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The Man Who Lit Up the World

Thomas Alva Edison is best known for inventing the electric light, but in his smoke-filled laboratories he created a host of other technological marvels.
Thomas F. Gillen
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

(continued from page 1)

By the time he was 12, he had a job on the Grand Trunk Railway selling newspapers to passengers as the train traveled between Port Huron and Detroit. Enterprising in nature, he began to get news stories from the telegraph offices at each station stop along the train route and started to publish his own newspaper in the baggage car of the train. The paper was known as The Weekly Herald, and he used the proceeds to purchase books on chemistry and chemicals for his experiments.

When he was 15, he began to experience his deafness. It commenced, according to Edison, when he was late for the train one morning and jumped from the station platform to get on the moving train. He caught the last step but was unable to pull himself up. A trainman came to the rescue and pulled him aboard by his ears. Edison claimed late in his life that he felt at the time something snap inside his head. "The deafness started then," he recalled, "and has progressed ever since. I haven't heard a bird sing," he added sadly, "since I was a young boy." The exact cause of his deafness was never determined. But more than likely, it was the result of a childhood disease, such as scarlet fever.

Rather than let deafness deter him, Edison realized that it afforded him the silence he needed to concentrate while others around him were busy talking. This enabled him to read his beloved books at any time. While unable to hear normal conversation without great effort, he could hear clearly the clicking of the telegraph, which he had become interested in learning. His opportunity came one day when he rescued the young son of a stationmaster from a runaway boxcar. As a reward, the stationmaster offered to teach Al how to operate the telegraph. He was a natural at the device and soon became proficient in its use.

It didn't take long for him to master the telegraph, and he began to take small jobs as an operator. Not long afterwards, the Civil War broke out, creating a huge demand for telegraphers. Soon he was traveling throughout the eastern United States as one of the many itinerant operators who were lured from city to city by the promise of higher pay. His fellow operators were a wild bunch, who made money fast and spent it just as quickly on women, booze and cigars. He made some lasting friendships during those years, although he never gained an affinity for alcohol, and his deafness made him shy around women. But he did develop a fondness for cigars and gained a reputation as a hustler and an expert telegrapher among his peers. While the others spent their free time gambling and drinking, he was studying the telegraphic equipment and the principles of electricity. Before long, he had ideas of his own on how to improve the telegraph.

By the end of the Civil War, the telegraph business was booming. Telegraph lines crisscrossed the country as the demand grew; they connected the East and West coasts eight years before the railroads. Edison spent most of his money on batteries and equipment to conduct his experiments, while living in rat-infested boarding houses, existing on coffee, apple turnovers and cigars.

He arrived in New York City in the spring of 1869. Broke and without a job, he looked up an old friend from his telegraph days who worked for a telegraph company on Wall Street known as the Gold & Stock Co. The company provided gold quotes from the trading taking place on the New York Stock Exchange floor to subscribers around the city. While he was visiting his friend, the central transmitting device broke down, causing pandemonium among the management of the company. In the confusion, Edison stepped in and fixed the machine. He was hired on the spot.

Using his extensive knowledge of electricity, he made improvements to the gold indicator and found that the telegraph companies were hungry for technological improvements. Edison saw his opportunity and developed his own indicator, which was quickly recognized as being superior to those already in use. His device regulated the indicators, which often could get out of sync and begin to print wild figures. The directors of Western Union saw a demonstration that Edison gave of his machine and authorized its purchase.

Inexperienced in negotiating with the barons of Wall Street, Edison had no idea what price to ask for his patent rights. He finally determined to seek $5,000 for the rights but lost his nerve to ask for such a fabulous sum. Frustrated, he suggested they make him an offer. Later, he recalled how he came "as near to fainting as I ever got" when they suggested compensation in the amount of $40,000!

With his newfound wealth and orders from Western Union to manufacture 1,200 stock tickers based on his design, Edison set up several manufacturing companies in Newark, New Jersey. In a letter to his parents, he happily described himself as "a bloated Eastern manufacturer." It was at this time that he began to assemble a group of trusted assistants, many of whom would share in his work for decades to come. He also fell in love and married Mary Stilwell, a young girl of 16 who was employed at one of his companies, on Christmas Day in 1871. The couple had three children: Marion, Thomas Jr. and William Leslie.

Edison's contributions to the development of stock tickers didn't go unnoticed. Western Union and other telegraph companies now pursued him constantly to test or to make improvements to the equipment. Consumed by his work, he often left his new wife alone as he worked at the laboratory, poring over a new invention. He was capable of long hours of experimentation, during which he'd often chew on a cigar, let it go out and then light it again. At one point he remarked he was smoking so many cigars that "holding a heavy cigar constantly in my mouth has deformed my upper lip; it has a sort of Havana curl."


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