direction.
Edison, however, was about the only one in
Boston who seems to have achieved any tangi-
ble result.

This was not by any means all the practical
work he did in Boston at this time, as we learn
from his own words. He says: "I also en-
gaged in putting up private lines, upon which
I used an alphabetical dial instrument for
telegraphing between business establishments,
a forerunner of modern telephony. This
instrument was very simple and practical,
and any one could work it after a few minutes'
explanation. I had these instruments made
at Mr. Hamblet's, who had a little shop where



he was engaged in experimenting with electric
clocks. Mr. Hamblet was the father and
introducer in after years of the Western Union
Telegraph system of time distribution. My
laboratory was the headquarters for the men,
and also of tools and supplies for those private
lines. They were put up cheaply, as I used
the roofs of houses, just as the Western Union
did. It never occurred to me to ask per-
mission from the owners; all we did was to go
to the store, etc., say we were telegraph men,
and wanted to go up to the wires on the roof;
and permission was always granted.

" In this laboratory I had a large induction
coil which I had borrowed to make some
experiments with. One day I got hold of
both electrodes of the coil, and it clinched
my hands on them so that I couldn't let go.
The battery was on a shelf. The only way I
could get free was to back off and pull the
coil, so that the battery wires would pull the
cells off the shelf and thus break the circuit.
I shut my eyes and pulled, but the nitric acid
splashed all over my face and ran down my
back. I rushed to a sink, which was only
half big enough, and got in as well as I could



and wiggled around for several minutes to
permit the water to dilute the acid and stop
the pain. My face and back were streaked
with yellow; the skin was thoroughly oxi-
dized. I did not go on the street by daylight
for two weeks, as the appearance of my face
was dreadful. The skin, however, peeled off,
and new skin replaced it without any damage."

With all the practical work he was now
doing, Boston seemed to be too limited a
sphere, and Edison longed for the greater
opportunities of New York. His friend
Adams went West to continue a life of roving
and adventure, but the serious-minded Edison
had had more than enough of aimless roaming,
and had determined to forge ahead on the
lines on which he was working.

Realizing that he must look to New York
to better his fortunes, Edison, deep in debt
for his new inventions, but with high hope and
courage, now made the next momentous step
in his career.



EDISON came first to New York in 1868,
with his early stock printer, which he
tried unsuccessfully to sell. He went back to
Boston, and, quite undismayed, got up a
duplex telegraph. "Toward the end of my
stay in Boston," he says, " I obtained a loan of
money, amounting to eight hundred dollars,
to build up a peculiar kind of duplex tele-
graph for sending two messages over a single
wire simultaneously. The apparatus was
built, and I left the Western Union employ
and went to Rochester, New York, to test
the apparatus on the lines of the Atlantic and
Pacific Telegraph between that city and New
York. But the assistant at the other end
could not be made to understand anything,
notwithstanding I had written out a very
minute description of just what to do. After
trying for a week I gave it up and returned



to New York with but a few cents in my

No one could have been in direr poverty
than Edison when the steamboat landed him
in New York in 1869. He was in debt, and
his few belongings in books and instruments
had to be left behind. He was not far from

After leaving the boat his first thought was
for breakfast; but he was without money to
obtain it. He walked the streets, and in pass-
ing a wholesale tea house saw a man " tasting "
tea, so he went in and asked the " taster" if
he might have some tea. His request was
granted, and this was his first breakfast in
New York.

He knew a telegraph operator in the city,
and in the course of the day succeeded in find-
ing him, but he also was out of work, and the
best he could do was to lend Edison one

By this time Edison was extremely hungry,
and he gave most serious consideration as to
what he should buy in the way of food that
would be most satisfying. He finally decided
upon apple dumplings and coffee, which he



obtained at Smith & McNeil's restaurant. He
says he never ate anything more appetizing.

He applied to the Western Union Company
for a position as operator, but as there was no
immediate vacancy he was obliged to wait
for an opening. Having only the remainder
of the borrowed dollar, he did not want to
spend it for lodging, so he got permission to
stay overnight in the battery-room of the
Gold Indicator Company. Thus he kept
what little change he had to buy food. /

This was four years after the Civil War,
but its effects were felt everywhere, and
notably in the depreciation of government
securities and our paper money. Gold, being
the standard, was regarded as much more
valuable than a paper promise to pay issued
by a government heavily in debt.* A gold
dollar, therefore, would buy much more than
a paper dollar, at times a dollar and a quarter,
or a dollar and a half in value. In a word,
gold commanded a high premium. For sev-
eral years afterward there was a great deal of
speculation in the precious metal, and a " Gold
Room" had been established in Wall Street,
where the transactions took place. At first



the prices were exhibited on a blackboard
there, but before long this plan was found to
be too slow for the brokers. Then Dr. S. S.
Laws, vice president and presiding officer of
the Gold Exchange, invented a system of
indicators to be placed in the offices of brokers.
These indicators were operated from a com-
plicated transmitting instrument at the Ex-
change, and each one showed the fluctuations
of price as transactions took place. Dr. Laws
resigned from the Exchange and organized the
Gold Indicator Company, which put the sys-
tem into operation.

At the time when Edison took shelter at
night in the battery-room of the company
there were about three hundred instruments
in the offices of subscribers. While waiting
to hear from the Western Union, Edison
spent his days studying the indicators and the
complicated transmitting instrument in the
office, controlled from the keyboard of the
operator on the floor of the Gold Exchange.

What happened next has been the basis of
many inaccurate stories, but the following is
Mr. Edison's own version: " On the third day
of my arrival, and while sitting in the office,



the complicated general instrument for send-
ing on all the lines, and which made a very
great noise, suddenly came to a stop with a
crash. Within two minutes over three hun-
dred boys a boy from every broker in the
street rushed up-stairs and crowded the long
aisle and office, that hardly had room for one
hundred, all yelling that such and such a
broker's wire was out of order and to fix it at
once. It was pandemonium, and the man
in charge became so excited that he lost con-
trol of all the knowledge he ever had. I went
to the indicator, and, having studied it thor-
oughly, knew where the trouble ought to be,
and found it. One of the innumerable con-
tact springs had broken off and had fallen
down between the two gear-wheels and
stopped the instrument ; but it was not very
noticeable. As I went out to tell the man in
charge what the matter was Dr. Laws ap-
peared on the scene, the most excited person
I had seen. He demanded of the man the
cause of the trouble, but the man was speech-
less. I ventured to say that I knew what the
trouble was, and he said, 'Fix it! Fix it!
Be quick!' I removed the spring and set the



contact wheels at zero; and the line, battery,
and inspecting men all scattered through the
financial district to set the instruments. In
about two hours things were working again.
Dr. Laws came in to ask my name and what I
was doing. I told him, and he asked me to
come to his private office the following day.
His office was filled with stacks of books all
relating to metaphysics and kindred matters.
He asked me a great many questions about
the instruments and his system, and I showed
him how he could simplify things generally.
He then requested that I should call next
day. On arrival, he stated at once that he
had decided to put me in charge of the whole
plant, and that my salary would be three
hundred dollars a month! This was such a
violent jump from anything I had ever had
before that it rather paralyzed me for a while.
I thought it was too much to be lasting; but
I determined to try and live up to that salary
if twenty hours a day of hard work would do
it. I kept this position, made many improve-
ments, decked several stock tickers, until the
Gold and Stock Telegraph Company consoli-
(Jate4 with the Gold Indicator Company."



Certainly few changes in fortune have been
more sudden and dramatic in any notable
career than this which thus placed an ill-clad,
unkempt, half -starved, eager lad in a position
of such responsibility in days when the fluctua-
tions in the price of gold at every instant
meant fortune or ruin to thousands.

There was at this time a very active period
of speculation, and not a great while after-
ward came the attempt of Jay Gould and his
associates to corner the gold market by buying
all the available supply. This brought about
the panic of Black Friday, September 24,

Edison, then but twenty-two years old,
was a keen observer, and his recollection of
this episode is interesting. "On Black Fri-
day,'* he says, "we had a very exciting time
with the indicators. The Gould and Fisk
crowd had cornered gold, and had run the
quotations up faster than the indicator could
follow. The indicator was composed of several
wheels; on the circumference of each wheel
were the numerals; and one wheel had frac-
tions. It worked in the same way as an
ordinary counter; one wheel made ten revolu-



tions, and at the tenth it advanced the adja-
cent wheel; and this, in its turn having gone
ten revolutions, advanced the next wheel, and
so on. On the morning of Black Friday
the indicator was quoting one hundred and
fifty premium, whereas the bids by Gould's
agents in the Gold Room were one hundred
and sixty-five for five millions or any part.
We had a paper-weight at the transmitter
(to speed it up), and by one o'clock reached
the right quotation. The excitement was
prodigious. New Street, as well as Broad
Street, was jammed with excited people.
I sat on the top of the Western Union tele-
graph booth to watch the surging, crazy
crowd. One man came to the booth, grabbed
a pencil, and attempted to write a message
to Boston. The first stroke went clear off
the blank; he was so excited that he had the
operator write the message for him. Amid
great excitement Speyer, the banker, went
crazy, and it took five men to hold him; and
everybody lost their heads. The Western
Union operator came to me and said : * Shake,
Edison, we are O. K. We haven't got a cent.'
I felt very happy because we were poor.



These occasions are very enjoyable to a poor
man; but they occur rarely."

Edison in those days rather liked the
modest coffee-shops and mentions visiting
one. "When on the New York No. i ,wire
that I worked in Boston there was an operator
named Jerry Borst at the other end. He
was a first-class receiver and rapid sender.
We made up a scheme to hold this wire, so he
changed one letter of the alphabet and I soon
got used to it; and finally we changed three
letters. If any operator tried to receive from
Borst he couldn't do it, so Borst and I always
worked together. Borst did less talking than
any operator I ever knew. Never having
seen him, I went, while in New York, to call
upon him. I did all the talking. He would
listen, stroke his beard, and say nothing. In
the evening I went over to an all-night lunch-
house in Printing House Square, in a base-
ment Oliver's. Night editors, including
Horace Greeley, and Henry Raymond, of the
New York Times, took their midnight lunch
there. When I went with Borst and another
operator they pointed out two or three men
who were then celebrated in the newspaper

9 127


world. The night was intensely hot and
close. After getting our lunch and upon
reaching the sidewalk, Borst opened his
mouth, and said: 'That's a great place; a
plate of cakes, a cup of coffee, and a Russian
bath for ten cents/ This was about fifty
per cent, of his conversation for two days."

The work of Edison on the gold indicator
had thrown him into close relationship with
Mr. Franklin L. Pope, a young telegraph
engineer, and afterward a distinguished ex-
pert and technical writer. Each recognized
the special ability of the other, and barely a
week after Black Friday the announcement
of their partnership appeared in the Teleg-
rapher of October i, 1869.

This was the first " professional card," if it
may be so described, ever issued in America
by a firm of electrical engineers.

In order to be near his new friend, Edison
boarded with Pope at Elizabeth, New Jersey,
for some time living the " strenuous life" in
the performance of his duties and following
up his work on telegraph printers with marked



In regard to this Mr. Edison says : " While
with them" (Pope and J. N. Ashley) "I de-
vised a printer to print gold quotations in-
stead of indicating them. The lines were
started, and the whole was sold out to the
Gold and Stock Telegraph Company. My ex-
perimenting was all done in the small shop of
a Dr. Bradley, located near the station of the
Pennsylvania Railroad in Jersey City. Every
night I left for Elizabeth on the i A.M. train,
then walked half a mile to Mr. Pope's house,
and up at 6 A.M. for breakfast, to catch the
7 A.M. train. This continued all winter, and
many were the occasions when I was nearly
frozen in the Elizabeth walk."

After the Edison and Pope printer was
bought out by the Gold and Stock Telegraph
Company, its president, Gen. Marshall Lef-
ferts, requested Edison to go to work on im-
proving the stock ticker, he, Lefferts, to
furnish the money.

Edison tackled the subject enthusiastically,
and as one result produced the "Universal"
ticker, which came into wide-spread use in its
day. This and some other inventions had a
Startling effect on his fortunes. Mr, Edison


says: " I made a great many inventions; one
was the special ticker used for many years out-
side of New York in the large cities. This
was made exceedingly simple, as they did not
have the experts we had in New York to
handle anything complicated. The same
ticker was used on the London Stock Ex-
change. After I had made a great number
of inventions and obtained patents, the
General seemed anxious that the matter
should be closed up. One day I exhibited
and worked a successful device whereby, if a
ticker should get out of unison in a broker's
office and commence to print wild figures, it
could be brought to unison from the central
station, which saved the labor of many men
and much trouble to the broker. He called
me into his office, and said : ' Now, young man,
I want to close up the matter of your inven-
tions. How much do you think you should
receive ?' I had made up my mind that, tak-
ing into consideration the time and killing
pace I was working at, I should be entitled to
five thousand dollars, but could get along with
three thousand dollars. When the psycho-
logical moment arrived, I hadn't the nerve to



name such a large sum, so I said: 'Well,
General, suppose you make me an offer/
Then he said: 'How would forty thousand
dollars strike you?' This caused me to come
as near fainting as I ever got. I was afraid he
would hear my heart beat. I managed to say
that I thought it was fair. 'All right, I
will have a contract drawn; come around in
three days and sign it, and I will give you the
money.' I arrived on time, but had been
doing some considerable thinking on the sub-
ject. The sum seemed to be very large for the
amount of work, for, at that time I deter-
mined the value by the time and trouble, and
not by what the invention was worth to others.
I thought there was something unreal about
it. However, the contract was handed to me.
I signed without reading it."

Edison was then handed the first check he
had ever received, one for forty thousand
dollars. He went down to the bank and
passed the check in to the paying teller, who
handed it back to him with some remarks
which in his deafness he did not hear. Fancy-
ing for a moment he had been cheated, Edison
went outside "to let the cold sweat evaporate."


He went back to the General, who, with his
secretary, had a good laugh over the matter,
and told him the check must be endorsed,
and sent with him a clerk to identify him.

The ceremony of identification performed

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Online LibraryWm. H. (William Henry) MeadowcroftThe boy's life of Edison → online text (page 6 of 15)