Boys' Life of Edison - W. H. Meadowcroft

A Busy Young Inventor

Edison had now plunged into the intensely active life that has never since ceased. Some idea of his activity may be gained from the fact that he started no fewer than three manufacturing shops in Newark during 1870-71. All of these he directed personally, besides busying himself with many of his own schemes. Speaking of those days, he says:

"Soon after starting the large shop (10 and 12 Ward Street, Newark), I rented shop-room to the inventor of a new rifle. I think it was the Berdan. In any event, it was a rifle which was subsequently adopted by the British army. The inventor employed a tool-maker who was the finest and best I had ever seen. I noticed that he worked pretty near the whole of the twenty-four hours. This kind of application I was looking for. He was getting $21.50 a week, and was also paid for overtime. I asked him if he could run the shop. 'I don't know; try me!' he said. 'All right, I will give you sixty dollars a week to run both shifts.' He went at it. His executive ability was greater than that of any other man I have yet seen. His memory was prodigious, conversation laconic, and movements rapid. He doubled the production inside three months, without materially increasing the payroll, by increasing the cutting speed of tools and by the use of various devices. When in need of rest he would lie down on a work-bench, sleep twenty or thirty minutes, and wake up fresh. As this was just what I could do, I naturally conceived a great pride in having such a man in charge of my work. But almost everything has trouble connected with it. He disappeared one day, and, although I sent men everywhere that it was likely he could be found, he was not discovered. After two weeks he came into the factory in a terrible condition as to clothes and face. He sat down, and, turning to me, said: 'Edison, it's no use, this is the third time; I can't stand prosperity. Put my salary back and give me a job.' I was very sorry to learn that it was whisky that spoiled such a career. I gave him an inferior job and kept him for a long time."

Those were indeed busy days, when, at one time, Edison, besides directing the work of his shops, was working on no less than forty-five separate inventions of his own. He had thus entered definitely upon that career as an inventor which has left so deep an imprint on the records of the Patent Office.

Soon after he commenced manufacturing he was engaged by the Automatic Telegraph Company, of New York, to help it out of its difficulties. An Englishman named George Little had brought over a system of automatic telegraphy which worked well on a short line, but was a failure when put upon the longer circuits, for which automatic methods are best adapted.

This principle of automatic telegraphy, briefly described, was somewhat as follows: A narrow paper ribbon was perforated with groups of holes corresponding to Morse characters. This ribbon was passed over a cylinder, and a metallic pen was so connected that it would drop into the holes as they passed. The pen and cylinder being connected with the telegraph line, a current would pass over the line whenever the pen touched the cylinder. At the other end of the line the electrical impulses passed through another metallic pen, which rested upon another ribbon of paper chemically prepared, and, through electro-chemical action, would mark dots and dashes upon the paper.

There were a great many very serious difficulties to be overcome in order to make this system practical on long lines, but Edison applied himself to the work with tremendous energy. His laboratory notebooks of the period show many thousands of, experiments in the three years that he was working on this problem, and during this time he also took out a long list of patents on the subject.

So successful were his efforts that with his apparatus it became possible to send and record one thousand words a minute between New York and Washington, and thirty-five hundred words a minute between New York and Philadelphia.

Later on, Edison improved this system by further inventions, by means of which the message at the receiving end was automatically printed upon the paper ribbon in Roman letters instead of dots and dashes. Thus, the paper on which the message was received could be torn off and sent out immediately to the person for whom it was intended. This saved time and expense, for under the previous system a clerk must first translate the dots and dashes into words and write it out before delivery. The apparatus worked so perfectly that three thousand words a minute were sent between New York and Philadelphia and recorded in Roman letters.

After Edison's automatic system was put into successful use in America by the Automatic Telegraph Company, an arrangement was made for a trial of the system in England, involving its probable adoption if successful. Edison went to England in 1873 to make the demonstration. He was to report there to Col. George E. Gouraud, through whom the arrangement had been made.

With one small satchel of clothes, three large boxes of instruments, and a bright fellow-telegrapher named Jack Wright, he took voyage on the Jumping Java, as she was humorously known, of the Cunard line. The voyage was rough, and the little Java justified her reputation by jumping all over the ocean. "At the table," says Edison, "there were never more than ten or twelve people. I wondered at the time how it could pay to run an ocean steamer with so few people; but when we got into calm water and could see the green fields, I was astounded to see the number of people who appeared. There were certainly two or three hundred. Only two days could I get on deck, and on one of these a gentleman had a bad scalp wound from being thrown against the iron wall of a small smoking-room erected over a freight hatch."

Arrived in London, Edison set up his apparatus at the Telegraph Street headquarters, and sent his companion to Liverpool with the instruments for that end. The condition of the test was that he was to record at the rate of one thousand words a minute, five hundred words to be sent every half hour for six hours. Edison was given .a wire and batteries to operate with, but a preliminary test soon showed that he was going to fail. Both wire and batteries were poor, and one of the men detailed by the authorities to watch the test remarked quietly, in a friendly way: 'You are not going to have much show. They are going to give you an old Bridge-water Canal wire that is so poor we don't work it, and a lot of 'sand batteries' at Liverpool." (The sand battery is now obsolete. In this type the cell containing the elements was filled with sand, which was kept moist with an electrolyte.)

The situation was rather depressing to the young American, but "I thanked him," says Edison, "and hoped to reciprocate somehow. I knew I was in a hole. I had been staying at a little hotel in Covent Garden called the Hummums, and got nothing but roast beef and flounders, and my imagination was getting into a coma. What I needed was pastry: That night I found a French. pastry shop in High Holborn Street and filled up. My imagination got all right. Early in the morning I saw Gouraud, stated my case, and asked if he would stand for the purchase of a powerful battery to send to Liverpool. He said 'Yes.' I went immediately to Apps, on the Strand, and asked if he had a powerful battery. He said he hadn't; that all that he had was Tyndall's Royal Institution battery, which he supposed would not serve. I saw it—one hundred cells—and getting the price—one hundred guineas—hurried to Gouraud. He said 'Go ahead.' I telegraphed to the man in Liverpool. He came on, and got the battery to Liverpool, set up and ready just two hours before the test commenced. One of the principal things that made the system a success was that the line was put to earth at the sending end through a magnet, and the extra current from this passed to the line served to sharpen the recording waves. This new battery was strong enough to pass a powerful current through the magnet without materially diminishing the strength of the current." The test under these more favorable circumstances was a success. "The record was as perfect as copper plate, and not a single remark was made in the 'time lost' column."

Edison was now asked if he thought he could get a better speed through submarine cables with this system, and replied that he would like a chance to try it. For this purpose twenty-two hundred miles of cable stored under water in tanks was placed at his disposal from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. He says: "This just suited me, as I preferred night work. I got my apparatus down and set up, ' and then to get a preliminary idea of what the distortion of the signal would be I sent a single dot, which should have been recorded upon my automatic paper by a mark about one thirty-second of an inch long. Instead of that it was twenty-seven feet long. If I ever had any conceit, it vanished from my boots up! I worked on this cable more than two weeks, and the best I could do was two words per minute, which was only one-seventh of what the guaranteed speed of the cable should be when laid. What I did not know at the time was that a coiled cable, owing to induction, was infinitely worse than when laid out straight, and that my speed was as good as, if not better than, the regular system; but no one told me this."

After a short stay in England Edison returned to America. He states that the automatic was finally adopted in England and used for many years; indeed, it is still in use there. But they took whatever they needed from his system, and he "has never had a cent from them."

On arriving home he resumed arduous work on many of his inventions—chiefly those relating to duplex telegraphy. This subject had interested him at various times for four or five years previously, and he now returned to it with great vigor.

Many inventors had been working on multiple transmission, and at this period a system of sending two messages in opposite directions at the same time over one wire had been invented by Joseph Stearns, and had then lately come into use.

The subject of multiple transmission gave plenty of play for ingenuity and was one that had great fascination for Edison. He worked out many plans, and in April, 1873, filed two applications for patents. One of these covered an invention by which not only could two messages be sent in opposite directions over one wire at the same time, but, if desired, two separate messages could be sent simultaneously in the same direction  over a single wire. The former method was called the "duplex," and the latter the "diplex. "

Duplexing was accomplished by varying the strength  of the current, and diplexing by also varying the direction  of the current. In this invention there was the germ of the quadruplex, and now Edison redoubled his efforts toward completing the latter system, for, while duplexing doubled the capacity of a line, the quadruplex would increase it four times.

He was working also on other inventions, but the quadruplex claimed most of his attention. He says: "This problem was of the most difficult and complicated kind, and I bent all my energies toward its solution. It required a peculiar effort of the mind, such as the imagining of eight different things moving simultaneously on a mental plane without anything to demonstrate their efficiency."

It is, perhaps, hardly to be wondered at that, when notified he would have to pay twelve and one-half percent extra if his taxes in Newark were not at once paid, he actually forgot his own name when asked for it suddenly at the City Hall, and lost his place in the line!

He succeeded, however, in inventing a successful quadruplex system by a skilful combination of the duplex and diplex with other ingenious devices. The immense value of this invention may be realized when it is stated that it has been estimated to have saved from fifteen million to twenty million dollars in the cost of line construction in America. But Mr. Edison received only a small amount for it. We will let him tell the story in his own words:

"About this time I invented the quadruplex. I wanted to interest the Western Union Telegraph Company in it, with a view of selling it, but was unsuccessful until I made an arrangement with the chief electrician of the company, so that he could be known as a joint inventor and receive a portion of the money. At that time I was very short .of money, and needed it more than glory. This electrician appeared to want glory more than money, so it was an easy trade. I brought my apparatus over and was given a separate room with a marble-tiled floor—which, by the way, was a very hard kind of floor to sleep on—and started in putting on the finishing touches.

'Trouble on the Quad'


"After two months of very hard work I got a detail at regular times of eight operators, and we got it working nicely from one room to another over a wire which ran to Albany and back. Under certain conditions of weather one side of the quadruplex would work very shakily, and I had not succeeded in ascertaining the cause of the trouble. On a certain day, when there was a board meeting of the company, I was to make an exhibition test. The day arrived. I had picked the best operators in New York, and they were familiar with the apparatus. I arranged that, if a storm occurred and the bad side got shaky, they should do the best they could and draw freely on their imaginations. They were sending old messages. About twelve o'clock everything went wrong, as there was a storm somewhere near Albany, and the bad side got shaky. Mr. Orton, the president, and William H. Vanderbilt and the other directors came in. I had my heart trying to climb up around my esophagus. I was paying a sheriff five dollars a day to withhold execution of judgment which had been entered against me in a case which I had paid no attention to; and if the quadruplex had not worked before the president I knew I was to have trouble and might lose my machinery. The New York Times  came out next day with a full account. I was given five thousand dollars as part payment for the invention, which made me easy, and I expected the whole thing would be closed up. But Mr. Orton went on an extended tour just about that time. I had paid for all the experiments on the quadruplex and exhausted the money, and I was again in straits. In the mean time I had introduced the apparatus on the lines of the company, where it was very successful.

"At that time the general superintendent of the Western Union was Gen. T. T. Eckert (who had been Assistant Secretary of War with Stanton). Eckert was secretly negotiating with Gould to leave the Western Union and take charge of the Atlantic and Pacific—Gould's company. One day Eckert called me into his office and made inquiries about money matters. I told him Mr. Orton had gone off and left me without means, and I was in straits. He told me I would never get another cent, but that he knew a man who would buy it. I told him of my arrangement with the electrician, and said I could not sell it as a whole to anybody; but if I got enough for it I would sell all my interest in any share I might have. He seemed to think his party would agree to this. I had a set of quadruplex over in my shop, 10 and 12 Ward Street, Newark, and he arranged to bring him over next evening to see the apparatus. So the next day Eckert came over with Jay Gould and introduced him to me. This was the first time I had ever seen him. I exhibited and explained the apparatus, and they departed. The next day Eckert sent for me, and I was taken up to Gould's house, which was near the Windsor Hotel, Fifth Avenue. In the basement he had an office. It was in the evening, and we went in by the servants' entrance, as Eckert probably feared that he was watched. Gould started in at once and asked me how much I wanted. I said, 'Make me an offer.' Then he said, 'I will give you thirty thousand dollars.' I said, 'I will sell any interest I may have for that money,' which was something more than I thought I could get. The next morning I went with Gould to the office of his lawyers, Sherman & Sterling, and received a check for thirty thousand dollars, with a remark by Gould that I had got the steamboat Plymouth Rock, as he had sold her for thirty thousand dollars, and had just received the check. There was a big fight on between Gould's company and the Western Union, and this caused litigation. The electrician, on account of the testimony involved, lost his glory. The judge never decided the case, but went crazy a few months afterward."

Mr. Gould controlled the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company and was aiming to get control of the Western Union Company, and his purchase of Edison's share in the quadruplex was an important move in this direction.

Having learned of the success of Edison's automatic system, mentioned in the early part of this chapter, Mr. Gould's next move was to get control of that. It was owned by Mr. Edison and his associates of the Automatic Telegraph Company, and that company was bought by Mr. Gould under an agreement to pay four million dollars in stock. As to this, Mr. Edison says: "After this, Gould wanted me to help install the automatic system in the Atlantic and Pacific Company, of which General Eckert had been elected president, the company having bought the Automatic Telegraph Company. I did a lot of work for this company making automatic apparatus in my shop at Newark."

Unfortunately for the inventor and his associates, the terms of the contract have never been carried out. Mr. Edison remarks in regard to this:

"He" (Gould) "took no pride in building up an enterprise. He was after money, and money only. Whether the company was a success or a failure mattered not to him. After he had hammered the Western Union through his opposition company and had tired out Mr. Vanderbilt, the latter retired from control, and Gould went in and consolidated his company and controlled the Western Union. He then repudiated the contract with the Automatic Telegraph people, and they never received a cent for their wires or patents, and I lost three years of very hard labor. But I never had any grudge against him, because he was so able in his line, and as long as my part was successful the money with me was a secondary consideration. When Gould got the Western Union I knew no further progress in telegraphy was possible, and I went into other lines."

One of the most remarkable suits in the history of American jurisprudence arose out of this transaction. Mr. Edison and his associates sued Mr. Gould in 1876 for the recovery of the contract price of these inventions, and, at this writing, thirty-five years later, the suit has not been finally decided. It is now on appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

A busier shop than that of the young inventor during the years 1870 to 1874 would be difficult to find. Not only was he and it engaged on the tremendous problems of the automatic and quadruplex systems, but the shop was also busy making stock tickers. The hours were endless; and on one occasion when an order was on hand for a large quantity of these instruments Edison locked the men in until the job had been finished of making the machine perfect, and "all the bugs taken out," which meant sixty hours of hard work before the difficulties were overcome.

In addition to all this work, Edison gave attention to many other things. One of them was the first typewriter. In the early seventies Mr. D. N. Craig, who was interested in the automatic, brought with him from Milwaukee a Mr. Sholes, who had a wooden model of a machine to which had been given the then new and unfamiliar name of "typewriter." Mr. Craig was interested in the machine and put the model in Edison's hands to perfect.

"This typewriter proved a difficult thing," says Edison, "to make commercial. The alignment of the letters was awful. One letter would be one-sixteenth of an inch above the others, and all the letters wanted to wander out of line. I worked on it till the machine gave fair results. Some were made and used in the office of the Automatic Company. Craig was very sanguine that some day all business letters would be written on a typewriter. He died before that took place; but it gradually made its way. The typewriter I got into commercial shape is now known as the Remington. I now had five shops, and with experimenting on this new scheme I was pretty busy—at least I did not have ennui."

Later on, after the automatic was completed, and Edison was installing the system for the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company he says:

"About this time I invented a district messenger call-box system, and organized a company called the Domestic Telegraph Company, and started in to install the system in New York. I had great difficulty in getting subscribers, having tried several canvassers, who, one after the other, failed to get subscribers. When I was about to give it up a test operator named Brown, who was on the Automatic Telegraph wire .between New York and Washington, which passed through my Newark shop, asked permission to let him try and see if he couldn't get subscribers. I had very little faith in his ability to get any, but I thought I would give him a chance, as he felt certain of his ability to succeed. He started in, and the results were surprising. Within a month he had procured two hundred subscribers, and the company was a success. I have never quite understood why six men should fail absolutely, while the seventh man should succeed. Perhaps hypnotism would account for it. This company was sold out to the Atlantic and Pacific Company."

This was not the first time that Edison had worked on district messenger signal boxes, for as far back as 1872 he had applied for a patent on a device of this kind. Although he was not the first, he was a very early inventor in this field.

It will be seen, therefore, that not all of his problems and inventions were connected with telegraphy. He seemed to find relief in working on several lines that were quite different and distinct, but all were useful and capable of wide application. For instance, when we take a piece of paraffin paper off candy, chocolate, chewing-gum or other articles, we scarcely realize that it owes its introduction to Mr. Edison. Yet such is the fact, and we relate it in his own modest words: "Toward the latter part of 1875, in the Newark shop, I invented a device for multiplying copies of letters, which I sold to Mr. A. B. Dick, of Chicago, and in the years since it has been introduced universally throughout the world. It is called the mimeograph. I also invented devices for making, and introduced, paraffin paper, now used universally for wrapping up candy, etc."

In the mimeograph a stencil is prepared by writing with a pointed pencil-like stylus on a tough prepared paper placed on a finely grooved steel plate. The pressure of the stylus causes the letters to be punctured in the sheet by a series of minute perforations, thus forming a stencil from which hundreds of copies can be made.

Edison accomplished the same perforating result by two other inventions, one a pneumatic and the other an electric motor. The latter was the one which came into extensive use, and was called the "Edison electric pen." A tiny electric motor was mounted on a pencil-like tube in which a pointed stylus (connected to the motor) traveled to and fro at a very high rate of speed. Current from a battery was supplied to the motor through a flexible cord, and the tube was held and used like a pencil, as in the other case. As many as three thousand copies have been made from such a stencil.