Boys' Life of Edison - W. H. Meadowcroft

Work and Invention in Boston

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. Milliken 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 5:30 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 appearance caused much mirth, and, as I afterward learned, the night operators had consulted together 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 unsuspiciously 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 excitement. 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 refit, and was not in the least discomfited. Finally, when I thought the fun had gone far enough, and having about completed the special, I quietly opened the key and remarked, telegraphically, 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 electricity were the telegraphers and the opticians, making simple school apparatus to demonstrate the principles."

At this time there was a number of practical investigators and electrical workers in 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 11, 1868, the patent itself being taken out June 2, 1869, No. 90,646.

The purpose of this particular device was to permit a vote in the National House of Representatives 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 minority 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 a particular button at each desk. For filibustering 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 determined from that time forth to devote his inventive 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 increased 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:

"I 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 compound. We tested what we considered a very small quantity, but this produced such terrible and unexpected results that we became alarmed, the fact dawning upon us that we had a very large white elephant in our possession. 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, especially if it called for the exercise of some ingenuity, 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 Telegraph 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 wail at my desk, connecting one piece to. the positive pole of 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 shortened his career. He tells the story as follows:

"After being in Boston several months, working New York wire No. 1, 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 operators constantly interrupting, or 'breaking,' 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 offenders. It was a rather hard position for me, 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 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 1 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 substitute 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 Edison's life in Boston, occurred through a request 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 "children."

Edison, who was always ready to earn some extra money for his experiments, and was already known as the best-informed operator in the office, accepted the task, inviting Adams, to accompany him. What happened is described by Adams as follows:

"We gathered up a couple of sounders, a battery, and some wire, and at the appointed time called on her to do the stunt. Her schoolroom 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 seventeen. 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 overcome 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 telegraphing over the line. I guess it was satisfactory; we got the money, which was the main point to us."

Edison tells the story in a similar manner, but insists that it was he who saved the situation,

"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 competed with the western Union. Adams was laid off, and as his financial resources had reached absolute zero centigrade, I undertook 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 hastening 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 window 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 stating they had received three hundred pairs, price three cents a pair, also that they had no connection with the store next door. Nobody 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 invented a stock ticker, and started a ticker service in Boston, had thirty or forty subscribers, 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 became 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 tangible 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 engaged 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 permission 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 oxidized. 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.