Boys' Life of Edison - W. H. Meadowcroft

The Early Days of Electricity

This is the life story of the greatest of inventors in the field of electricity. It is true that Thomas A. Edison has helped the progress of the world by many other inventions and discoveries quite outside of electricity, but it is in this field that he is best known. Now, in this age of electricity, it happens very fortunately that a close personal association with Mr. Edison makes it possible at last to tell younger readers the real story of Mr. Edison's life, partly in his own words. It has been a life full of surprises as well as of great achievements, and one of the surprises which we meet at the start is that, unlike Mozart, who showed his musical genius in infancy, and unlike others devoted to one thing from the outset, Edison took up electricity almost by accident.

Yet this is not so strange when we think how little electricity there was to take up in the middle of the nineteenth century. Electricity was not studied in the schools. It was not a separate art or business. Men of science had occupied themselves with electricity for a long time, but they really did not know as much about it as a bright boy in the upper grammar grades to-day. Speaking in a very general way, we may say that simple frictional electricity was an old story, that Franklin had discovered the identity of electricity and lightning, and that Galvani had discovered in 1790 and Volta had developed in 18o i the generating of electric currents from batteries composed of zinc and copper plates immersed in sulphuric acid.

But it was not until 1835, only twelve years before Edison was born, that Samuel F. B. Morse applied electrical currents to the sending of an alphabet of dots and dashes by wire. Thus it was in the infancy of telegraphy that Edison first saw the light.

Telegraph apparatus in those early days was of a crude and cumbersome kind—quite different from that which young students experiment with at the present time. For instance, the receiving magnets of the earliest telegraphs, which performed the same office as the modem sounders, weighed seventy-five pounds instead of a few ounces.

It was a very difficult undertaking for Morse to establish the telegraph after he had invented it. It was such a new idea that the public could not seem to understand its use and possibilities. People would not believe that it was possible to send messages regularly over a long stretch of wire, and, even if it were possible, that it would be of much use anyway. It took him a long time to raise money to put up a telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington. Before this, he had offered to sell the whole invention outright to the United States Government for one hundred thousand dollars; but the Government did not buy, as the invention was not thought to be worth that much money.

In 1847 the year Edison was born, there were only a few telegraph circuits in existence. The farthest line to the west was in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. It was in this early telegraph office that Andrew Carnegie was a messenger boy. We could name a great many more notable men in our country who began their careers in a similar way, or as telegraph operators, in the early days of telegraphy, but space forbids.

Within a few years after Edison was born there came a great boom in telegraphy, and new lines were put up all over the country. Thus, by the time he had grown to boyhood the telegraph was a well-established business, and the first great electrical industry became a pronounced success.

There were no other electrical industries at this time, except electro-plating to a limited extent. The chief reason of this was probably that the only means of obtaining electrical current was by means of chemical batteries, as mechanical generators had not been developed at that time.

While the principles of the dynamo-electric machine had been discovered, and a few of these machines and small electric motors had been made by scientists, in the middle of the nineteenth century such machines were little more than scientific toys, and not to be compared with the generators of modern days.

Edison, therefore, was born at the very beginning of "The Age of Electricity," which can be said to have actually begun about 1840, or soon after.

It is not too much to say that the many important and practical inventions that he has since contributed to the electrical arts have had no small weight in causing the present time to be known as "The Age of Electricity."