Boys' Life of Edison - W. H. Meadowcroft

From Poverty to Independence

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 telegraph 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 pocket "

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 starving.

After leaving the boat his first thought was for breakfast; but he was without money to obtain it, He walked the streets, and in passing 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 finding him, but he also was out of work, and the best he could do was to lend Edison one dollar.

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 & McNell's restaurant. He says he never ate anything more appetizing.

He applied to the W stern 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 several 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 complicated transmitting instrument at the Exchange, 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 system 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 sending on all the lines, and which made a very great noise, suddenly came to a stop with a crash. Within two minutes over three hundred boys—a boy from every broker in the street—rushed upstairs 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 control of all the knowledge he ever had. I went to the indicator, and, having studied it thoroughly, knew where the trouble ought to be, and found it. One of the innumerable contact 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 appeared on the scene, the most excited person I had seen. He demanded of the man the cause of the trouble, but the man was speechless. 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 improvements, devised several stock tickers, until the Gold and Telegraph Stock Company consolidated 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 fluctuations 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 afterward 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, 1860.

Edison, then but twenty-two years old, was a keen observer, and his recollection of this episode is interesting.

"On Black Friday," 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 fractions. It worked in the same way as an ordinary counter; one wheel made ten revolutions, and at the tenth it advanced the adjacent 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 telegraph 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 basement—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 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 percent 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 expert 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 Telegrapher of October 1, 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 success. In regard to this Mr. Edison says:

"While with them" (Pope and J. N. Ashley) "I devised a printer to print gold quotations instead of indicating them. The lines were started, and the whole was sold out to the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company. My experimenting 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 r A.M. train, then walked half a mile to Mr. Pope's house, and up at 6 A. gut, 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 Lefferts, requested Edison to go to work on improving 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 widespread 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 outside 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 Exchange. 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 inventions. How much do you think you should receive?' I had made up my mind that, taking 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 psychological 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 subject. The sum seemed to be very large for the amount of work, for, at that time I determined 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. Fancying 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 with the paying teller, who was quite merry over the incident, Edison was given the amount in bundles of small bills "until there certainly seemed to be one cubic foot." Unaware that he was the victim of a practical joke, Edison proceeded gravely to stow away the money in his overcoat pockets and all his other pockets. He then went to Newark and sat up all night with the money for fear it might be stolen. Once more he sought help next morning, when the General laughed heartily, and, telling the clerk that the joke must not be carried any further, enabled him to deposit the currency in the bank and open an account—his first bank account.

Thus in a very brief time Edison had passed from poverty to independence. Not only that, but he had made a deep impression as to his originality and ability on important people, and had brought out valuable inventions. Thus he lifted himself at one bound out of the ranks and away from the drudgery of the key.

Many young men of twenty-two would have been so dazzled by coming suddenly into possession of forty thousand dollars after a period of poverty, struggle, and hard work, that their main ideas would have been of recreation end pleasure. Not so with Edison, however. Naturally enterprising and a pioneer, this money meant to him nothing but means to an end.

He bought some machinery and opened a small shop and got work for it. Very quickly he was compelled to move to larger quarters, Nos. 10 and 12 Ward Street, Newark, New Jersey. He secured large orders from General Lefferts to build stock tickers, and employed fifty men.

As business increased he put on a night force, and was his own foreman in both shifts. Half an hour of sleep three or four times in the twenty-four hours was all he needed. His force increased to one hundred and fifty men, and, besides superintending all the work day and night, he was constantly making new inventions in the lines on which he was then working, which was chiefly stock tickers.

A glimpse at some of young Edison's first methods as a manufacturer is interesting. He says:

"Nearly all my men were on piece-work, and I allowed them to make good wages, and never cut until the pay became absurdly high as they got more expert. I kept no books. I had two hooks. All the bills and accounts I owed I jabbed on one hook, and memoranda of all owed to myself I put on the other. When some of the bills fell due, and I couldn't deliver tickers to get a supply of money, I gave a note. When the notes were due a messenger came around from the bank with the note and a protest pinned to it for one dollar and twenty-five cents. Then I would go to New York and get an advance or pay the note if I had the money. This method of giving notes for my accounts and having all notes protested I kept up over two years, yet my credit was fine. Every store I traded with was always glad to furnish goods, perhaps in amazed admiration of my system of doing business, which was certainly new."

After a while Edison got a bookkeeper, whose vagaries made him look back with regret on the earlier, primitive method. "The first three months I had him go over the books to find out how much we had made. He reported three thousand dollars. I gave a supper to some of my men to celebrate this, only to be told two days afterward that he had made a mistake, and that we had lost five hundred dollars; and then a few days after that he came to me again and said he was all mixed up, and now found that we had made over seven thousand dollars." Edison changed bookkeepers, but never afterward counted anything real profit until he had paid all his debts and had the profits in the bank.

Among the men who have worked with Edison in his various shops from time to time, there have always been those who later have risen to some notable degree of prominence in the electrical arts. This early shop was no exception.

At a single bench there worked three men since rich or prominent. One was Sigmund Bergmann, for a time partner with Edison in his lighting developments in the United States, and now head and principal owner of electrical works in Berlin, employing ten thousand men. The next man adjacent was John Kruesi, afterward engineer of the great General Electric Works at Schenectady. A third was Schuckert, who left the bench to settle up his father's little estate at Nuremberg, stayed there and founded electrical factories which became the third largest in Germany, their proprietor dying very wealthy.

"I gave them a good training as to working hours and hustling," says Edison. And this is equally true as applied to many scores of others who have worked with him.