Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/August 1878/Sketch of Thomas Alva Edison
THIS remarkable inventor, of whom the public has recently heard so much, is still a young man, having been born in 1847 at Milan, Erie County, Ohio. His mother was of Scotch parentage, but born in Massachusetts; she was finely educated, literary and ambitious, and had been a teacher in Canada. Young Edison's only schooling came from his mother, who taught him spelling, reading, writing, and arithmetic. He lost his mother in 1862, but his father, a man of vigorous constitution, is still living, aged seventy-four. When he was seven years old, his parents removed to Port Huron, Michigan. The boy disliked mathematics, but was fond of reading, and, before he was twelve years old, had read the "Penny Cyclopædia," Hume's "England," and Gibbon's "Rome." He early took to the railroad, and became a newsboy on the Grand Trunk line, running into Detroit. Here he had access to a library, which he undertook to read through; but, after skimming over many hundred miscellaneous books, he adopted the plan of select reading on subjects of interest to him. Becoming interested in chemistry, he bought some chemicals, and fixed up a laboratory in one of the cars. An unfortunate combustion of phosphorus one day came near setting fire to the train, and the consequence was, that the conductor kicked the whole thing out. He had obtained the exclusive right to sell papers on the road, and employed four assistants; but, not satisfied with this, he bought a lot of second-hand type, and printed on the cars a little paper of his own, called the Grand Trunk Herald. Getting acquainted with the telegraph-operators along the road, he took a notion to become an operator himself. In his lack of means and opportunities, he resorted to the expedient of making his own apparatus at home. A piece of stove-wire, insulated by bottles, was made to do service as the line-wire. The wire for his electro-magnets he wound with rags, and in a similar way persevered until he had the crude elements of a telegraph; but the electricity being wanting, and as he could not buy a battery, he tried rubbing the fur of cats' backs, but says that electricity from this source was a failure for telegraphic purposes.
About two months afterward, as a train was switching on to a side-track at Mount Clemens Station, the station-agent's little boy, two years old, crept on to the track ahead of the cars. Edison saw the danger, sprang to the ground, and barely succeeded in saving the youngster. Its father, the station-master, being a poor man, could not show his gratitude by a money reward, but offered to teach young Edison telegraph-operating. He gladly seized the chance, and for five months we see him going back to Mount Clemens, at the close of his day's work, to labor nights in learning to be an operator. At the end of this time he was able to go into the telegraph-office at Port Huron. Here he worked for six months, and then went to Stratford, Canada, as night-operator. He soon after went to Adrian, Michigan, where, in addition to his telegraph-office, he had a small shop and tools, to which he turned his hand at odd moments for the purpose of repairing instruments. This situation he lost by violating some rule while absorbed in his workshop, but in two months after appeared in Indianapolis, where he came out with his first invention, an automatic repeater—an arrangement for transferring a message from one wire to another without the aid of an operator. From this place he went in turn to Cincinnati, Memphis, Louisville, New Orleans, and back again to Cincinnati, where we find him in 1867, at the age of twenty, absorbed in projects of invention. His utter negligence of dress and appearance, his insatiable thirst for reading, and his enthusiastic attempts to solve what appeared to others impossible, together with his willingness to work at all hours of the day or night, earned him the name of "Looney," by which he was best known for many years. Reaching his office here one night and finding it "on strike," he took in the situation, and went to work, keeping it up all night, working to his utmost, receiving the press dispatches. For this act he was raised from a salary of $65 to $105 per month, and given the best line in the office. While here he conceived the idea, afterward perfected in Boston, of sending two messages at the same time over the same wire. His "everlasting experiments" were looked upon with disfavor by the management, and the imagined neglect of his work caused so much dissatisfaction that he quit the office and returned home to Port Huron.
Here he soon received a call from the manager of the Boston office to be the Boston operator on the "crack" New York wire. The manager knew him, but the appearance there of the very similitude of a green country gawky raised a shout of laughter at his expense, which almost unnerved him, and, to make the matter worse, before he had time to compose himself, he was shown his place to make a trial. The position was the dread of operators; the New York man was one of the fastest senders in the country, delighted in victims, and in this instance sat at his instrument with a grim satisfaction, waiting to open on the "new man," and chuckling with his Boston comrades over their expected fun. They commenced, and the New York man crowded his sending-speed to his utmost, with never a "break" by the new man receiving. At the end of the message, the astonished and exhausted New York operator adds, "Who the deuce are you, anyhow?" to which the new man at Boston promptly replies, "I'm Tom Edison—shake hands."
We can make but brief mention of a few of the many incidents connected with Mr. Edison's history. In the Boston office one of his first efforts was at "internal improvement." The office was infested with cockroaches. He set up an apparatus for their automatic destruction. Mr. Edison's forte is automatic contrivances. He arranged strips of metal around the bottom of the walls in the room, and connected them with the opposite poles of a battery, so that when the bugs stepped from one to the other, they closed the circuit and their lives at one operation, and made room for others.
In Boston Mr. Edison fixed up a small shop and continued his experiments, which he put into such practical shape that he saw more money in them than in his salary. He worked out the idea of his duplex telegraph, and went to Rochester in 1870 to test it between that place and Boston. The effort failed, though Mr. Edison says it ought to have succeeded. He then came to New York, scarcely knowing what to do next. He hung around the office of the Gold Indicator Company, studying their cumbersome apparatus. One day some part of it failed in a time of excitement; Mr. Edison offered to remedy it; he was laughed at incredulously; but the case was desperate, and he was allowed to try. He succeeded; and the managers, ready to perceive the value of such a man, made him superintendent. He introduced improved apparatus, invented the gold printer, put up a private line, and finally sold it to the Gold and Stock Company, together with his services, or the privilege of having the first option to buy his telegraphic inventions. He was now fully launched on a tide of success. To furnish his instruments, he established a factory in Newark, New Jersey, employing three hundred men. As a manufacturer he was not a success. If he had an order for any of his inventions, and, after having made a part or all of them, he invented an improvement, nothing would do but he must incorporate it, even though at his own expense. At last, finding that the close attention demanded by his manufacturing business was incompatible with the freedom demanded for invention, he abandoned it, and, two years ago, bought a site for an experiment-shop at Menlo Park, on the Pennsylvania Railroad, twenty-four miles from New York, a mere flag-station, with about a dozen houses, mostly his own and his workmen's.
On the crown of a knoll, and looking, for all the world, like a country meeting-house, minus the steeple, and with the addition of a porch, is a long two-story white frame building, in the middle of a little lot, surrounded by a white picket-fence. This is Mr. Edison's shop. On the ground-floor, as you enter, is a little front-office, from which a small library is partitioned off. Next is a large square room with glass cases filled with models of his inventions. In the rear of this is the machine-shop, completely equipped, and run with a ten-horse-power engine. The upper story occupies the length and breadth of the building, 100 × 25 feet, is lighted by windows on every side, and is occupied as a laboratory. The walls are covered with shelves full of bottles containing all sorts of chemicals. Scattered through the room are tables covered with electrical instruments, telephones, phonographs, microscopes, spectroscopes, etc. In the centre of the room is a rack full of galvanic batteries. On one of the tables is a phonograph, run by steam-power, with a belt through the floor to the machine-shop, and beside it a copy of Poe's poems. In the rear of the room is a fine pipe-organ, with an open Moody and Sankey book on it. At the opposite end of the room stands Mr. Edison, telling the writer that there is no philosopher like Herbert Spencer, no writer like Victor Hugo, and no poet like Edgar A. Poe.
The Associated Press wires run through his laboratory, and anon he picks up his telephone and chats with Philadelphia, or with Prof. Barker, at the University of Pennsylvania. When visitors call to see him, they are most likely to inquire for Mr. Edison from the man himself—a boyish face, an unostentatious manner, a careless dress, and, in fact, the unchanged whole that formerly put in an appearance as the new man at the Boston office. The crowd of farm-boys that come over to see the wonderful talking-machine find him as ready to gratify their curiosity as the more pretentious "professor." While carrying on his manufacturing at Newark, he married, and—well, Dot and Dash are the nicknames of the little girl and boy that come every once in a while to "see the wheels go round."
We cannot here speak at length of his numerous inventions. He owns one hundred and fifty patents, but of these only about a dozen are of real value, the others are taken out to guard all approaches to the valuable patents. Among his pet patents are his quadruplex telegraphy, by which four messages may be sent at the same time over the same wire; his electric pen, for multiplying copies of letters or drawings, and which consists of a tubular pen in which a needle plays with a sewing-machine-like motion driven by electricity, which perforates the lines drawn with it, the perforated sheet being afterward inked and used in a press; the ink is pressed through the minute perforations and leaves on another sheet a finely-dotted tracing like the original. His carbon telephone and the phonograph are, perhaps, the most marvelous of his inventions.
When Mr. Gray brought out his musical telephone, which set students to experimenting in that direction, Mr. Edison was trying to improve the Reuss telephone, the invention of a German. Mr. Gray's apparatus gave promise of furnishing a method of multiplex telegraphy—a subject in which Mr. Edison, as we have seen, was interested. Between Mr. Gray and Mr. Edison an understanding was arrived at by which Mr. Edison was to leave Mr. Gray to carry out his invention unmolested in the direction of multiplex telegraphy; while Mr. Gray, on the other hand, would not interfere with Mr. Edison's attempt to make a speaking apparatus. While Mr. Edison had all but succeeded in making the electro-magnet telephone, Mr. Bell hit it and brought it out at the Centennial. Mr. Edison acknowledged himself fairly anticipated, and began to experiment with a view to finding a substance that would be elastic, so to speak, to the passage of a current of electricity—that is, whose resistance to a current would vary with pressure. He began at one end of his stock of chemicals and tried every one of them—some two thousand—but met with no satisfactory result. Finally, when everything was exhausted, and he was looking around for what next to try, an assistant brought him a piece of broken lamp-chimney with an incrustation of lampblack: this was scraped off, pressed into a little cake, and tried. He had at last discovered what he was in search of. By placing it between two plates of metal connected with the opposite poles of the battery, and making one of the plates large, to receive the force of sound-waves, this varying pressure would make the carbon cake more or less elastic to the passage of the current of electricity, and the invention of the transmitting part of a new telephone—all his own—was complete. For the receiving part nothing was necessary but an ordinary electro-magnet with a diaphragm. Experiments with this "carbon telephone," as it is called, are unfolding every day its marvelous sensitiveness, as shown in its microphonic manifestations, which have been exciting so much wonder. No less successfully is it being brought to measure the pressure caused by infinitesimal heat—for instance, that received by us from the stars.
Coming, lastly, to the phonograph: while experimenting on an automatic transmitter in the early part of last winter, Mr. Edison tried tinfoil, instead of paper, to receive the indentations of the Morse recorder, and was surprised to see how readily it received them. These indentations, passing under another needle, were to repeat the message automatically to another wire. A few days after, while handling a telephone, the fancy seized him to fix a needle-point to a diaphragm, and see whether the vibration of the diaphragm when spoken against would cause the needle to prick his finger. It did. Then he wondered what sort of an indentation this would make in a slip of paper. He tried it, and, sure enough, there was the semblance of an indented track! What would be the effect of drawing this slip under the point again, following the working of the automatic transmitter? He tried that, and the result was one which almost made him wild. A sound like the stifled cry of words seeking birth came from the diaphragm. No sleep or food until he had made a grooved cylinder, put a piece of tin-foil instead of paper on it, attached the diaphragm, and shouted into it, when, upon turning the crank, the words came back with a marvelous elocution, and the phonograph was a success.
Mr. Edison has recently received the honorary title of Ph. D. from Union College.