Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Thomas A. Edison,
the Wizard of Invention

There are men to whom the idea of invention comes from seeing some great need. There are others with whom the faculty of invention is born, and who could scarcely take up a tea-cup without thinking of inventing a better handle for it. Such a one was the clever and enterprising little lad who, eager to experiment in telegraphy, made a line of stove wire, with bottles for insulators, wound the wire for his electro-magnets with rags, and tried to obtain electricity for his current by rubbing the cat's back. The effort was a failure but it showed the trend of his mind and the ingenuity of his ideas.

This boy, Thomas Alva Edison, born at Milan, Ohio, February 11, 1854, was the son of a poor man, a village jack-of-all-trades, who soon afterwards moved to Port Huron, Michigan. He could not, or would not, give his son any regular schooling, the boy's school-life being only two months long. What else he learned was given him by his mother at home, or gained through his insatiable thirst for knowledge. What can we think of a boy who was reading the histories of Gibbon and Hume at ten years of age, and poring over books of chemistry before he could pronounce the long names he found there? Before he was fifteen he had read all the important works in the Detroit public library and made a serious attempt to read the whole library through. Nothing could keep a boy like that from gaining an education.

Young Edison had to begin work early. At twelve years of age he was a newsboy on the Grand Trunk Railway. With some of the money he earned he began experimenting with chemistry, setting up a laboratory in an empty corner of the baggage car. One day, in his absence, a bottle of phosphorus which he had was upset and broken, setting the car on fire. When the baggage-master found out what was the trouble he kicked the apparatus out of the car and gave the youthful chemist a warm piece of his mind.

Later on, while he was still railroading, a Chicago publisher gave him a lot of worn-out type, and the enterprising boy was soon publishing, with several assistants, a paper of his own, called The Grand Trunk Herald, devoted to railroad items. It was the first of its kind ever known. The Civil War was now going on, and one day the alert newsboy persuaded a telegraph operator at Chicago to send word of the great battle of Shiloh to the principal stations along the road. Edison loaded himself up with papers and found crowds at every station eager to buy them at a high price, netting a splendid profit on his venture.

This was his first introduction to the advantages of telegraphy. He now wanted to know something about that, as he did about everything else, and soon got his opportunity by saving the child of a telegraph operator from being killed by a railroad train. The father, grateful to the boy, taught him the art of sending messages, and Edison, in his usual fashion of experimenting, soon had wires and batteries rigged up in his home at Port Huron and practised until he was quite skilful.

Edison's magnetic ore separator


His service as a telegrapher began at Indianapolis, when he was eighteen years old. While here he made his first invention, this being an automatic register for receiving messages and transferring them to another wire. In this device lay the germ of the phonograph, the triumph of his later life. Constantly practising, Edison became very expert and swift as an operator, as usual, however, giving all his spare hours to his favorite study of chemistry. On one occasion, when he was night operator, and had to show that he was wide awake by sending the word "six "every half hour to the superintendent, he found time to devote to his books and experiments by contriving a device that sent the signal automatically. Unluckily for him, his clever scheme was found out, and he lost his situation.

From Indianapolis he drifted eastward, getting positions here and there, and finally reaching Boston, then looked upon as one of the most important telegraph centres of the country. He got a position there, and, as everywhere else, managed to do some chemical experimenting in his off hours. A legend is told of his experience in the Boston office which is worth repeating, even if its absolute truth cannot be vouched for. It is said that the spruce Boston operators were amused at the countrified aspect of the young Westerner who had been installed at a wire in the office and decided to have some fun at the tyro's expense. They therefore got a very rapid operator in New York to send a message at lightning speed to the newcomer, thinking to set him utterly at sea. To their surprise, Edison took the message with ease, and sent back an answer in still more rapid style, confusing the New Yorker and decidedly getting the laugh on the conspirators. This is a good story, whether it is fact or fiction.

Edison's genius for invention was now turned towards telegraphy, and while in Boston he made one of the greatest of inventions in that line, that of duplex telegraphy—the sending of two messages at once over a single wire. On this he spent many hours of his spare time, making many failures, and finding success very difficult to reach. From this invention he afterwards developed that of quadruplex telegraphy, by which four messages could be sent at once over the same wire, two in each direction, without interference with one another.

It was about 1868 that Edison began to be known as an inventor. He had given up his position as an operator, and had tried in vain to make his duplex telegraph work between Rochester and Boston. This failure was a sore trial to the inventor, who made his way in a down-hearted mood to New York, where, after trying vainly to interest the telegraph companies in his inventions, he established himself as an expert in telegraphy, ready to do any odd jobs that offered. One day the indicator of the Gold and Stock Company broke down, and the electricians of the company made long and vain efforts to adjust it. Finally Edison, hearing of their difficulty, offered his services and his offer was accepted as a forlorn hope. He was not long in discovering the source of the trouble, and soon had the line in working order again. This established his reputation as an expert, and business began to come to him from all sides. In 187I he became superintendent of the company.

The trouble with the indicator suggested to his mind a new device, the printing telegraph for gold and stock quotations, and before long he had a shop at work in Newark, New Jersey, for the manufacture of his new instrument, the "stock ticker," designed for reporting in brokers' offices the prices of stocks on the exchange. It has since come everywhere into use. Money now began to come in rapidly to the inventor, his shop turning out the stock tickers and other devices, for which a ready market was found, and telegraph companies employing him in researches aimed at further inventions. The young experimenter of the Grand Trunk Railway train was making his way.

It was not until 1872 that full success was gained with the duplex telegraph. The quadruplex came later, also the electric pen. The latter is a hollow needle, driven by electricity and working like a sewing machine needle, perforating and inking the lines of a message on a number of sheets of paper.

In 1876 Edison made the great venture of his life. He proposed thereafter to devote his time solely to the work of invention, especially in the line of the electric light, and his reputation as an inventor had now become so great that he had no difficulty in interesting a number of wealthy capitalists in the project, they to supply the money and he the brains. A shop was built and equipped at Menlo Park, New Jersey, and there his experiments in this new field of labor began. They have since been kept up in this and other directions, his inventions being fairly multitudinous in number.

The arc system of electric lighting had some years before been invented and was coming into use. It was to the incandescent system that Edison applied himself, seeking to produce a satisfactory lamp for houses and stores. He began by using platinum wires in a glass bulb, but soon sought a better and cheaper material. Carbon was at length selected as having the highest power of resistance to the current. To prevent its destruction by oxygen, the bulbs had to be exhausted of air as completely as possible. Carbon fibres were tried from a great number of materials, carbonized bamboo being finally chosen. This gave lamps good for at least six hundred hours.

One great difficulty experienced in the use of the incandescent light was that, when the light was subdivided between many burners, the extinction of one light affected all the others. Edison finally overcame this difficulty, so that any light on his circuit might be raised, lowered, or extinguished without affecting the others.

Edison was an indefatigable investigator; when actively at work upon an intricate problem he fairly forgot the need of eating and sleeping. At one time, when his printing telegraph for some reason refused to perform, he worked for sixty hours without rest, eating nothing but some crackers and cheese as he worked. On another occasion all the electric lamps at Menlo Park suddenly ceased to burn. The problem annoyed him. He worked at it incessantly for five days, taking no rest himself and giving his assistants none. At the end of that time he had to go to bed, leaving the difficulty unsolved. He was worn out with chagrin and weariness. For fifteen hours he had worked without eating a morsel, and was surprised when it was suggested to him that food was in order. The trouble, in the end, proved to be that the vacuum in the globes was not sufficient, and long experiment was needed to gain a more complete exhaustion of the air. In this, as in almost everything he tried, Edison succeeded.

Aside from the electric light, the Edison inventions have been very numerous. He has taken out some 500 patents and invented machines of the most extra ordinary character. He has perhaps a hundred patents in connection with telegraphy, including the duplex, quadruplex, and sextuplex system. Among the most remarkable of his inventions relating to sound are the microphone, by which the faintest of sounds can be detected; the megaphone, by which ordinary sounds can be heard at great distances; the carbon telephone; and especially the phonograph, one of the most marvellous of instruments, by which the sounds of the human voice can be registered and kept for reproduction at a future time. This has been remarkably developed since its invention. His kinetoscope is a development of the zeotrope, in which a continuous picture is produced by a swift succession of instantaneous photographs, taken forty-six or more per second. It has also had a splendid development, yielding what is known as the living picture. For a time he devoted himself to the problem of obtaining the iron from the iron-bearing sands of New Jersey by aid of the magnet. Large works were built to apply this process, but without encouraging success in the way of profits.

As an inventor Edison may truly be named a wizard. The world has never known his equal. He has made invention a business, and by the aid of a large capital, trained assistants, and incessant application, has succeeded in adding remarkably to the mechanical devices possessed by the world. He is untiring and unconquerable. He never lets go of a possibility of invention until he has exhausted it. His workshop is unique. He has gathered there everything that can be used in his experiments, and all the leading scientific journals of the world are indexed ready for instant use. He is equipped for any experiment that may suggest itself. His mind is never at rest. He says, in relation to his contract to manufacture a large number of his "stock tickers "at his Newark shop: "I was a poor manufacturer, because I could not let well enough alone. My first impulse, upon taking in my hand any machine, from an egg-beater to an electric motor, is to seek a way of improving it. Therefore, as soon as I have finished a machine I am anxious to take it apart again in order to make an experiment. That is a costly mania for a manufacturer."

He is one of the busiest men of the world, constantly at work, constantly devising. One of his latest productions is an improved electric storage cell for automobiles. Of his inventions he says: "These are only trials, with which we may accomplish still greater wonders. The very fact that this century [the nineteenth ] has accomplished so much in the way of invention makes it more than probable that the next century will do far greater things."

A rather tall, compactly-built man is the famous inventor, with a somewhat boyish, clean-shaven face, to which incessant thought is adding lines of premature age. He cares little about dress, and usually manages to have hands and clothes stained with oil and chemicals. Somewhat deaf, he watches his visitor's lips closely to catch what he is saying. Kind and genial in disposition, he is patient in explaining his methods and results to inquiring visitors. On the whole, Thomas A. Edison is the most marvellous example of the American genius for invention.