Chapters 5 and 6

A Few Stories of Edison’s Newsboy Days

The Grand Trunk Railroad machine shops at Port Huron had a great attraction for young Edison. The boy who was to have much to do with the evolution of modern electric locomotive in later years was fascinated with the mechanism of the steam locomotive. Whenever he could get the chance he would ride with the engineer in the cab, and he liked nothing better than to handle the locomotive himself during the run. Edison’s own account of what happened on one of these trips is very laughable. He says:

“The engine was one of a number leased to the Grand Trunk by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. It had bright brass bands all over the woodwork, was beautifully painted, and everything was highly polished, which was the custom up to the time old Commodore Vanderbilt stopped it on his roads. It was a slow freight train. The engineer and fireman had been out all night at a dance. After running about fifteen miles they became so sleepy that they couldn’t keep their eyes open, and agreed to permit me to run the engine. I took charge, reducing the speed to about twelve miles an hour, and brought the train of seven cars to her destination at the Grand Trunk junction safely. But something occurred which was very much out of the ordinary. I was greatly worried about the water, and I knew that if it got low the boiler was likely to explode. I hadn’t gone twenty miles before black, damp mud blew out of the stack and covered every part of the engine, including myself. I was about to awaken the fireman to find out the cause of this, when it stopped. Then I approached a station where the fireman always went out to the cow-catcher, opened the oil-cup on the steam-chest, and poured oil in. I started to carry out the procedure, when, upon opening the oil-cup, the steam rushed out with a tremendous noise, nearly knocking me off the engine. I succeeded in closing the oil-cup and got back in the cab, and made up my mind that she would pull through without oil. I learned afterward that the engineer always shut off steam when the firemen went to oil, This point I failed to notice. My powers of observation were very much improved after this occurrence. Just before I reached the junction another outpour of black mud occurred, and the whole engine was a sight—so much so that when I pulled into the yard everybody turned to see it, laughing immoderately. I found the reason of the mud was that I carried so much water it passed over into the stack, and this washed out all the accumulated soot.”

One afternoon, about a week before Christmas, the train on which Edison was a newsboy jumped the track. Four old cars with rotten sills went all to pieces, distributing figs, raisins, dates, and candies all over the track. Hating to see so much waste, the boy tried to save all he could by eating it on the spot, but, as a result, he says, “our family doctor had the time of his life with me.”

Another incident, which shows free and easy railroading and Southern extravagance is related by Edison, as follows;

“In 1860, just before the war broke out, there came to the train one afternoon in Detroit two fine-looking young men, accompanied by a colored servant. They bought tickets for Port Huron, the terminal point for the train. After leaving the junction just outside of Detroit, I brought in the evening papers. When I came opposite the two young men, one of them said, ‘Boy, what have you go?’ I said, ‘Papers.’ ‘All right.’ He took them and threw them out of the window, and, turning to the colored man, said, ‘Nicodemus, pay this boy.’ I told Nicodemus the amount, and he opened a satchel and paid me. The passengers didn’t know what to make of the transaction. I returned with the illustrated papers and magazines. These were seized and thrown out of the window, and I was told to get my money of Nicodemus. I then returned with all the old magazines and novels I had not been able to sell, thinking perhaps this would be too much for them. I was small and thin, and the layer reached above my head, and was all I could possibly carry. I had prepared a list, and knew the amount in case they bit again. When I opened the door all the passengers roared with laughter. I walked right up to the young men. One asked me what I had. I said, ‘Magazines and novels.’ He promptly threw them out of the window, and Nicodemus settled. Then I came in with cracked hickory nuts, then popcorn balls, and, finally, molasses candy. All went out of the window. I felt like Alexander the Great!—I had no more chances! I had sold all I had. Finally I put a rope to my trunk, which was about the size of a carpenter’s chest, and started to pull this from the baggage-car to the passenger-car. It was almost too much for my strength, but at last I got it in front of those men. I pulled off my coat and hat and shoes and laid them on the chest. Then the young man asked, ‘What have you got, boy?’ I said, ‘Everything, sir, that I can spare that is for sale.’ The passengers fairly jumped with laughter. Nicodemus paid me $27 for this last sale, and threw the whole out of the door in the rear of the car. These men were from the South, and I have always retained a soft spot in my heart for a Southern gentleman.”

While Edison was a newsboy on the train a request came to him one day to go to the office of E. E. Ward & Co., at that time the largest owners of steamboats on the Great Lakes. The captain of their largest boat had died suddenly, and they wanted a message taken to another captain who lived about fourteen miles from Ridgeway station on the railroad. This captain had retired, taken up some lumber land, and had cleared part of it. Edison was offered fifteen dollars by Mr. Ward to go and fetch him, but as it was a wild country and would be dark, Edison stood out for twenty-five dollars, so that he could get the companionship of another lad. The terms were agreed to. Edison arrived at Ridgeway at 8:30 P.M., when it was raining and as dark as ink. Getting with difficulty another boy to volunteer, he launched out on his errand in the pitch-black night. The two boys carried lanterns, but the road was a rough path through dense forest. The country was wild, and it was quite usual to see deer, bear, and coon skins nailed up on the sides of houses to dry. Edison had read about bears, but couldn’t remember whether they were day or night prowlers. The farther they went, the more afraid they became, and every stump in the forest looked like a bear. The other lad proposed seeking safety up a tree, but Edison objected on the plea that bears could climb, and that the message must be delivered that night to enable the captain to catch the morning train. First one lantern went out, then the other. Edison says:

“We leaned up against a tree and cried. I thought if I ever got out of that scrape alive I would know more about the habits, animals, and everything else, and be prepared for all kinds of mischance when I again undertook an enterprise. However, the intense darkness dilated the pupils of our eyes so as to make them very sensitive, and we could just see at times the outline of the road. Finally, just as a faint gleam of daylight arrived, we entered the captain’s yard and delivered the message. In my whole life I never spent such a night of horror as that, but I got a good lesson.”

Another amusing incident of this period is told by Edison.

“When I was a boy,” he says, “the Prince of Wales, the late King Edward, came to Canada (1860). Great preparations were made at Sarnia, the Canadian town opposite Port Huron. About every boy, including myself, went over to see the affair. The town was draped in flags most profusely, and carpets were laid on the cross-walks for the Prince to walk on. There were arches, etc. A stand was built, raised above the general level, where the Prince was to be received by the Mayor. Seeing all these preparations, my idea of a prince was very high; but when he did arrive I mistook the Duke of Newcastle for him, the Duke being a fine-looking man. I soon saw that I was mistaken, that the Prince was a young stripling, and did not meet expectations. Several of us expressed our belief that a prince wasn’t much after all, and said that we were thoroughly disappointed. For this one boy was whipped. Soon the Canuck boys attacked the Yankee boys, and we were all badly licked. I, myself, got a black eye. That has always prejudiced me against that kind of ceremonial and folly.”

Many years afterward, when Edison had won fame by many inventions, including his electric-light system, and had been awarded the Albert Gold Medal by the Royal Society of Arts, it was this same prince who wrote a graceful letter which accompanied the medal. Here is another of Mr. Edison’s stories:

“After selling papers in Port Huron, which was often not reached until about nine-thirty at night, I seldom got home before eleven or eleven-thirty. About half-way home from the station and the town, and within twenty-five feet of the road, in a dense wood, was a soldiers’ graveyard, where three hundred soldiers were buried, due to a cholera epidemic which took place at Fort Gratiot, near by, many years previously. At first we used to shut our eyes and run the horse past this graveyard, and if the horse stepped on a twig my heart would give a violent movement, and it is a wonder that I haven’t some valvular disease of that organ. But soon this running of the horse became monotonous, and after a while all fears of graveyards absolutely disappeared from my system. I was in the condition of Sam Houston, the pioneer and founder of Texas, who, it was said, knew no fear. Houston lived some distance from the town, and generally went home late at night, having to pass through a dark cypress swamp over a corduroy road. One night, to test his alleged fearlessness, a man stationed himself behind a tree, and enveloped himself in a sheet. He confronted Houston suddenly, and Sam stopped and said: ‘If you are a man, you can’t hurt me. If you are a ghost, you don’t want to hurt me. And if you are the devil, come home with me; I married your sister!”

We have already seen that Edison was of an exceedingly studious nature and full of ambition to work, experiment, and hustle. The serious side of his nature did not, however, wholly prevail. He had a keen enjoyment of a joke, even as he has now, and in his boyhood days had no particular objection if it took a practical form. The following, as related by him, is one of many:

“After the breaking out of the War there was a regiment of volunteer soldiers quartered at Fort Gratiot, the reservation extending to the boundary line of our house. Nearly every night we would hear a call such as ‘Corporal of the Guard No. I.’ This would be repeated from sentry to sentry, until it reached the barracks, when Corporal of the Guard No. I would come and see what was wanted. I and the little Dutch boy, upon returning from the town after selling our papers, thought we would take a hand at military affairs. So one night, when it was very dark, I shouted for Corporal of the Guard No. I . The second sentry, thinking it was the terminal sentry who shouted, repeated it to the third, and so on. This brought the corporal along the half mile, only to find that he was fooled. We tried him three nights; but the third night they were watching, and caught the little Dutch boy, took him to the lock-up at the fort, and shut him up. They chased me to the house. I rushed for the cellar. In one small compartment, where there were two barrels of potatoes and a third one nearly empty, I poured these remnants into the other barrels, sat down, and pulled the empty barrel over my head, bottom up. The soldiers had awakened my father, and they were searching for me with candles and lanterns. The corporal was absolutely certain I came into the cellar, and couldn’t see how I could have gotten out, and wanted to know from my father if there was no secret hiding-place.

On assurance of my father, who said that there was not, he said it was most extraordinary. I was glad when they left, as I was cramped, and the potatoes that had been in the barrel were rotten and violently offensive. The next morning I was found in bed, and received a good switching on the legs from my father, the first and only one I ever received from him, although my mother kept behind the old Seth Thomas clock a switch that had the bark worn off. My mother’s ideas and mine differed at times, especially when I got experimenting and mussed up things. The Dutch boy was released next morning.”

It may have seemed strange to you, on reading this and the previous chapter, that a lad so young as Edison was during the newsboy period—from about twelve to fifteen years of age—should have been allowed such wide liberty. An extensive traveler for those days, going early and returning late, an experimenter in chemistry, a publisher, printer, news-dealer, amateur locomotive engineer, and what not, covered a large range of experience and action for one so youthful.

To others of the family than his mother he was accounted a strange boy, some believing him to be mentally unbalanced. His mother, however, understood that his was no ordinary mind, for she had studied him thoroughly. While she watched him closely, she allowed him the widest possible sphere of action and encouraged his ever increasing studies.

A member of the family, in talking recently with the writer, said that when any one expressed nervousness about young Edison during his absences she would say: “Al is all right. Nothing will happen to him. God is taking care of him.”

——

The Young Telegraph Operator

After Edison’s expulsion from the train with his laboratory and belongings, his career as a newsboy came to a sudden close. But, while he felt some disappointment, he was not discouraged and was none the less busy. As we have seen, he published his local paper for a while and also continued his chemical experiments at home. In addition, he plunged deeply into the study of telegraphy under Mr. Mackenzie’s tuition.

Edison took to telegraphy enthusiastically, giving to it no less than eighteen hours a day. After some months he had made such progress that he put up a telegraph line from the station to the village, about a mile distant, and opened an office in a drug store; but the business there was very light and the office was not continued long.

A little later he became the regular operator at Port Huron. The office was in the store of a Mr. M. Walker, who sold jewelry and also newspapers and periodicals. Edison was to be found at the office both day and night, and slept there. He says:

“I became quite valuable to Mr. Walker. After working all day I worked at the office nights as well, for the reason that ‘press reports’ came over one of the wires until 3 A.M., and I would cut in and copy it as well as I could, to become proficient more rapidly. The goal of the rural telegraph operator was to be able to take press. Mr. Walker tried to get my father to apprentice me at twenty dollars per month, but they could not agree. I then applied for a job on the Grand Trunk Railroad as a railway operator, and was given a place, nights, at Stratford Junction, Canada.”

Many years afterward Mr. Walker described the boy of sixteen as engrossed intensely in his experiments and scientific reading. The telegraph office was not a busy one, but sometimes messages taken in would remain unsent while Edison was in the cellar busy on some chemical problem.

He would be seen at times reading a scientific paper and then disappearing to buy a few sundries for experiments. Returning from the drug store with his chemicals, he would not be seen again until required by his duties, or until he had found out for himself, if possible, the truth of the statement he had been reading. If wanted for his experiment, he did not hesitate to make free use of the watchmaker’s tools that lay on the table in the front window. His one idea was to do quickly what he wanted to do; and this tendency is still one of his marked characteristics.

The telegrapher’s position at Stratford Junction, Canada, was taken by Edison in 1863, when he was sixteen years old, and paid him twenty-five dollars per month. In speaking of it he has since remarked that there was little difference between the telegraph of that time and that of to-day. He says:

“The telegraph men couldn’t explain how it worked, and I was always trying to get them to do so. I think they couldn’t. I remember the best explanation I got was from an old Scotch line repairer employed by the Montreal Telegraph Company, which operated the railroad wires. He said that if you had a dog like a dachshund, long enough to reach from Edinburgh to London, if you pulled his tail in Edinburgh he would bark in London. I could understand that, but I never could get it through me what went through the dog or over the wire.”

Edison was ever keenly anxious to add to his stock of experimental apparatus, as an incident of this period shows:

“While working at Stratford Junction, I was told by one of the freight conductors that in the freight house at Goodrich there were several boxes of old broken up batteries. I went there and found over eighty cells of the well known Grove nitric acid battery. The operator there, who was also agent, when asked by me if I could have the electrodes of each cell, which were made of sheet platinum, gave his permission readily, thinking they were of tin. I removed them all, and they amounted to several ounces in weight. Platinum even in those days was very expensive, costing several dollars an ounce, and I owned only three small strips. I was overjoyed at this acquisition, and those very strips and the reworked scrap are used to this day in my laboratory, over forty years later.”

It was while he was employed as a night operator at Stratford Junction that Edison’s inventiveness was first displayed. In order to make sure that the operators were not asleep they were required to send the signal “6” to the train dispatcher’s office every hour during the night. Now, Edison spent all day in study and experiment, but he needed sleep, just as any healthy youth does, and so he made a small wheel with notches on the rim and attached it to the clock and line. At night he connected it with the circuit, and at each hour the wheel revolved and automatically sent in the dots required for “sixing.”

The invention was a success, but the train dispatcher soon noticed that frequently, in spite of the regularity of the report, Edison’s office could not be raised even if a message were sent immediately after. An investigation followed, which revealed this ingenious device, and he received a reprimand.

A serious occurrence that might have resulted in accident drove him soon after from Canada, although the youth could hardly be held to blame for it. Edison says:

“This night job just suited me, as I could have the whole day to myself. I had the faculty of sleeping in a chair any time for a few minutes at a time. I taught the night yardman my call, so I could get half an hour’s sleep now and then between trains, and in case the station was called the watchman would awaken me. One night I got an order to hold a freight train, and I replied that I would. I rushed out to find the signalman, but before I could find him and get the signal set the train ran past. I ran to the telegraph office, and reported that I could not hold her. The train dispatcher, on the strength of my message that I would hold the train, had permitted another to leave the last station in the opposite direction. There was a lower station near the junction, where the day operator slept. I started for it on foot. The night was dark, and I fell into a culvert and was knocked senseless.”

Fortunately, the two engineers saw each other approaching and stopped in time to prevent an accident. Edison, however, was summoned to the general manager’s office to be tried for neglect of duty. During the trial two Englishmen called, and while they were talking with the manager the youthful operator slipped out, jumped on a freight train going to Sarnia, and was not happy until the ferryboat from Sarnia had landed him safe on the Michigan shore.

The same winter, of 1863-64, while at Port Huron, Edison had a further opportunity of showing his ingenuity. An ice jam had broken the telegraph cable laid in the bed of the river across to Sarnia, and communication was interrupted. The river is three-quarters of a mile wide, and could not be crossed on foot, nor could the cable be repaired.

Edison suggested using the steam whistle of a locomotive to give the long and short signals of the Morse code. An operator on the Sarnia shore was quick enough to understand the meaning of the strange whistling, and thus messages were sent in wireless fashion across the ice floes in the river.

Young Edison had no inclination to return to Canada after his late experience there. He decided, however, that he would stick to telegraphy as a business, and, after a short stay at home in Port Huron, set out to find work as an operator in another city. And thus he commenced the roaming and drifting life which in the next five years took him all over the Middle States.

At this time the Civil war was in progress, and many hundreds of skilled operators were at the front with the army, engaged exclusively in government service. Consequently there was a great scarcity of telegraphers throughout all the cities and towns of the country. For this reason it was not difficult for an operator to get work wherever he might go. Thus one might gratify a desire to travel and get experience without running much risk of privation.

There were a great many others besides Edison who wandered about from city to city, working awhile in one place and drifting to another. As a rule, they were bright, happy-go-lucky fellows, full of the spirit of good comradeship, and willing to share bed, board, and pocket money with those who might temporarily be less fortunate than themselves.

Many of them used telegraphy as a stepping stone to better themselves in life, while others, unfortunately, became dissipated, and, becoming unreliable through drink, could not hold a position for long. Had Edison been by nature less persistent and industrious than he was, this miscellaneous companionship might have tended to wreck his career, but all through his life, from boyhood, he has been particularly abstemious and has had a contempt for the wastefulness of time, money, and health entailed by the drink habit.

Throughout this period of his life Edison, although wandering from place to place, never ceased to study, explore, and experiment. Referring to this beginning of his career, he mentions a curious fact that throws light on his ceaseless application. “After I became a telegraph operator,” he says, “I practiced for a long time to become a rapid reader of print, and got so expert I could sense the meaning of a whole line at once. This faculty, I believe, should be taught in schools, as it appears to be easily acquired. Then one can read two or three books in a day, whereas if each word at a time only is sensed reading is laborious.”

During this wandering period of his life Edison made many friends, one of the earliest of whom was Milton F. Adams, who had a strange career. Of him Edison says:

“Adams was one of a class of operators never satisfied to work at any place for any great length of time. He had the ‘wanderlust.’ After enjoying hospitality in Boston in 1868-69, on the floor of my hall bedroom, which was a paradise for the entomologist, while the boarding house itself was run on the Banting system of flesh reduction, he came to me one day and said: ‘Goodbye, Edison, I have got sixty cents, and I am going to San Francisco.’ And he did go. How, I never knew personally. I learned afterward that he got a job there, and then within a week they had a telegraphers’ strike. He got a big torch and sold patent medicine on the streets at night to support the strikers. Then he went to Peru as partner of a man who had a grizzly bear which they proposed entering against a bull in the bull-ring in that city. The grizzly was killed in five minutes, and so the scheme died. Then Adams crossed the Andes, and started a market report bureau in Buenos Aires. This didn’t pay, so he started a restaurant in Pernambuco, Brazil. There he did very well, but something went wrong (as it always does to a nomad), so he went to the Transvaal, and ran a panorama called ‘Paradise Lost’ in the Kaffir kraals. This didn’t pay, and he became the editor of a newspaper; then he went to England to raise money for a railroad in Cape Colony. Next I heard of him in New York, having just arrived from Bogota, United States of Colombia, with a power of attorney and two thousand dollars from a native of that republic, who applied for a patent for tightening a belt to prevent it from slipping on a pulley—a device which he thought a new and great invention, but which was in use ever since machinery was invented. I gave Adams then a position as salesman for electrical apparatus. This he soon got tired of, and I lost sight of him.”

Chapter list