The New Student's Reference Work/Edison, Thomas Alva

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Thomas Alva Edison

Edison, Thomas Alva.  To no other man who ever lived does the term “born inventor” apply so aptly as to the “Wizard of Menlo Park.”  Watt and Morse achieved invention by years of patient scientific investigation; Arkwright and Whitney had invention thrust upon them by circumstances; Fulton was an inventor by natural gift, but followed the profession of an artist up to the age of 40.  But Edison lived and breathed in the atmosphere of creation from early boyhood, jeopardized his scant living for the pure joy of doing his own work, and was known as the boy-wonder in electricity on Wall Street, New York, soon after he cast his first ballot.  It has been said of him that he “kept the path to the patent-office hot with his foot-steps.”

The thing that impresses the reader of a life of Edison, first and last, is its joyousness.  From babyhood he was the busiest, happiest, most intensely interested in life of any boy in the village of Milan, Ohio, where he was born on February 11, 1847.  His father made shingles by hand, and Alva, as he was then called, haunted the shop.  But he found the docks along the canal more dramatic, for sometimes as many as five hundred wagon-loads of wheat and corn would be brought in by farmers in one day and loaded on the grain-boats.  He watched everything with his big gray eyes, and was not slow about asking questions.  A sturdy little “sobersides,” his mother called him, too busy to play much with other boys.  At home he was a voracious reader, and when the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, he set himself seriously to work to reading all the books in the public library, a task he wisely abandoned.  At 12 he became a business man, and had marked success as a train boy.  He sold more newspapers, books and fruit than the other boys, and still had time to print a little newspaper and start a laboratory in one end of the smoking-car.  In saving the life of a station-agent’s baby he won a friend who taught him the trade of telegraph-operator.  He soon became skilful in sending and taking messages, but he had to know how the instrument worked and why, and experimented with an old battery in his father’s cellar until he understood it.

At 15 Edison was in charge of the station at Stratford, Canada, where he was so busy doing his own work that he very nearly caused a wreck on the road and won his discharge.  It must be said that he never worked well under orders.  He lost positions by his inattention to duty almost as fast as he gained them by ability. His first invention was of a repeater, that would take down the dots and dashes as they came rushing over the wire, and repeat them as slowly as necessary for the operator to write out at his leisure.  Then he began to experiment on the problem of sending more than one message at a time over the same wire.  He dressed shabbily, and spent all he earned on books and apparatus.  He was thought to be an impractical, dreamy fellow, and his employers were often impatient.  Thus for five years he led a wandering life, often out of work that would bring in money, but working hard on his own ideas and leading a clean, straight life of the intellect.  Pleasures never tempted him.  His idea of fun was to be so absorbed that he didn’t know if it were night or day.  “I owe my success,” he has often said, “to the fact that I never had a clock in my workroom.”

At 21 Edison went to Boston, a rapid operator.  In another year he was in New York, when accident led him to repairing a ticker in a broker’s office and to a salary of $300 a month.  Then he invented an improved apparatus for which he got $40,000.  The Western Union took an option on his future inventions, and the young genius started a factory in Newark, New Jersey, with 300 employes.  It was the most remarkable establishment in the world, where everybody worked from sheer enthusiasm, with irregular hours and no book-keeper.  But Edison literally coined his inventive brain into money.  He had 50 inventions at various stages at one time, wired instructions to his patent-attorney every day, and cabled applications for patents to London.  Before he was 30 the factory was sold, and Edison built the laboratory at Menlo Park to devote his time entirely to invention.  There he worked out the problems of the telephone, the incandescent electric light, the phonograph and other great discoveries

Ah, what a workshop that was!  One hundred feet long it was, with a maze of wheels and flying belts, lathes, drills, planers and milling-machines.

His method of working.

Above were a chemical laboratory and a library; and skilled workmen and scholarly experimenters, a private secretary and even a book-keeper.  A big workshop and a small house suited Edison exactly.  He went about in shabby work-clothes and acid-stained hands.  Most of the time his wife and children dined alone, for the Wizard was never to be disturbed.  He ate when he was hungry and rested when he was tired and had as much fun in his work as a boy at a ball game.

Not all of his inventions were made easily.  Some he worked on for years and spent thousands of dollars in perfecting.  One rule he has always kept: “Be sure a thing is needed or wanted, then go ahead.”  The phonograph, telephone transmitter, electric light and power system, megaphone, quadruplex, tasimeter for measuring the heat of the stars, kinetoscope, anyone of a dozen big inventions would have won fame for the man, but they are not usually identified as belonging to him in the multitude that bear his name.  The electric light made him rich, but cost him years and vast expense to perfect.  Men were sent around the world to find material for the filament.

The first electric light.

It was in 1880 that Menlo Park was first illuminated with the electric light.  Special trains were run out for the event from New York City, and there was as much excitement as when the first steamboat was launched on the Hudson.  In 1886 Menlo Park was outgrown, and an immense plant built at Orange, New Jersey.  Wealth and fame, however, have not brought leisure to the inventor.  His highest pleasure is his work, and he gives the world his best in his inventions, he says: So why should he give his society?  But the world insists that the best of any man always is himself, and is disappointed that Edison continues to seclude himself in his shop.  The few who are privileged to know him testify to his personal charm.  He is philosophical, enthusiastic, cheerful; loves a good story or a joke; enjoys music and books and children, and takes occasional trips abroad with his family.  He apparently knows as little what time of life it is with him, as what time of day.  Life has not lost its zest nor work its charm.