Chapters 3 and 4

Edison’s Early Boyhood

It was when he was about seven years old that Edison’s parents moved to Port Huron, Michigan, and it was there, a few years later, that he began his active life by becoming a newsboy.

With his mother he found study easy and pleasant. The quality of the education she gave him may be judged from the fact that before he was twelve years old he had studied the usual rudiments and had read, with his mother’s help, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Hume’s History of England, Sears’s History of the World, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and the Dictionary of Sciences.

They even tried to struggle through Newton’s Principia, but the mathematics were too much for both teacher and student. To this day Edison has little personal use for arithmetic beyond that which is called “mental.” He said to a friend, “I can always hire some mathematicians, but they can’t hire me.”

His father always encouraged his literary tastes, and paid him a small sum for each book which he mastered. Although there is no fiction in the list, Edison has all his life enjoyed it, particularly the works of such writers as Victor Hugo. Indeed, later on, when he became a telegraph operator, he was nicknamed by his associates “Victor Hugo Edison”—possibly because of his great admiration for that writer.

When he was about eleven years old he became greatly interested in chemistry. He got a copy of Parker’s School Philosophy, an elementary book on physics, and tried almost every experiment in it. He also experimented on his own account. It is said that he once persuaded a boy employed by the family to swallow a large quantity of Seidlitz powders in the belief that the gases generated would enable him to fly. The awful agonies of the victim attracted attention, and Edison’s mother marked her displeasure by an application of the switch kept behind the old Seth Thomas “grandfather’s clock.”

It was as early as this that young Alva, or “Al,” as he was called, displayed a passion for chemistry, which has never left him. He used the cellar of the house for his experiments and collected there no fewer than two hundred bottles from various places. They contained the chemicals with which he was constantly experimenting, and were all marked “Poison,” so that no one else would disturb them.

He soon became familiar with all the chemicals to be had at the local drug stores, for he did not believe the statements made in his books until he had tested them for himself.

Edison used such a large part of his mother’s cellar for this, his first laboratory, that, becoming tired of the “mess,” she once ordered him to clear out everything. The boy was so much distressed at this that she relented, but insisted that he must keep things under lock and key when he was not there.

Most of his spare time was spent in the cellar, for he did not share to any extent in the sports of the boys of the neighborhood. His chum and chief companion at this time was a Dutch boy, much older than himself, named Michael Oates, who did chores around the house. It was Michael upon whom the Seidlitz powder experiment was tried.

As Edison got deeper into his chemical studies his limited pocket-money disappeared rapidly. He was being educated by his mother, and, therefore, not attending a regular school, and he had read all the books within reach. So he thought the matter out and decided that if he became a train newsboy he could earn all the money he wanted for his experiments and also get fresh reading from papers and magazines. Besides, if he could get permission to go on the train he had in mind, he would have some leisure hours in Detroit and would be able to spend them at the public library free of charge. His parents objected, particularly his mother, but finally he obtained their consent.

It has been thought by many people that his family was poor, and that it was on account of their poverty that young Edison came to sell newspapers on the train. This is not true, for his father was a prosperous dealer in grain and feed, and was also actively interested in the lumber industry and other things. While he was not rich, he made money in his business, and, having a well-stocked farm and a large orchard besides, was in comfortable circumstances. Socially the family stood high in the town, where at the time many well-to-do people resided.

It was of his own choice and because of his never-satisfied desire for experiment and knowledge that Edison became a newsboy.

In 1859, when he was twelve years old, he applied for the privilege of selling newspapers on the trains of the Grand Trunk Railroad between Port Huron and Detroit. After a short delay the necessary permission was obtained.

Even before this he had had some business experience. His father had laid out a “market-garden” on the farm, and young Edison, at eleven years of age, and Michael Oaths had worked in it pretty steadily. In the season the two boys would load up a wagon with onions, lettuce, peas, etc., and drive through the town to sell their produce. As much as $600 was turned over to Mrs. Edison in one year from this source.

Edison was industrious but he did not take kindly to farming. He tells us about this himself:

“After a while I tired of this work. Hoeing corn in a hot sun is unattractive, and I did not wonder that boys had left the farm for the city. Soon the Grand Trunk Railroad was extended from Toronto to Port Huron, at the foot of Lake H on, and thence to Detroit, at about the time the War of the Rebellion broke out. By a great amount of persistence I got permission from my mother to go on the local train as newsboy. The local train from Port Huron to Detroit, a distance of sixty-three miles, left at 7 A. M. and arrived again at 9:30 P.M. After being on the train for several months, I started two stores at Port Huron—one for periodicals and the other for vegetables, butter, and berries in the season. These were attended by two boys, who shared in the profits. The periodical store I soon closed, as the boy in charge could not be trusted. The vegetable store I kept up for nearly a year. After the railroad had been opened a short time they put on an express, which left Detroit in the morning and returned in the evening. I received permission to put a newsboy on this train. Connected with this train was a car, one part for baggage and the other part for United States mail, but for a long time it was not used. Every morning I had two large baskets of vegetables from the Detroit market loaded in the mail car and sent to Port Huron, when the boy would take them to the store. They were much better than those grown locally, and sold readily. I never was asked for freight, and to this day cannot explain why, except that I was so small and industrious and the nerve to appropriate a United States mail car to do a free freight business was so monumental. However, I kept this up for a long time, and in addition bought butter from the farmers along the line and an immense amount of black-berries in the season. I bought wholesale and at a low price, and permitted the wives of the engineers and trainmen to have the benefit of the discount. After a while there was a daily immigrant train put on. This train generally had from seven to ten coaches, filled always with Norwegians, all bound for Iowa and Minnesota. On these trains I employed a boy who sold bread, tobacco, and stick candy. As the war progressed the daily newspaper sales became very profitable, and I gave up the vegetable store.”

This shrewd commercial instinct, and the capacity for carrying on successfully several business undertakings at the same time, were certainly remarkable in a boy only thirteen years old. And now, having had a glimpse of Edison’s very early youth, let us begin a new chapter and follow his further adventures as a newsboy on a railway train.


The Young Newsboy

Edison’s train left Port Huron at seven o’clock in the morning and arrived at Detroit in about three hours. It did not leave Detroit again until quite late in the afternoon, arriving at Port Huron about nine-thirty at night. This made a long day for the boy, but it gave him an opportunity to do just what he wanted, which was to read, to buy chemicals and apparatus, and to indulge in his favorite occupation—chemical experimentation.

The train was made up of three coaches—baggage, smoking, and ordinary passenger. The baggage-car was divided into three compartments—one for trunks and packages, one for the mail, and one for smoking.

As there was no ventilation in this smoking-compartment, no use was made of it. It was therefore turned over to young Edison, who not only kept his papers there and his stock of goods as a “candy butcher,” but he also transferred to it the contents of the precious laboratory from his mother’s cellar. He found plenty of leisure on the two daily runs of the train to follow up his study of chemistry.

His earnings on the train were excellent, for he often took in eight or ten dollars a day. One dollar a day always went to his mother, and, as he was thus supporting himself, he felt entitled to spend any other profit left over on chemicals and apparatus. Detroit being a large city, he could obtain a greater variety there than in his own small town. He spent a great deal of time in reading up on his favorite subject at the public library, where he could find plenty of technical books. Thus he gave up most of his time and all his money to chemistry.

He did not confine himself entirely to Chemistry in his reading at the Detroit public library, but sought to gain knowledge on other subjects. It is a matter of record that in the beginning of his reading he started in with a certain section of the library and tried to read it through, shelf by shelf, regardless of subject.

Edison went along in this manner for quite a long time. When the Civil War broke out he noticed that there was a much greater demand for newspapers. He became ambitious to publish a local journal of his own. So his little laboratory in the smoking-compartment received some additions which made it also a newspaper office.

He picked up a second-hand printing-press in Detroit and bought some type. With his mechanical ability, it was not a difficult matter to learn the rudiments of the printing art, and as some of the type was kept on the train he could set it up in moments of leisure. Thus he became the compositor, pressman, editor, proprietor, publisher, and news-dealer of the Weekly Herald. The price was three cents a copy, or eight cents a month for regular subscribers and the circulation ran up to over four hundred copies an issue. Only one or two copies of this journal are now to be found.

It was the first newspaper in the world printed on a train in motion. It received the patronage of the famous English engineer, Stephenson, and was also noted by the London Times. As the production of a boy of fourteen it was certainly a clever sheet, and many people were willing subscribers, for, by the aid of the railway telegraph, Edison was often able to print late news of local importance which could not be found in regular papers, like those of Detroit.

Edison’s business grew so large that he employed a boy friend to help him. There was often plenty of work for both in the early days of the war, when the news of battle caused great excitement.

In order to increase the sales of newspapers, Edison would telegraph the news ahead to the agents of stations where the train stopped and get them to put up bulletins, so that, when the stations were reached, there would usually be plenty of purchasers waiting.

He recalls in particular the sensation caused by the great battle of Shiloh, or Pittsburg Landing, in April, 1862, in which both Grant and Sherman were engaged, in which the Confederate General Johnston was killed, and in which there was a great number of men killed and wounded.

The bulletin-boards of the Detroit newspapers were surrounded by dense crowds, which read that there were about sixty thousand killed and wounded, and that the result was certain. Edison, in relating his experience of that day, says:

“I knew if the same excitement was shown at the various small towns along the road, and especially at Port Huron, the sale of papers would be great. I then conceived the idea of telegraphing the news ahead, went to the operator in the depot, and, on my giving him Harper’s Weekly  and some other papers for three months, he agreed to telegraph to all the stations the matter on the bulletin-board. I hurriedly copied it, and he sent it, requesting the agents to display it on the blackboards used for stating the arrival and departure of trains. . I decided that, instead of the usual one hundred papers, I could sell one thousand; but not having sufficient money to purchase that number, I determined in my desperation to see the editor himself and get credit. The great paper at that time was the Detroit Free Press. I walked into the office marked ‘Editorial’ and told a young man that I wanted to see the editor on important business—important to me, anyway.

“I was taken into an office where there were two men, and I stated what I had done about telegraphing, and that I wanted a thousand papers, but only had money for three hundred, and I wanted credit. One of the men refused it, but the other told the first spokesman to let me have them. This man, I afterward learned, was Wilbur F. Storey, who subsequently founded the Chicago Times  and became celebrated in the newspaper world. With the aid of another boy I lugged the papers to the train and started folding them. The first station, called Utica, was a small one, where I generally sold two papers. I saw a crowd ahead on the platform, and thought it was some excursion, but the moment I landed there was a rush for me; then I realized that the telegraph was a great invention. I sold thirty-five papers there. The next station was Mount Clemens, now a watering-place, but then a town of about one thousand population. I usually sold six to eight papers there. I decided that if I found a corresponding crowd there the only thing to do to correct my lack of judgment in not getting more papers was to raise the price from five cents to ten. The crowd was there, and I raised the price. At the various towns there were corresponding crowds. It had been my practice at Port Huron to jump from the train at a point about one-fourth of a mile from the station, where the train generally slackened speed. I had drawn several loads of sand to this point to jump on, and had become quite expert. The little Dutch boy with the horse met me at this point. When the wagon approached the outskirts of the town I was met by a large crowd. I then yelled: ‘Twenty-five cents apiece, gentlemen! I haven’t enough to go around!’ I sold out, and made what to me then was an immense sum of money.”

But this and similar gains of money did not increase Edison’s savings, for all his spare cash was spent for new chemicals and apparatus. He had bought a copy .of Fresenius’s Qualitative Analysis, and, with his ceaseless testing and study of its advanced problems, his little laboratory on the train was now becoming crowded with additional equipment, especially as he now added electricity to his studies.

“While a newsboy on the railroad,” says Edison, “I got very much interested in electricity, probably from visiting telegraph offices with a chum who had tastes similar to me.”

We have already seen that he was shrewd enough to use the telegraph to get news items for his own little journal and also to bulletin his special news of the Civil War along the line. To such a ceaseless experimenter as he was, it was only natural that electricity should come in for a share of his attention. With his knowledge of chemistry, he had no trouble in “setting up” batteries, but his difficulty lay in obtaining instruments and material for circuits.

To-day any youth who desires to experiment with telegraphy or telephony can find plenty of stores where apparatus can be bought ready made, or he can make many things himself by following the instructions in Harper’s Electricity Book for Boys. But in Edison’s boyish days it was quite different. Telegraph supplies were hard to obtain, and amateurs were usually obliged to make their own apparatus.

Edison at fifteen


However, he and his chum had a line between their homes, built of common stove-pipe wire. The insulators were bottles set on nails driven into trees and short poles. The magnet wire was wound with rags for insulation, and pieces of spring brass were used for telegraph keys.

With the idea of securing current cheaply, Edison applied the little he knew about static electricity, and actually experimented with cats. He treated them vigorously as frictional machines until the animals fled in dismay, leaving their marks to remind the young inventor of his first great lesson in the relative value of sources of electrical energy. Resorting to batteries, however, the line was made to work, and the two boys exchanged messages.

Edison wanted lots of practice, and secured it in an ingenious manner. If he could have had his way he would have sat up until the small hours of the morning, but his father insisted on eleven-thirty as the proper bed-time, which left but a short interval after a long day on the train.

Now, each evening, when the boy went home with newspapers that had not been sold, his father would sit up to read them. So Edison on some excuse had his friend take the papers, but suggested to his father that he could get the news from the chum by telegraph bit by bit. The scheme interested the father, and was put into effect, the messages over the wire being written down by Edison and handed to the old gentleman to read.

This gave good practice every night until twelve or one o’clock, and was kept up for some time, until the father became willing that his son should sit up for a reasonable time. The papers were then brought home again, and the boys practiced to their hearts’ content, until the line was pulled down by a stray cow wandering through the orchard.

Now we come to the incident which may be regarded as turning Edison’s thoughts more definitely to electricity. One August morning, in 1862, the mixed train on which he worked as newsboy was doing some shunting at Mount Clemens station. A laden box-car had been pushed out of a siding, when Edison, who was loitering about the platform, saw the little son of the station agent, Mr. J. U. Mackenzie, playing with the gravel on the main track, along which the car, without a brakeman, was rapidly approaching.

Edison dropped his papers and his cap and made a dash for the child, whom he picked up and lifted to safety without a second to spare, as the wheel struck his heel. Both were cut about the face and hands by the gravel ballast on which they fell.

The two boys were picked up by the train hands and carried to the platform, and the grateful father, who knew and liked the rescuer, offered to teach him the art of train telegraphy and to make an operator of him. It is needless to say that the proposal was most eagerly accepted.

Edison found time for his new studies by letting one of his friends look after the newsboy work on the train for part of the trip, keeping for himself the run between Port Huron and Mount Clemens. We have already seen that he was qualified as a beginner, and, besides, he was able to take to the station a neat little set of instruments he had just finished at a gun shop in Detroit.

What with his business as newsboy, his publication of the Weekly Herald, his reading and chemical and electrical experiments, Edison was leading a busy life and making rapid progress, but unexpectedly there came disaster, which brought about a sudden change. One day, shortly after he had rescued Mr. Mackenzie’s child, as the train was running swiftly over a piece of poorly laid track, there was a sudden lurch, and, before Edison could catch it, a stick of phosphorus was jarred from its shelf, fell to the floor and burst into flame.

The car took fire, and Edison was trying in vain to put out the blaze when the conductor, a quick-tempered Scotchman, rushed in with water and saved the car. On arriving at the next station, Mount Clemens, the enraged conductor promptly put the boy off with his entire outfit, including his laboratory and printing-plant.

It was through this incident that Edison acquired his lifelong deafness, for the conductor boxed his ears so severely as to cause this infirmity. To most people this would be an affliction, but not so to Mr. Edison, who said about it recently:

“This deafness has been of great advantage to me in various ways. When in a telegraph office I could hear only the instrument directly on the table at which I sat, and, unlike the other operators, I was not bothered by the other instruments. Again, in experimenting on the telephone, I had to improve the transmitter so that I could hear it. This made the telephone commercial, as the magneto telephone receiver of Bell was too weak to be used as a transmitter commercially. It was the same with the phonograph. The great defect of that instrument was the rendering of the overtones in music and the hissing consonants in speech. I worked over one year, twenty hours a day, Sundays and all, to get the word “specie” perfectly recorded and reproduced on the phonograph. When this was done I knew that everything else could be done—which was a fact. Again, my nerves have been preserved intact. Broadway is as quiet to me as a country village is to a person with normal hearing.”

But we left young Edison on the station platform, sorrowful and indignant, as the train moved off, deserting him in the midst of his beloved possessions. He was saddened, but not altogether discouraged, and after some trouble succeeded in making his way home, where he again set up his laboratory and also his printing-office. There was some objection on the part of the family, as they feared that they might also suffer from fire, but he promised not to bring in anything of a dangerous nature.

He continued to publish the Weekly Herald, but after a while was persuaded by a chum to change its character and publish it under the name of Paul Pry, making it a journal of town gossip about local people and their affairs and peculiarities.

No copies of Paul Pry  can now be found, but it is known that its style was distinctly personal, and the weaknesses of the towns-people were discussed in it very freely and frankly by the two boys. It caused no small offense, and in one instance Edison was pitched into the St. Clair River by one of the victims whose affairs had been given such unsought publicity.

Possibly this was one of the reasons that caused Edison to give up the paper not very long afterward. He had a great liking for newspaper work, and might have continued in that field had it not been for strong influences in other directions. There is no question, however, that he was the youngest publisher and editor of his time.

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