Monday, October 10, 2005

Thomas Alva Edison

from the 1911 Book of Knowledge: The Children's Encyclopedia (Grolier)

We have just been to a picture show, perhaps, and have laughed ourselves weary over the funny things we have seen; or perhaps we have watched the telegraph operator tick out our message to a friend who lives hundreds of miles away; or perhaps we have been trying out some new records of the latest songs on our phonograph and, the dusk closing in about us, we have switched on the electric light to enable us to see in picking out the records. We take all these things - the telegraph instrument, the moving picture machine, the electric light, so very much for granted that probably it has never occurred to us to wonder how we got them. And yet we hear the name of their inventor - Thomas Alva Edison, the "Modern day Wizard" - a half a dozen times a month.

It is Thomas Edison to whom we owe the phonograph, the perfection of the telegraph, of the electric light, of the megaphone, of the electric train, of the moving picture machine, and half a hundred other things which it seems that we could not do without. Thomas Edison is looked upon as the greatest inventor of the present century; he has a half a dozen or more factories engaged in making his inventions alone; scarcely a month passes in which he does not take out a patent in Washington, and from all parts of the world men come to seek the presence of the Master.

And yet Thomas Alva Edison, great as an inventor, is remarkably simple as a man. Some sixty odd years ago he began life as a poor boy in a little Ohio town. He went to school for only two months in his life, but his mother, who had been a school teacher, taught him her little fund of knowledge, and, what was more important, taught him something he might never have learned in school, namely, to think for himself.

A Newsboy on the Train

As a boy he did not seem remarkably unlike other lads of his age. When he was seven he began to sell newspapers on the Grand Trunk Railroad in Michigan. His train left Port Huron at 7 a.m. and made its southward trip to Detroit in about three hours. This gave a stay in that city from 10 a.m. until late afternoon. In those days no use was made of the smoking compartment, as there was no ventilation, and it was turned over to young Edison, who not only kept papers there, but soon had it fitted up as a laboratory, where he spent every spare moment fussing with chemicals, joyously absorbed in "inventing" things. Here in this eager-eyed newsboy was the born inventor.

One day a catastrophe occurred. The train which was running at thirty miles an hour over a piece of poorly laid track, was thrown suddenly aside with a violent lurch, and before young 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 the boy, in dismay, was still trying to quench the blaze when the conductor, a quick-tempered Scotchman, who acted also as a baggage-master, hastened to the scene with water and saved his car.

On the arrival at Mount Clemens, its next stop, the young inventor and his entire outfit, laboratory and all, were promptly ejected by the outraged conductor, and the train then moved off, leaving Edison on the platform, tearful and indignant, in the midst of his beloved but ruined possessions.

It was through this incident that Edison acquired the deafness that has persisted all through his life, a severe box of the ears from the scorched and angry conductor being the direct cause of his infirmity.

The Boy Proves Himself a Hero

But soon Edison was back at work again. The train on which he sold papers did way-freight work and shunting at Mount Clemens Station. One warm August in 1862, while the shunting was under way, young Edison was loitering about the platform, his glazed cap pulled low down over his eyes to keep out the glare of the sun. His glance wandered idly down the tracks where a train was rapidly approaching.

Suddenly all his languor vanished. With a breathless exclamation he dashed his cap and papers on the ground and tore down the main track. A little boy was playing in front of the on-coming train. Edison caught the child by the waist and rolled to one side - not a moment too soon, for the wheel of the car struck his heel. The two boys were picked up by the frightened train hands and carried to the platform, but though cut and bruised, both were quite safe. The grateful father, who was the station-master at Mount Clemens, unable to reward Edison financially, at once offered to teach the boy the art of train telegraphy. It is needless to say the proposal was eagerly accepted.

The Young Telegraph Operator

Edison first obtained regular employment as a telegraph oeprator at Indianapolis when he was eighteen years old. He received a small salary for day-work in the railroad office there, and at night he used to receive newspaper reports for practice.

"The regular operator was a man given to copious libations, who was glad enough to sleep off their effects while Edison and a young friend of his did the work."

But even in the earlier days of his career as a telegraph operator, Edison was more of an inventor than anything else.

"Anything connected with the difficulties of telegraphy had a fascination for him. He lost many a place because of unpardonable blunders due to his passion for improvement. At Indianapolis he kept reports waiting while he experimented with new devices for receiving them. At Louisville, in procuring some sulphuric acid at night for his experiments, he tipped over a carboy of it, ruining the handsome outfit of a banking establishment below. At Cincinnati he abandoned the office on every pretext to hasten to the Mechanics' Library to pass his day in reading."

At Stratford, Canada, being required to report the word "Six" every half hour to the manager to show that he was awake and on duty, he rigged up a wheel to do it for him.

The Young Inventor

Edison was once asked what was his first invention.

"Well," said he in reply, "my first appearance at the Patent Office was in 1868, when I was twenty-one, with an ingenious contrivance which I called the electrical vote recorder. I had been impressed with the enormous waste of time in Congress and the State legislatures by the taking of votes. More than half an hour was sometimes required to count the 'Ayes' and 'Noes'.

So I devised a machine somewhat on the plan of the hotel annunciator. In front of each member's desk were to have been two buttons, one for 'Aye' and the other for 'No' and by the side of the Speaker's desk a frame with two dials, one showing the total of 'Ayes' and the other the total of 'Noes.'

When the vote was called for, each member could press the button he wished and the result would appear automatically before the Speaker, who could glance at the dials and announce the result.

I thought my fortune was made. I interested a moneyed man in the thing and we went together to Washington, where we soon found the right man to get the machine adopted. Imagine my feelings when, in a horrified tone, the man exclaimed: 'Young man, that won't do at all! That is just what we do not want. Your invention would destroy the only hope the minority have of influencing legislation.' I saw the force of his remarks, and the vote recorder got no further than the Patent Office."

Edison obtained his first large money returns from the sale of an improvement of the instruments used to record stock broker's quotations, commonly known as "tickers." His success in this brought a contract to manufacture some hundreds of "tickers," and this adventure into the manufacturing line he carried through with some success. Yet, in speaking of it afterward, he said, "I was a poor manufacturer, because I could not let well enough alone. My first impulse upon taking any apparatus into my hand, from an egg-beater to an electric-motor, is to seek a way of improving it. Therefore, as soon as I have finished a machine I am anxious to take it apart again in order to make an experiment. That is a costly mania for a manufacturer."

It was Edison's success with the "tickers" that induced several New York capitalists to accept his offer to experiment with the incandescent electric light, they to pay all expenses and to share in the profits of the invention. Edison retired to Menlo Park, about twenty-five miles beyond Newark, N.J., to work out his invention. Patiently he experimented and re-experimented. At one time all the lights he had started burning suddenly went out, one after the other. Edison was stunned by the catastrophe. He began a series of exciting and exhaustive experiments. For five days he remained day and night at the laboratory. His eyes grew weak, studying the brilliant glow of the electric light. He could not sleep, for the moment he closed his eyes a dozen new tests for the lamp suggested themselves.

To add to the discomfiture of the inventor, a professor of physics in one of the well-known colleges declared in a newspaper article that the Edison lamp would never last long enough to pay for itself.

"I'll make a statue of that man," said Edison, grimly, "and I'll light it brilliantly with Edison lamps and inscribe it: 'This is the man who said the Edison lamp would not burn.'"

Such persistency would not fail to win out. With the perfection of the incandescent lamp came the formation of the Edison General Electric Company, involving the consolidation of the immediate Edison manufacturing interests in electric light. Today this company employs from twenty to twenty-five thousand people.

The Phonograph

When Edison was barely thirty years old he astounded the world by inventing the phonograph. He had a large laboratory now with a staff of men working under his directions. One day he draughted a sketch and gave it to a workman to make up into a machine. When the workman, who was a German named John Kruesi, brought the completed machine to him, Edison announced that he was going to record talking and then have the instrument give it back.

"To me it seems most absurd," shrugged Kruesi.

Edison bent over the machine and shouted lustily:

"Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow,
And everywhere that Mary went
That lamb was sure to go."

Then he adjusted the reproducer.

"Mary had a little lamb," the machine announced squeakily For a moment even Edison himself was taken aback. John Kruesi looked at the simple little instrument with an awe-struck face.

"Mein Gott in Himmel!" he ejaculated.

But this first phonograph was a very crude machine in comparison to the one we have now and Edison and his experimenting force worked over it for years before he could find a substance just suited for the making of a perfect cylinder.

"We started out using soft wax," said Edison, "but that was too soft. Then we tried every kind of wax and hardening substance. We invented new waxes. There was something objectionable about all of them. Then somebody said something about soap. That worked better, but it wasn't what we wanted. I had seven men scouring India, China, Africa everywhere, for new vegetable bases for new soaps. After five years we got what we wanted, and worked out the records that we use today. They are made of soap - too hard to wash with and unlike any other in use, but soap just the same."

The Electric Railroad

The electric train such as is used on the New York Central Railroad now is not the least of Edison's gifts to the world. When Mr. Villard of the Northern Pacific Railroad asked Mr. Edison if he could invent some way of running that road by electricity, Edison replied: "Certainly, but it is too easy for me to undertake; you can get someone else to do it."

"But I want you to tackle the problem," Mr. Villard insisted.

Once at work, however, Edison threw himself into the project in his usual whole-souled way. He invented a scheme of a third rail and shoe, and erected it in the yard of his new home in Orange. One day Edison asked some mechanical engineers down to see the road in operation. He invited them to take a trip in his new engine. Not without reluctance the gentlemen mounted the cab of the queer little machine and Edison started off at full speed, up hill and down dale and around sharp curves at the rate of forty miles an hour.

"When we go back, I am going to walk," remarked one of the visitors, trying to be casual. When the train gave an unusual lurch, one of the other gentlemen feebly protested at the rate of the speed over the sharp curves. Edison, absorbed and delighted in the engine, replied confidently, "No, no, it's all right. We've done it often." Just then the train gave an extra large bump, jumped the track, hurling all the occupants save Edison, helter skelter in every direction. "Edison was off in a minute, jumping and laughing, and declaring it a most beautiful accident."

His German assistant, Kruesi, his face cut and bleeding, regarded him woefully from where he sat in a clump of bushes. "Oh, yes, it is pairfeckly safe!" he remarked sarcastically. Fortunately no severe damage was done and in a few moments they had the train on the track again in running condition, but it is not recorded that the visitor rode back.

The Master Inventor

So step by step Edison mounted up the ladder of invention until he became generally recognised as the "Modern Wizard." He made machines for the crushing and grinding down of mine ore; he entered the cement business and placed the finest, hardest cement in the world on the market, and conceived the idea of houses of cement poured into iron molds, which should be fireproof, waterproof and vermin proof, and all this at very moderate cost; he produced the motion-picture machine; he developed his wonderful Edison storage battery for street car propulsion. And these are but a few among the dozens of well-known inventions that have placed the world forever in the debt of this great Master Inventor.

His influence in the development of manufacturing interests of our country has been enormous. And what has been at the bottom of this man's marvellous success in whatsoever he undertakes? A strong body, a clear and active mind, a wide imagination, a capacity for great mental and physical concentration, an iron nervous system, intense optimism, courageous self-confidence and indomitable persistence.

"Edison moves among his complicated series of shops and experiments with such energy and yet such a seeming lack of order that he is the despair of all the men who try to analyse him. To see him moving through his great laboratories, head bowed, hands in pockets, his face set in an expression of intense mental preoccupation, his hair carelessly combed whichever way it may please it to fall, his eyes focused miles away except when he flashes into someone else's a look of instant understanding, his whole appearance, except for the eyes and the humourous yet grim mouth, is that of a dreamer rather than a tireless worker."

"Nearly every man who develops a new idea," says Mr. Edison himself, "works it up to a point where it looks impossible, and then he gets discouraged. That's not the place to get discouraged, that's the place to get interested. I can't recall a single problem in my life, of any sort, that I ever started on that I didn't solve, or prove that I couldn't solve it. I never let up until I had done everything that I could think of, no matter how absurd it might seem."

No comments: