Thomas Alva Edison

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Tom Edison


This section contains a summary about America's greatest inventor, Thomas Alva Edison.  It highlights his life as an inventor, entrepreneur and businessman. The first practical incandescent light bulb is the invention for which he is most remembered, but he often said the phonograph was his favorite invention.

I have been studying Tom Edison for many years and have learned from many Edison biographers who have carefully chronicled his life.  I hope to present enough information to get you motivated to learn more.  His is an exciting story, a great American tale that includes a variety of personal challenges and achievements.

Edison was not only a great inventor he was a great promoter.  I believe that  rather than spending the time and energy to refute some of what had been incorrectly written about him, he simply let some tales go unanswered. Thus 'ya can't believe everything' that you read about Tom Edison. This Edison web page has a decidedly different Bostonian slant.  I believe his early experiences living and working in Boston that are often left out of his biographies, dramatically shaped and helped position him for the great success which he achieved at an early age.      

The above photo is one of my favorites because it captures that twinkle in his eye and his fleeting smile that says- I know something you don't know.  Perhaps as the photographer was preparing to shoot, Edison had already rigged something expecting a good laugh at the photographer's expense.   Edison never challenged anyone with an attitude that he was more intelligent or better educated. Although he had little formal education, Tom respected educators and 'the educated'.
He wrote about having fun with nightshift telegraph operators, some of whom were MIT students with whom he boarded "who paraded their knowledge rather freely and it was my delight to go up to the second-hand book stores on Cornhill (then between Tremont and Court Streets) and study up questions which I might spring on them when I got an occasion."   There are countless stories about how he'd challenge his employees especially those in the lab whom he called "muckers" with a healthy, fun, competitive spirit. 

Edison: A Life of Invention
If you could read only one book about Thomas Alva Edison, there is no better source than Edison, A Life of Invention by Paul Israel published in 1998.  The brilliant light of Paul's meticulous research comes shining through as he objectively illuminates previously unseen aspects of Edison's life, personality, research methodology, failures and achievements.  Paul provides the most comprehensive set of research Notes and subject index that includes more recent data and source material that previous researchers and biographers had not yet found. If you could talk to only one man about Thomas Alva Edison, there is no better source than Paul Israel, Author, Managing Editor of Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University. 

Each student of Edison might learn one or two compelling lessons that are applicable in today's business world.  Maybe you too will ask- where did he get his creativity?    Perhaps creativity is much like 'the force' that helps an athlete perform well.  Whether you are shooting a basketball, hitting a baseball or golf ball, they say- relax and play it easy and have fun at hard work to succeed.  Nobody worked harder than Edison. There's plenty of evidence that he not only worked long hours but he had fun with challenges, side bets, and practical jokes - an environment that encourages creativity.  Maybe his greatest invention is the 'invention factory", essentially the development lab in which his "muckers" would work countless hours along with Edison, whom they called 'the old man'.   

Tom Edison - The Early Years
Much has been written about Edison's boyhood.  I think he knew his life story would be of interest to young people. He was eager to help write his story.  He was an effective teacher in the lab but had little patience for the classroom.  There are many stories about Tom dropping out of school after being told by teachers that he was a poor student.  Most Edison biographies describe the excellent home schooling given by his mother, a former teacher.

Thomas Edison is often cited for exhibiting what we now call attention deficit disorder (ADD).  He has fortuitously become the poster child for ADD, hearing disabilities and the benefits of home schooling. Claiming that young Tom had ADD is just as much a myth as the belief that Edison was some kind of Wizard or that he had magical powers. He often spoke positively about overcoming his hearing loss and the benefits of his mother's teaching skills with home schooling.

When he was a boy, Edison's nickname was actually Al from his middle name Alva, not Tom as portrayed in the movies.   Edison never stopped learning; he was no drop-out. He loved reading, studying and learning. He paid the price and was richly rewarded for his effort to be self-taught.  He didn't fear getting the wrong answer.  As an intensely enthusiastic reader he would often question or 'lab test' a theory before he'd accept what he had read. Tom Edison 

William H. Meadowcroft, Edison's personal assistant was his right arm in business, a gatekeeper to visitors,  press agent and personal confidant.  Meadowcroft was as much a fixture in Edison's office as any of Edison's lifetime employees.  It's no secret that Edison was completely deaf in his left ear and his 'good ear' continued to deteriorate badly as he aged.  Edison was reluctant to speak in public. Some say he had a 'squeaky voice' as he aged, click here, you decide.  Did you detect the New Jersey accent?

In limited social circles he relied on his wife Mina to speak for him and in business circles, Edison relied on Meadowcroft not only for his voice and ability to hear but also for his sound business sense.  Some early films and photos of Tom Edison at work in West Orange, show Meadowcroft yelling into Edison's good right ear.  Early film clips show Tom laughing and firing back a joke or story. 

William Meadowcroft, Frank L. Dyer and Thomas C. Martin collaborated on the official biography of Thomas Edison in 1910.  But Meadowcroft's book "The Boys Life of Thomas Edison" printed in 1911, was the source material for a grammar school book report I had written when I was ten years old. I reluctantly wrote a report under duress during my summer vacation.  But as I read more, I became keenly interested in Thomas Alva Edison and phonographs.  Psychologist Freud might have had some fun explaining the reason I research and restore wind-up phonographs is that I never got to wind up the Victrola while in grammar school, a task given only to the best behaved.  Freud might have said, PhonoJack has a psychological disorder called phonophrenia.  "I'll buy my own damned phonograph and wind it whenever I want", an affliction shared by many fellow phono-enthusiast. 

There are many passionate phonograph collectors and researchers. To learn more about some regional and national antique phonographs clubs and shows, click here.

Edison supported Meadowcroft's efforts to write "The Boys Life of Thomas Edison". The book's inside cover has Edison's notation- "the book is designed for boys and girls and published with my consent". This simple biography was reviewed and approved by Edison as was the comprehensive biography Edison: His Life and Inventions, a two volume biography written by Frank L. Dyer, Edison's attorney and business advisor from 1897 to 1912 co-authored by Thomas C. Martin, whom Edison said were 'two friends and associates of long standing..... whose judgment he could trust'.  The Boys Life of Thomas Edison has served as a guidepost for many young men as it presents Tom as a real-life icon and example of the American dream, a fun loving, successful, beloved businessman and world benefactor. 

Time for Rational Research
I never understood why so much inaccurate information has been published about Thomas Edison.  Now, with the free flow of misinformation from the blogosphere, it's getting worse.  Why do authors and bloggers spew such unsubstantiated stories.  Even a simple peek at objective, reliable research tools such as Google books or Google patents will quickly help validate or verify the information source or easily embarrass the author.  More important, we have an abundant supply of information sources that can be triangulated and substantiated.

Legitimate authors and biographers now have complete access to a treasure trove of documentation including business correspondence, patents, documents submitted with court records, substantiated testimony, and company archives and personal notebooks and public and private collections.

Examples of popular misinformation follow.  The Edison-Tesla fight: Tesla never worked directly for Edison, he was not Edison's assistant, The claim that Tesla worked with Edison at West Orange NJ is not true, that facility wasn't built until two years after Telsa left EdisonWorks on his own in 1886. Edison never offered Tesla a bonus nor did he break any promise to Tesla. Edison never said quote attributed to him, "Tesla, you don't understand American humor". Tesla later claimed that "an Edison manager" offered him a bonus.  Edison didn't kill an elephant: Edison had no involvement in the attempted humane killing of Topsy the elephant that had killed three people including its abusive trainer.  Edison employees filmed the execution; blaming Thomas Edison is like blaming Walt Disney for what his Disney employees had filmed. Interesting that some wrongfully claim Edison executed the elephant to scare people away from Westinghouse's AC electrical system.  The dispute between Edison company and Westinghouse company had been settled by the courts; Edison's patents had expired many years before Topsy's execution in 1903.  Edison false claims:  Edison never claimed he invented the light bulb; he invented the first commercially available incandescent light bulb.  Edison didn't steal the light bulb patent from anyone, Lewis Latimer's story is published here.

Don't get me started!     

Edison Roots
Had I been given Dyer & Martin's book to read for my summer vacation project, I would have learned why Edison's father Samuel, son of John Edison was born in Digby, Nova Scotia and why today Edison is a popular surname in this small rural Canadian town.    John Edison, from Newark NJ, a Tory during the American Revolution was one of the earlier settlers 'banished' to Digby. 

If If you don't mind taking an unexpected path as I did in Digby and if you're willing to let the web time and space machine, take you for a ride,  click here. 

Tom's grandfather John left his home and farm in NJ during the start of the American Revolutionary War to move to New York, then a safe, British stronghold.  After the war, he went back to the Newark area to determine the status of his property.  He was arrested, tried for treason and sentenced to death. John's wife Sarah asked her father, a colonel in the Continental army to intercede on his behalf. After a short time in prison with a death sentence hanging over his head, his farm and land had been confiscated. Later, John was pardoned.   Because John remained loyal to England during the Revolutionary War, he was given title to 500 acres of land in  Digby, Nova Scotia where he stayed until 1810.  Records show Digby's population was 100 in 1771.  By 1881, the population had grown to more than 17,000.  

John's son Samuel (Tom's father) was born in 1804 in Marshalltown on the isthmus Digby Neck where John had been given 133 acres of land.  Because he was designated as a United Empire Loyalist (UE) he was offered title to additional land if he would move west in Canada; he moved to Bayfield then later to Vienna, Ontario. 

In an interesting twist, years later John's son Samuel became a captain with theEdison Home insurgent forces that rallied against the British (counter to his father's politics a generation before) under the banner that there should be no taxation without representation.  Ultimately, in 1842 Samuel fled south to the United States and built his home in Milan, Ohio (Tom's birthplace). Later he moved to Port Huron.  The Milan Township & Village Homecoming Festival book published on the 150th anniversary of Milan OH, says in August of 1841, Nancy Edison (Tom's mother) purchased the lot on which Edison's birthplace now stands.         Photo courtesy MilanArea.com

Note: if you plan on visiting Edison's birthplace in Milan, OH but sure to call ahead and visit good friends Bobbi and Don Gfell at the Sights and Sounds of Edison shop, for Edison and Victor machines and the best custom made phonograph and gramophone wooden horns.

Contrary to what is often reported about Edison's childhood, the Samuel Edison family lived comfortably. Tom's father had established a grain and feed dealership and was also successful in the lumber industry, reported to have manufactured wooden shingles.  Tom, the seventh of the children was born February 11, 1847. We found no records that confirm Tom attended any school in Milan before his family moved to Port Huron before his seventh birthday.   The Milan cemetery records show that three of Tom's siblings are buried there, reported to have died in childhood.

Young Tom EdisonBy the age of eleven, Tom was earning money from 'market garden' farming.   Every morning during the season, he sold vegetables from the back of a horse drawn wagon.  In 1859, at twelve years of age, he was working as a newsboy and ran a concession on the Grand Trunk Railroad that ran from Port Huron to Detroit.  Perhaps stories about Edison's working at such an early age is why many wrongfully assumed his family had little money during his childhood. 

Early in life, Tom learned the value of buying (or growing) wholesale and how to run a profitable retail operation.    While working on the train, he tried a variety of businesses.  From his earnings, he bought a printing press. At fifteen years of age, he began producing the Weekly Herald which he composed, edited, published and sold to passengers and at rail stations along his route.  There are countless stories about his ingenuity.  When the train pulled into Detroit, Tom would scan the bulletin boards at newspaper offices and pick up the most interesting or compelling stories, often reports about the Civil War. He'd then print those stories in his Weekly Herald which he'd then sell for 3 cents each.  

When describing young Tom's Weekly Herald publishing venture, Edison Biographer, Neil Baldwin who in writing the book Edison, Inventing the Century 'has demythologized the man and left the genius bigger than life' says: Although Tom Edison has become renowned as a pioneering boy journalist, due in no small measure to his own justifiably enduring pride in the effort- he was in fact joining a movement characteristic of the time.  As early as 1846 there were eight teenage pressmen in Boston alone and an equal number in Worcester.  Dozens of amateur newspapers produced by literary tyros across America during the years leading up to the Civil War reveal an unsuspected degree of complexity to adolescent life and suggest an attempt to grow up faster than earlier generations. 

Tom learned he could earn more money selling the newspapers that had been published in Detroit, by telegraphing headlines that would be posted on the local train station blackboard before the train's arrival.  By the time the train pulled in, demand for the newspapers had already been created and Tom would quickly sell his daily supply of newspapers.  Another great marketing idea from a 15 year old!

The Telegrapher
When Tom woke early one August morning in 1862, little did he know that on this day in his fifteenth year, his life would dramatically change direction as quickly as freight cars that were shunted from one track to another near the train station.  As Tom watched the box car shunting operation, he noticed the young child of the station agent J. MacKenzie playing on the track where an unmanned box car was approaching.  As there was no brakeman on board who could stop the car, Tom outran the box car and grabbed the child to save his/her life.  Although not particularly important, some written accounts including those reviewed by Edison himself say the child was a boy, while others (by Henry Ford) say she was a girl.  

As a grateful MacKenzie already knew and liked Tom, he offered to teach him to be a telegraph operator for the railroad system.  Tom had already had toyed with telegraphy and knew his way 'around the rails'. So he eagerly accepted the offer. Tom quickly became proficient "at the key" and got a job as a night operator where only the fastest, most accurate telegraphers could 'take press' and thus qualify for a higher wage scale.   It's probably no coincidence that the quiet night shift would appeal to Tom so he could study, conduct experiments and sleep.  Unlike other night operators, Tom never got used to a daytime sleep schedule as he always had so much to do during the day.

Night operators typically worked twelve hour shifts beginning at 7:00PM. Tom the Telegrapher To be sure they were alert and on duty, the railroad system instituted the practice of 'sixing' where telegraph operators had to key the number 6 every hour on the hour sent to the train dispatcher's office.  It's often reported that Edison's first invention was a vote recorder, but it can be argued that his very first invention was a device that would 'six' as needed.

This invention was essentially a small notched wheel (that generated Morse code, dash _ followed by four dots ....) attached to a clock that would transmit this key sequence every hour.  Before long, Tom was caught (either sleeping or studying) but as he was considered one of the best and there was a severe shortage of reliable telegraph operators, he was not fired. He probably received only a half-hearted reprimand.  This is yet another example where Edison 'broke the rules" to get something done. 

Hell, there are no rules here - we're trying to accomplish something.   TA Edison 

For a few years traveling mostly throughout the midwest, Tom gradually took on some of the personal characteristics of these freewheeling, sometimes adventurous 'tramp operators' who never lived or loved at one place for too long.  Dealing with boredom was a telegrapher's lament.  But Tom was never bored. There were never enough hours in the day and he continued to take advantage of the quiet time. One of his earliest and closest friends from this coterie of carefree key operators was Milton F. Adams who would later help Edison get a job at Western Union in Boston in 1868.  While helping to contribute to Edison's biography years later, Mr. Adams wrote".

"I can well recall when Edison drifted in to take a job. He was a youth of about eighteen years, decidedly unprepossessing in dress and rather uncouth in manner. I was twenty-one, and very dudish. He was quite thin in those days and his nose was very prominent, giving a Napoleonic look to his face, although the curious resemblance did not strike me at the time. The boys didn't take to him cheerfully, and he was lonesome. I sympathized with him, and we became close companions. As an operator he had no superiors and very few equals.

Most of the time he was monkeying with the batteries and circuits and devising things to make the work of telegraphy less irksome. He also relieved the monotony of office-work by fitting up the battery circuits to play jokes on his fellow-operators and to deal with the vermin that infested the premises. He arranged in the cellar what he called his `rat paralyzer,' a very simple contrivance consisting of two plates insulated from each other and connected with the main battery. They were so placed that when a rat passed over them the fore feet on the one plate and the hind feet on the other completed the circuit and the rat departed this life, electrocuted."

As an itinerant telegrapher, Edison differentiated himself not only as a technically competent, reliable operator, but as one of the elite, the best.  He was invited to associate with press operators, journalists and editors some of whom became newspaper and magazine reporters who would later help Edison promote his work.

Author Frank Dyer writes: "... in the days of the Civil War there was a great dearth of skilful manipulators of the (telegraph) key. About fifteen hundred of the best operators in the country were at the front on the Federal side alone, and several hundred more had enlisted. This created a serious scarcity, and a nomadic operator going to any telegraphic centre would be sure to find a place open waiting for him. At the close of the war, a majority of those who had been with the two opposed armies remained at the telegraph key under more peaceful surroundings, but the rapid development of the commercial and railroad systems fostered a new demand, and then for a time it seemed almost impossible to train new operators fast enough. In a few years, however, the telephone sprang into vigorous existence, dating from 1876, drawing off some of the most adventurous spirits from the telegraph field; and the deterrent influence of the telephone on the telegraph had made itself felt by 1890".

Whoa, let's rewind that a bit, now let's go back to 1868 when Tom Edison had just celebrated his twenty first birthday. Many short Edison biographies skip or only briefly mention his time in Boston. This can also be said for Edison's time and experiences in other great American cities including Memphis, New Orleans, Charleston, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Cincinnati and Rochester. 

Tom the Proper Bostonian
As 'we are the sum of our total experiences' and Tom's experiences in Boston dramatically impacted and helped shape his life, I'm including some tidbits of information that are often not published.

In 1868, Edison's close friend, Milton Adams was working at the Franklin Telegraph Company in Boston when he received a message from Tom who was then visiting home in Port Huron; Tom went home because his father had just died. Tom asked if Milt could help him get a job.  Milt replied saying he would help introduce Tom to the Western Union office in Boston.   It's reported that Edison had no money, so he negotiated a free ride on the rails from Port Huron to Boston in March. In his book, Thomas A. Edison, Benefactor of Mankind, author Francis T. Miller describes Edison's snow-bound train ride from Michigan through Toronto to Montreal (four days late) down to Boston. The train got snowed under 'in a cut' in a blizzard shortly after leaving Toronto where passengers had been imprisoned for twenty four hours. Edison describes how passengers got fence-rail splints, made snow shoes and started out on foot in a blinding storm to find food. After a very dangerous trek through the deep snow,  passengers found a roadside inn where they stayed for a few days.

 

When he finally arrived in Boston it was mid winter, Tom was missing a much-needed winter coat.  He was teased by the coterie of key operators who unlike tramp telegraph operators in the rest of the country, dressed like gentlemen. 

In his recently published book, The Wizard of Menlo Park author Randall Stross writes: "he was in the words of an operator who witnessed the scene, 'the worst looking specimen of humanity I ever saw'. He wore jeans that were six inches too short, a jacket that he had bought off the back of a railroad laborer on his trip across country and a wide-brimmed hat with a tear on the side, through which his ear (probably his good one) poked out.  Milton Adams arranged the meeting and telegrapher's performance test.  Immediately after meeting with Mr. George F. Milliken, the local Western Union office Superintendent, Edison was offered and accepted the job.

From Dyer's book, Edison himself tells the story of what happened:  

The manager asked me when I was ready to go to work. ‘Now,’ I replied. I was then told to return at 5.30 P.M., and punctually at that hour I entered the main operating-room and was introduced to the night manager. The weather being cold, and being clothed poorly, my peculiar appearance caused much mirth, and as I afterward learned, the night operators had consulted together how they might ‘put up a job on the jay from the woolly West.’ I was given a pen and assigned to the New York No. 1 wire. After waiting an hour, I was told to come over to a special table and take a special report for the Boston Herald, the conspirators having arranged to have one of the fastest senders in New York send the dispatch and ‘salt’ the new man. I sat down unsuspiciously at the table, and the New York man started slowly. Soon he increased his speed, to which I easily adapted my pace. This put my rival on his mettle, and he put on his best powers, which, however, were soon reached. At this point I happened to look up, and saw the operators all looking over my shoulder, with their faces shining with fun and excitement. I knew then that they were trying to put up a job on me, but kept my own counsel. The New York man then commenced to slur over his words, running them together and sticking the signals; but I had been used to this style of telegraphy in taking report, and was not in the least discomfited. Finally, when I thought the fun had gone far enough, and having about completed the special, I quietly opened the key and remarked, telegraphically, to my New York friend: ‘Say, young man, change off and send with your other foot.’ This broke the New York man all up, and he turned the job over to another man to finish.”    Welcome to Boston, Tom!

As an immigrant city, even today Boston can be ethnocentric.  When arriving in Boston from wherever, you do well to 'find your own' who speak your language and are willing to lend a helping hand in your new surroundings.  At the turn of the century, the new Italians moved to the neighborhoods in the North End, the immigrant Irish went to South Boston and Dorchester and so on.
Old newspaper stories report that nobody 'cut you any slack'. For example, Edison was literally tested to come up to speed quickly.   Edison's reputation preceded him by way of the telegrapher's key was considered a loner, offbeat or a daydreamer.  He was nicknamed "the Looney", what we might call a techie or geek or very bright engineers today. 

Tom learned the value of humor and how to 'get even'.  He could be very funny.  In the book, A Streak of Luck, author Robert Conot tells the stories about Edison wiring the water bucket with an electrical charge and fixing the telegraph keys so they stuck.  He could play practical jokes with the best of them.

Milt Adams described how he was Edison's constant companion in Boston. He said, "We lived in a hall bedroom, which helped to reduce our expenses.  We got our meals at a boarding house about a mile away, where it was cheap.  Edison was always working -- eighteen to twenty hours a day.  Author Frank Dyer writes, "While he had no lively interest in the mere routine work of a telegraph office, he had the profoundest curiosity as to the underlying principals of electricity that made telegraphy possible and he had an unflagging desire and belief in his own ability to improve the apparatus he handled daily.  The whole intellectual atmosphere of Boston was favorable to the development of the brooding genius in this shy, awkward, studious youth, utterly indifferent to clothes and personal appearance, but ready to spend his last dollar on books and scientific paraphernalia.  It's a matter of record that Edison spent the incredible sum of thirty dollars on a suit in Boston, but by the following Sunday, while experimenting with acids in his workshop, the suit was spoiled.  Tom said, "That's what I get for putting so much money into a suit."  

Soon after arriving in Boston and while working at the Western Union office on Milk Street, Edison became intensely involved in the entire telegraph industry centered around the State and Washington Street area. This exposure to all aspects of the telegraph business and the 'street smarts' Edison earned in this vibrant, competitive, yet co-operative community likely prepared him well for future business ventures.  

Edison's biographers tell the 'cockroach war' story. This story is particularly insightful because it captures Edison's inventive genius, humor, problem-solving ability and unorthodox use of available technology.  It goes like this:

 

Nights On Duty --- War of the Cockroaches

 

     The Western Union office was on the ground floor, not far from Boston Common.  It was the typical telegraph office of the times -- "any hole-in-a-wall which was in a central location."  The Boston office had been previously used as a restaurant, which had left behind swarms of cockroaches.   Most of the operators brought their midnight lunches with them and promptly at the stroke of the hour, and old Irish vendor, called the 'cake man' appeared.  This was the signal for the cockroaches to march forth; they came in battalions, like armies -- making their raid on sandwiches, apple pie and whatever they could loot.

     Edison's inventive genius wall called upon to stop this invasion; he had succeeded in eliminating the rats in Cincinnati and there seemed to be no reason whey he should not get the cockroaches out of Boston.  Surely, the man who was destined to become "the world's great inventor" could master a problem like this.

     He said nothing -- but when he reported for duty the next night, there was a look of determination on his face.  He had laid out a plan that might be conceived by some future Napoleon in the annihilation of armies.  It did not differ in principle from the electrically charged, barbed wire barricades erected in the World War.

     Armed with a roll of tin foil, he cut it into strips and stretched them around the table.  Then he connected those strips with two heavy batteries and awaited the results.  It required by a single cockroach to cross the dead line and to make the circuit complete.

     "We awaited the slaughter with morbid interest," said one of the old operators in later years.  "One big fellow came up to the post at the southeast corner of the room and stopped for a moment. He brushed his nose with his fore legs and started. He reached the first ribbon in safety, but as soon as his core-creepers struck the opposite or parallel ribbon, over he went, as dead as a free message.  From that time until after lunch the check boys were kept busy carrying out the dead."   At midnight the cordon of defunct beetles around the table looked like a miniature Great Wall of China.  The ingenuity of this device caused a Boston newspaper to interview Edison and write a half-column story, but the night manager protested against the publicity and "electrocutions were discontinued by request."    Edison didn't then know that he'd later use tin foil on his first phonograph, and little did he know that he'd later be embroiled in controversy about electrocuting a killer.

   

Commencement Day & Street Smarts 
Tom Edison took advantage of libraries, book stores and made frequent visits to engineering labs to learn basic principals of electronics, chemistry, communications, metallurgy that were being taught at the nearby, Boston Tech which later became Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  As the Civil War had delayed construction of buildings funded and land donated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Boston Tech originally rented space in the Mercantile Building (next to the present Christopher Columbus Park) which Tom frequented, as it was then only a short walk down State Street to the waterfront. Although Edison did not attend MIT, he often visited, attended lectures and conducted research with and recruited graduates from MIT.  Tom lived with MIT students at 9-10 Wilson Lane which at that time ran parallel to Exchange Street from State Street. 

Edison enjoyed personal relationships with researchers at MIT. He later wrote, "The best school in this country in my opinion is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  The men they turn out are the best in the world and practically run our up-to-date industries". Edison's son Theodore graduated from MIT with a degree in physics in 1923.

It is sometimes reported that self-educated Edison was at odds with the academic world.  But it is clear that he had the highest respect for scholars who taught "learning by doing" and practical application, which reflects MIT's then and now antithetical attitude toward the 'ivory tower of academe'. Perhaps this is why MIT has a unique track record turning research into practical applications.  Even after leaving Boston, Edison often returned to MIT. He donated equipment, including a dynamo to help MIT start the school of Electrical Engineering; later he donated a complete electric lighting plant. 

Some key lessons learned while Tom was in Boston:
● He learned how to prepare and file the first of almost 1100 of his US Patents.

● He designed a half dozen telegraph devices that were put into service. 

● He found investors that were willing to back his product and business ideas. 

● He learned how to engage the right talent to help him accomplish his goals quickly.

● He learned, don't invent anything people don't want; if he didn't have a customer.

● He learned how to take advantage of the Trade Press as he began his first public relations campaign publishing articles in the Boston-based Telegrapher Magazine, the industry's widely read independent journal in April 1868.

● He developed scores of talented, reliable friends and business connections in Boston who would later help him build successful ventures throughout the US and Europe. While in Boston Tom met or developed deeper relationships with people that would become an integral player in his life.  They include: Upton, Latimer, Villard, Pope, Williams, Ropes, Hamblet, Thompson, Gilliland, Garrison, Jenks and most important, his second wife Mina.

Cornhill Area
One of Tom's favorite pastimes was hanging around the Cornhill area which was located near the present-day City Hall Plaza just up the street from Edison's lab on Court Street. This area bustled with book stalls and print shops and was fertile ground for researchers and writers. William Lloyd Garrison published The Liberator here during the Civil War.  Several years earlier, Harriett Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin here. When Stowe met President Lincoln, he is said to have exclaimed, "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!"

It's no secret that Thomas Edison was a slavery abolitionist. Many believe as Tom had spent much time in the Cornhill bookshops (then the center of abolitionist grass roots movement in the North) he became a good friend with Garrison. Perhaps this is why he later supported of 'the movement'.  Edison hired Garrison's son-in-law Henry Villard to run his European businesses. Villard's wife Fanny, who introduced Tom Edison to his wife Mina were lifelong friends. Later Edison would hire William Lloyd Garrison's son William to be his New England General Manager and public relations agent.  At Garrison's request, Edison chose Brockton MA as the first town to use his three-wire electricity distribution system. That was an immediate impetus (technical and economic) to incandescent lighting on a town-wide basis. 

In the Cornhill area, Lewis Howard Latimer, a teenage black man had the courage to sell The Liberator before the American Civil War, about twenty years after his parents had run away from slavery in Virginia. They were determined to be free and wanted to be sure their children were born on free soil. Later, at 16 years old Lewis joined the US Navy by falsifying his age. Upon his honorable discharge, he returned to BostonLewis H. Latimer and became an office boy at Crosby and Gould, the Boston patent law firm which had being doing patent work for Edison. We found no evidence to support whether Lewis Latimer and Thomas Edison had met in Cornhill, a possibility or whether he worked on behalf of Edison (ie. patents) while living in Boston. However, Edison Electric in New York City, did hire this incredible inventor in late 1884. Latimer never personally worked for Thomas Edison and there is no truth to the tale that Edison 'stole' the light bulb invention from Latimer who later improved filaments which made the light bulb last longer.   

Alexander Graham Bell hired Lewis Latimer to work at 109 Court Street.  It is reported but not substantiated that Latimer was directly responsible for Bell winning the race to have his telephone invention patented before anyone else.  Bell acknowledged and his archived correspondence confirms that Latimer provided him with blueprints and expertise. Latimer submitted an acceptable patent application on St. Valentine's Day, February 14, 1876, a few hours earlier than Elisha Gray.  To this day, there is still  incredible controversy about who won the race to file the patent, as there is evidence that Gray got the paperwork to the patent office before Bell.  However, there's an argument that Latimer's expertise and experience filing patents, walking the patent through the bureaucratic process, getting a stamped cash receipt and delivering the application directly to the examiner won the race.  There's a particularly insightful book The Telephone Gambit, Chasing Alexander Graham Bell's Secret by Seth Shulman, published in 2008 that presents some excellent history, evidence and supposition that Bell in fact was given access to Gray's caveat at the US Patent office, before he submitted his own patent and that information was the source of a fundamental voice telephone idea that Bell has later submitted in his patent.  A very controversial, must read.

It was on Cornhill where Edison had purchased the three volume set of British Scientist Michael Faraday's (1791-1867) works. Like Edison, Faraday was self-taught and he too tended to avoid using complex mathematics in his work.   Milt Adams wrote, "when Edison brought home these books at 4 A.M. he read steadily until breakfast-time, and then he remarked, enthusiastically: 'Adams, I have got so much to do and life is so short, I am going to hustle.' And thereupon he started on a run for breakfast. Edison says: "I think I must have tried about everything in those books". His explanations were simple. He relied more on practical testing than complex theoretical mathematics. He was the Master Experimenter. It's likely that not many copies of Faraday's works were sold in those days.

The following chronology, courtesy of the Thomas Edison Papers-Rutgers University

1868     March–April

Begins work as an operator at the main Western Union office in Boston, MA.

11 April

Publishes in the Telegrapher the first of several articles on his telegraph inventions and on the Boston telegraph community.

11 July

Makes the first of several agreements with E. Baker Welch, a Boston businessman who helps finance his early inventive work.

28 July

Signs a caveat for a fire alarm telegraph and assigns the invention to Welch.

13 October

Signs a patent application for an electric vote recorder, which later issues as his first patent.

1869      January 21

Sells rights in his first successful printing telegraph, the Boston instrument, to Boston businessmen Joel Hills and William Plummer.

30 January  

Resigns from Western Union to work full time to inventing and to pursuing various telegraph enterprises.

Winter–Spring

Joins Frank Hanaford to establish a business to produce and sell private line telegraphs at 9 Wilson Lane in Boston.

13 April

Tries and fails to make his new double transmitter work between Rochester NY and New York City. 

April–May

Moves to New York City.

22 June

Receives his first telegraph patent (for the Boston instrument).

1 August

Replaces Franklin Pope as superintendent of Samuel Laws' Gold and Stock Reporting Telegraph Co. in New York City and makes improvements on Laws' stock printer.

12 September

Moves to Elizabeth NJ and boards with Pope's mother.

 


 

Young Tom, shy around the girls
Frank Dyer's book, Edison, His Life and Inventions gives us some insight into the young, 21 year old, shy Tom Edison.  He tells the following story.  The principal of a select school for young ladies sent a request to the Western Union office to see if  the company would send someone to the school to describe and demonstrate the Samuel Morse telegraph to her 'children'.  Dyer writes: There has always been a warm interest in Boston in the life and work of Morse, who was born there at Charlestown, barely a mile from Franklin's birthplace, so this request for a lecture on Morse's telegraph was quite natural. Incidentally, at that time Samuel Morse was still alive at the ripe old age of eighty years. 

Edison, who was always ready to earn some extra money for his experiments and considered the best-informed operator in the office, accepted the invitation.  Tom's closest friend, Milton Adams tells the story this way:

Telegraph Key
We gathered up a couple of sounders, a battery and sonic wire and at the appointed time called on here to do the stunt. Her school-room was about twenty by twenty feet, not including a small platform.  We rigged up the line between the two ends of the room, Edison taking the stage while I was at the other end of the room.  All being in readiness, the principal was told to bring in her 'children'.   The door opened and in came about twenty young ladies elegantly gowned, not one of whom was under seventeen. 

When Edison saw them I thought he would faint.  He called me on the line and asked me to come to the stage and explain the mysteries of the Morse system.  I replied that I thought he was in the right place and told him to get busy with his talk on dots and dashes.  Always modest, Edison was so overcome he could hardly speak, but he managed to say, finally, that as his friend Mr. Adams was better equipped with cheek than he was, we would change places and he would do the demonstrating while I explained the whole thing.  This caused the bevy to run to see where the lecturer was. Sounder I went on the stage, said something and we did some telegraphing over the line.  I guess it was satisfactory; we got the money, which was the main point to us." 

The photo to the right is a sounder; it was only recently that I saw a sounder in action at the Vintage Radio & Communications Museum of CT.  It's a device that produces and audible sound at the telegraph receiving station.

Edison (and several other biographers) tells a similar story but insists it was he who saved the situation.  Edison tells it this way:

"I managed to say that I would work the apparatus and Mr.  Adams would make the explanations.  Adams was so embarrassed that he fell over an ottoman.  The girls tittered and this increased his embarrassment until he couldn't say a word.  The situation was so desperate that for a reason I never could explain, I started in myself and talked and explained better than I ever did before or since.    Not so fast Tom, I think most who have studied you would believe Milton Adams versions of this story as the slightly older Adams had more 'worldly experience'.  Tom continues the story: However I got out of this scrape and many times afterward when I chanced with other operators to meet some of the young ladies on their way home from school, they would smile and nod, much to the mystification of the operators, who were ignorant of this episode.  Sorry, Tom we don't believe this either.

109 Court Street
It is generally assumed that Edison didn't begin work on the stock ticker machine until after his arrival in New York City just as it is assumed that Babe Ruth didn't begin to hit home runs until he was traded the New York Yankees from the Boston Red Sox.  But Edison wrote, "After the vote-recorder, I invented a stock ticker and started a stock ticker service in Boston; had thirty or forty subscribers and operated from a room over the Gold Exchange.  This was about a year after Callahan started in New York."  Dyer notes: To say the least, this evidenced great ability and enterprise on the part of young Thomas Edison. The dealings in gold during the Civil War and after had brought gold indicators into use and these had soon been followed by "stock tickers"... The success of this new but still primitively crude class of apparatus was immediate.  Four manufacturers were soon busy trying to keep pace with demands for it from brokers.  Edison was however, about the only one in Boston of whom history makes record as achieving any tangible result in this new art; and he soon longed for the larger telegraphic opportunity of New York.  

Edison's first exposure to a free form laboratory 'where anything goes' was at 109 Court Street in Boston where in 1868 he rented lab space (also subsequently shared by several then unknown venture-minded inventors Bell, Watson, Berliner, Moses, Stearns, Farmer, Ritchie, Hall, Davis and others) at Charles Williams Jr. Telegraph Instruments Company.  As waves of European immigrants came to Boston,  Williams had his pick of machine shop talent, instrument and tool makers, craftsmen and tinkerers who were eager to work and create.  And there was no shortage of venture capital as 'early money' was readily available.   This wouldn't be the last time key ingredients (talent, hard work, venture funding) would come together in Boston to create new industries and wealth.  In this lab, Edison invented an electrographic vote recorder and the quadruplex telegraph which sent four messages over one wire. He also improved the standard stock ticker printer and he started a business to sell a stock and gold price quotation service. 

Unfortunately the stately, mansard-roofed building at 109 Court Street which for many years at the techno-centric hub of Boston, was knocked down by the misguided actions of urban renewal proponents of the 1960's. They were determined to eliminate historic but tattered Scollay Square and replace that area with today's 'modern' City Hall Plaza which I believe is an architectural disaster and residual evidence of the strength of the brick mason's union. 

Although Boston was the high-tech center of emerging industrial America with a key focus on electrical, telegraphic and telephonic technologies, Edison realized his best customer, business and funding opportunities could be found in New York to where he moved in late 1869. After selling the rights to his Universal Stock Ticker, for the then incredible sum of $40,000, he set up his first laboratory and manufacturing (printing telegraph business) on Ward Street in Newark, NJ in 1871. It's ironic that Edison's Newark operation was set up not far from where his grandfather, John almost a 100 years earlier had set up his farm

Stop, or I'll shoot!
Edison tells an amusing story about his appetite for reading material.  Always an omnivorous reader, he had some difficulty in getting a sufficient quantity of literature to read at home. He often bought books at auctions and second-hand stores. It was reported that one day at an auction, he bought a stack of twenty volumes of the North American Review for two dollars. Later he had these bound and delivered to the telegraph office. One morning when he was free after 3AM, he started off at a rapid pace carrying the ten volumes on his shoulder.

Soon he was being chased by a night watch police officer who fired a few shots at Edison.  After hearing the shots (with his good ear), Edison stopped. A breathless policeman grabbed him and ordered him to drop his parcel and explain matters. Edison opened the package of books somewhat to the disgust of the officer who imagined he had caught a burglar sneaking away in a dark alley. Edison explained that being deaf he hadn't heard the challenge to stop, so he kept moving.  The policeman remarked apologetically that it was fortunate for Edison he was not a better shot.

Invention Factory
By 1876 with support from key workers, Edison handed the task to his father to expand and build the best equipped Invention Factory (workshops/labs) in a remote location- Menlo Park (now a section in Edison) NJ. 

← This is a photo of the rebuilt Menlo Park NJ invention factory at Greenfield Village, Dearborn. 

 

In 1887, Edison moved his labs again, to West Orange NJ, the current location of the Edison National Historic Site which is now managed by the US Department of Interior and supported by a coterie of phonograph enthusiasts, the Friends of Thomas Edison National Historic Park.  

From these labs, Edison's detailed notebooks and the company's time clock records provide volumes of evidence about the hours Edison and his employees spent working on a variety of projects. 

Teams of engineers would often be assigned the same project, competing for first delivery of a workable unit or first delivery of the more reliable or least cost unit. Edison, who learned from Charles Williams Jr. and Williams' Invention Factory at Court Street could quickly assemble a project team as he was able to select some of the best talent that came from immigrant Europe as well as recent graduates of local colleges and technical schools.   It's no secret that Edison preferred to hire 'street smart' and 'book read' talent rather than college graduates.   He'd use a series of tests to help shorten the selection process when he was recruiting managerial talent.  Could you pass Edison's tests?  Click here to find out.        

"Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up".  T A Edison

To make a contribution to support present restoration and research at the Edison National Historic Site, make a 501 c (3) tax deductable contribution to the Friends of Edison National Historic Site, 12 Honeysuckle Ave, West Orange, NJ 07052-4948
Please click here to visit the Friends of Edison National Historic Site, website developed and donated by PhonoJack.

 

Over My Left Shoulder
From reporter and historian Robert H. Davis who wrote Over My Left Shoulder: A Panorama of Men and Events…. In 1926, Davis’ wrote in his "diary of remembrances of certain bygone doing and sayings...which happened yesterday or this morning" , the story goes like this:

Over My Left Shoulder, Edison comes full circle

 

At the age of 79 years Mr. Edison says to William Meadowcroft, his secretary,                       “…. I have ransacked the United States and all the records and archives in this office for a specimen of my handwriting when I was an operator. Apparently, none is in existence.     What are we going to do about it?” 

“My efforts have also come to naught.” Said the secretary, ‘but it just occurs to me that at Roselle Park, not ten miles from where we now sit, there is a communication engineer by the name of Donald McNichol, who is said to have a pretty complete collection of telegraph, telephone and radio historical lore that he has been gathering for thirty years.  Let’s try McNichol”. 

“There’s the telephone”, says the Wizard (Edison), “Get him”.  

“This is Mr. Meadowcroft speaking for Mr. Thomas A. Edison.”

“Mr. McNichol responding.”

Meadowcroft says, “Mr. Edison is in search of a specimen of his handwriting made when he was a telegraph operator fifty-five or sixty years ago.  We understand that you have a number of original scripts in your collection.”

McNichols replies, “That’s curious.  At this very moment, seated at my desk, I am viewing on the wall of my library a framed original specimen of Mr. Edison’s marvelously symmetrical penmanship which hangs under a sixty watt lamp of his invention.  It contains seventy-six words of perfect text, a portion of a press report—“

“You don’t mean it—“, the voice broke as though Meadowcroft had turned away from the phone and was talking with some one (Edison?) not on the wire. 

McNichols says, “Yes.  Can you hear me?  . . .  A press report that Mr. Edison copied in Boston in the year 1868; fifty-eight years ago, to be exact.  Yes, the original document.”

“News matter?” says Meadowcroft.

McNichol says, “Yes, but nothing new.  Same subject is always on the wire; about a strike.      I’ll read it:

“Quote: ‘We have been driven to adopt this course, when it is proved that had we uniformly received courteous, gentlemanly and human treatment and had been subjected to no tyrannical rules; had the old standard of salaries been carefully maintained and some system of promotion been established so that the far distant future we might see at least a single ray of hope there would have been no cause for complaint, then I believe that other heads….’  End quote. That’s all there is of it.  Stops with ‘heads.’”

There was a great commotion at the Thomas Edison end of the wire.  Would Mr. McNichol permit the “Wizard” to see the original?    McNichol replies, “Certainly; and to make a photographic copy if he desired.

Later, Mr. Edison made several copies, after which the original was returned to the owner and replaced under the sixty watt light along with its affiliated treasures.

OVER MY LEFT SHOULDER  "Here endeth the story of the wandering script, made by the dreamer when he was twenty-one, the original of which had passed from hand to hand for fifty-eight years to come again under the eye of its maker in the seventy ninth year of his eventful life.  The Lord moves in mysterious ways." Robert Davis  

   

 

The above handwriting example is a good example of Edison's high speed telegraph print copy.  The example below is his typical handwriting/style used in business correspondence.

 

Tom would love this- Listen to Edison's voice
If Tom Edison could see this web site or hear the following recording of his voice which was made almost a hundred years ago, he'd be completely consumed studying the technology.  Little did he know that when he participated in the opening of the New York Electrical show on October 3, 1908 when his speech was recorded on an Edison cylinder phonograph, a century later you'd be listening to his voice which had been digitized, compressed, packetized into Internet Protocol (IP) packets and played back on your PC as an mp3 file. 

Turn up those speakers, click here to hear Tom's voice and carefully listen to his message about electricity and progress.  To the uninitiated who have not heard a cylinder recording before, the intermittent background interfering noise that sounds like footsteps of a jogger, is actually the repeating sound of a scratch or small crack in the cylinder record.  

If you'd like to go back a bit earlier in time click here to hear the earliest known recording of Tom's voice (courtesy Edison National Historic Park) in 1888, more than ten years after he invented the phonograph and almost one hundred and twenty years ago. 

After the end of World War I, Edison permitted his voice to be recorded:  Let us not forget, a message to the American people.

 --Voice recordings are courtesy of Edison National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service and the Library of Congress, American Memory site .--

Additional Reading
Recently, several more great books about Thomas Edison have been published. Click here for a recommended reading list.  Today's authors have better access to information and well-preserved archives and there are more research tools to help them triangulate their findings.  This web page presents some interesting tidbits about Edison that I've picked up as I've tried to read and research anything to get more insight into this complex man.  On one hand, Edison could be a confident showman, eager to engage the press to 'create a buzz' about an idea or an invention especially when he needed to raise money. On the other hand, he protected his privacy and kept only a few very close friends.

Mina EdisonHis closest friend and confidant was his second wife Mina.     Unlink his very young, first wife, Mary Stilwell, Mina was well prepared to be the wife of a very famous man.   Tom, an older gentlemen kept a diary during the summer of 1985 while he vacationed at then good friend Ezra Gilliland summer seashore retreat in Winthrop MA on Boston harbor.  Tom had previously asked Gilliland's wife to introduce him to some 'marriagable' girls.  Well, Tom's diary has since been printed as a short story with plenty of comments from Tom's teenage daughter Dot and private comments he wrote as he pursued Mina who happened to be attending school in Boston.   By the time she met Thomas Edison, his name was well known.  Unlike Mary, Mina had a more worldly education, having graduated from Akron High School and having attended Mrs. Johnson's Ladies' Seminary in Boston. Besides, her father was a millionaire inventor himself. 

Mina Miller, the seventh of eleven children was born on July 6, 1865, Tom Edison was born February 1, 1847. the seventh of eleven children.  Tom wrote how he taught her Morse code so that they could converse in secret, even while the family watched. This is how Tom claims he proposed marriage to her and how she tapped back the affirmative "yes." They married on February 24, 1886.

From the Edison National Historic Park:  "The couple moved into Glenmont, theThomas and Mina Edison Edisons' new home, after their honeymoon in Florida. At age twenty, the new Mrs. Edison became a stepmother to Tom's three children. It was not an easy task. She was less than ten years older than stepdaughter Marion. Although Mina tried to nurture her new family, Marion later described Mina as "too young to be a mother but too old to be a chum." Her role as Mrs. Thomas Edison was also difficult: Edison frequently stayed late at the laboratory and forgot anniversaries and birthdays. Yet he seemed to love his "Billie." A note found in one of Mina's gardening books reads, "Mina Miller Edison is the sweetest little woman who ever bestowed love on a miserable homely good for nothing male (sic)".

Now for some controversy:
Inventors Thomas Edison, Emile Berliner, Alexander Bell, Elisha Gray and Philipp Reis were interested in capturing sound and the relationship between sound and electricity.  Many others had previously written and published papers about telephony, telegraphy and recording sound.   I'm not trying to make this a complete paper on Edison and the phonograph, but in some additional reading you'll find commentary concerning Frenchman Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville who patented the phonautograph in 1857, the first recording device.  Scott sought to capture a paper recording of sound that could be played back later.  This device had no means to play back the recording at that time.  There has been much controversial discussion about Scott's work and now some new research has come to light.

I met David Giovannoni, an avid American phonograph collector, enthusiast, researcher at the MME show in Wayne NJ (April 2008).  We eagerly listened to his exciting story about the research he spearheaded that uncovered recordings (Scott's phonoautograms) discovered in Paris.  Please look for more information presented in an article in the New York Times- click this link. A must read!  
I understand David and his team is looking for financing to pursue this research further. If you're interested in helping finance this project, please contact David Giovanni.

It is often reported that on April 18, 1877 French poet and humorist Charles Cros who later was recognized as a successful inventor, produced a theoretical design on paper that was deposited with the French Academy of Science a few months before Edison.  There are many who vehemently claim it was Cros not Edison who invented the phonograph.  

Perhaps it's sad but ironic that in 1869 Charles Cros and Louis Decos de Hauron reportedly without the knowledge of one another sent papers to the French Society of Photography of their identical inventions of color photography. Yes, photography too!  Hmmm! Cros submitted proof that his documentation which had been stored in a safety deposit box had predated Ducos' invention by nearly a year before.  Cros and Decos argued over who first invented color photography.  Unlike Decos who had plenty of evidence that he had been experimenting with color photography, Cros produced no meaningful evidence of prior work.  Ultimately the two settled, Cros claim remains unsubstantiated and Ducos, the winner is considered the inventor of the color photography.

Edison faced an interesting sequence of circumstances and claims by Cros, almost ten years later.  I don't buy Cros' argument or similar claims. 
In 1869 Charles Cros presented a paper on interplanetary communications that included a method of communicating with the inhabitants of Mars and Venus.  There is no doubt the Cros had a creative, inventive mind.  But I don't believe Cros was the precursor to Tom Edison any more that I was the inventor of the Star Trek transporter, an idea that I wrote about in a high school class a year before screen writer, Gene Roddenberry.


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