Builders of our Country Vol. II - G. Southworth

Edison and Hoe


The flaming pine knot used long ago burned well, and pine was easy to get. But it smoked and dripped tar in the cabins of the early housewives, so candles came to take its place.

Candles give a mellow light. But they were expensive to buy, and it was tedious to dip, dip the twisted wicks in the melted tallow, so whale-oil lamps were introduced.

Then some fifty-odd years ago whale oil was pushed aside for kerosene, which supplies to-day the customary light of the farmers' houses. Many people in towns and cities as well still use the kerosene lamp, but unlike the isolated farmer they do so from choice. The city houses of the present may be lighted by the soft light of gas or the steady glow of Thomas Edison's electric bulb.

Thomas Edison's father was not well to do, and very early Thomas had to begin to earn money. He was twelve years old when he became newsboy on the Grand Trunk Railroad, and a pretty shrewd newsboy he was, too. He soon learned that exciting news sold better than dry items, and he would run over a paper's headlines and judge how many he could sell before deciding how many he would buy. What is more, he printed the only newspaper ever printed on a train—a little paper full of railroad gossip.

One thing that especially fascinated the newsboy was the click, click of the telegraph. Endless questions were put to the operators along the road. Then came a day when the little child of a station agent was playing on the track all unnoticed. Down upon it came a freight train nearer and nearer. When it was almost too late, Edison spied the child. Like a flash he made a dive, grabbed, the baby, and cleared the track without a moment to spare. The grateful father could hardly do less than teach Edison how to telegraph. Night lessons began, and in a few months the newsboy had become an excellent telegraph operator.

To the train boy this had seemed a fair ambition, but now that Edison knew how to run the machine he wanted to perfect it. So he studied his work, spent his money for books, and made experiment after experiment, which have resulted in more than one priceless improvement.

He was engrossed in his work and disliked interruption. The manager of his circuit had found from experience that operators were not always on hand, and he insisted that each operator should signal to him over the wire each half hour. This was a decided nuisance to Edison, so he managed to connect his clock to his machine in such a way that the signal was promptly turned in at headquarters every thirty minutes, whether the young operator was in the office or not.

He had another device, too, which gave the impression that he could receive a long message very rapidly, when such was not the case. In both of these little frauds he was found out, and he had the good sense to be ashamed of his deception rather than proud of his invention. The chagrin over the discovery of his real lack of speed in taking a message led him to work, work, work in this line, until there was no one who could equal him. At least he would be all he claimed to be.


After drifting from place to place in the West, Thomas Edison went to Boston and then to New York. When he reached New York he had little but debts to call his own. Man after man refused him work, until, by chance, he reached a large broker's office just at the time all was in confusion because the recording machine had broken down. Edison offered his services and soon made it right.

Such a man was too good to lose. He was promptly appointed superintendent at two hundred dollars a month, and from that hour his fortune was made. At once he set to work to make improvements on the machines used in this and similar offices. These improvements he offered for sale, hoping to get a few thousand dollars out of them. Imagine his surprise at being offered forty thousand!

With the forty thousand Mr. Edison established his first large laboratory and engaged a force of men to work with him. Now had come the longed-for opportunity to perfect the ideas with which his brain was teeming.

From his first laboratory grew a second and then, in 1876, he founded one at Menlo Park, a small village in New Jersey. Here, by his marvelous inventions, Mr. Edison earned the name, the "Wizard of Menlo Park." His latest laboratory, where he is still working, is at Orange, New Jersey.

Edison's Laborator


In the days when he was a fifteen-year-old telegraph operator, a telegraph wire could carry only one message at a time. Edison determined to find a way to send two messages at once over one wire. Effort followed effort until the desired result was reached. But still the inventor was not content. He would make one wire do the work of four. He did this, too. Then once again he began to work to make a single wire carry six messages, and he has succeeded!

Asked a few years ago to name his principal inventions he said, "The first and foremost, the idea of the electric lighting station; then—let me see—what have I invented? Well, there was the mimeograph and the electric pen, and the carbon telephone, and the incandescent lamp and its accessories, and the quadruple telegraph and the automatic telegraph, and the phonograph, and the kinetoscope and—I don't know a whole lot of other things."

Thomas Edison


This is a modest answer surely, when one considers that the number of Mr. Edison's inventions reaches high into the hundreds.

Many men would be content with the honor of having invented the phonograph alone. Think of inventing a machine that will make a record of sound and will reproduce that sound any number of times afterwards! Let one or more persons talk, sing, or whistle; let a band play, or a medley of sounds be poured into a phonograph arranged to receive it, and later each note received will be repeated over and over as often as the record is adjusted in the machine.

What Edison's phonograph does for sound, his kinetoscope does for sight. Who has not seen the wonderful "moving pictures" so full of life and action that it is hard to believe they are pictures at all?

But perhaps the greatest gift Mr. Edison has given the world so far is the incandescent light. The principal of this light is simple, but to apply it to practical use was an undertaking that for some time taxed even Mr. Edison's great genius. The trouble was to find the right material for the little coil which runs inside the air-tight glass bulb. He tried a piece of cotton thread that had been carbonized. He tried paper, manila hemp, and an endless variety of bamboo fibers. At last he adopted the platinum wire and gained success. Compare the bright, clear glow of these little bulbs with the smoky light of a whale-oil lamp and the feeble gleam of a candle, and you will realize what a marvelous invention is this of Thomas Edison's. It was in 1879 that Mr. Edison showed the world a complete system of lighting by electricity.

Will the wonderful inventor go on and do more? Here is his answer: "The achievement of the past is merely a point of departure, and you know that in our art, 'impossible' is an impossible word."


Printing was performed slowly and laboriously in colonial times. The press of Benjamin Franklin was a simple wooden affair. The type, held in form by wooden frames, was placed on a wooden bed and inked by hand. Then a sheet of paper was spread over it and a flat wooden plate, called a platen, was screwed down on the paper to press it against the type and make "an impression." The platen had to be screwed up again with a bar after each impression. It was tedious work at best.

Soon after Franklin's day, however, improvements in printing presses were made. By the time Richard M. Hoe, of New York, was twenty-one and had become the head of his father's printing-press factory, the cylinder press had been invented.

There were two kinds of cylinder presses, single and double cylinder machines. In the single cylinder press, the flat bed containing the type moved back and forth beneath a revolving cylinder about which was rolled the sheet to be printed. A press of this sort could turn out 2,000 impressions an hour. In the double cylinder press, the type traveled back and forth beneath two cylinders, turning out impressions twice as fast as the single cylinder press. On both these presses, however, printing was done only on one side of the sheet at a time.

The growing demand for news could not long be supplied even by these machines. In 1847, Richard M. Hoe made a press with the type form ingeniously fastened to a large revolving central cylinder about which were grouped from 4 to 10 cylinders carrying the paper to be printed. This greatly increased the output of a single press and did much to make cheap newspapers possible.

For some time, flat metal plates had been cast from the type forms and used in printing. Later, an invention was perfected whereby curved castings from the type forms were make to fit the revolving cylinders. Hoe used this invention in a new printing press, called the web-perfecting machine. This press printed a continuous roll on both sides, cut, folded, and delivered perfect papers at a rate of from 15,000 to 60,000 copies an hour depending on the size of the sheet.

To-day, still another press, made by Richard Hoe's son Robert, does more. In one hour it can print, paste, fold, and count 300,000 eight-page papers. The Hoe machine of to-day is made of 50,000 pieces of metal. Compare that with Franklin's simple wooden hand press. The age is different, the demand is different, and the output of the two presses differs as widely as either. Whereas, Franklin printed one page at a time and carefully laid it aside to dry while he re-inked his type, the Hoe printing press of to-day prints a strip of paper three feet wide on both sides at the rate of 120 miles an hour.