Edison: His Life and Inventions HTML version

The Young Telegraph Operator
"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
mine." It will also have been noted that he used the telegraph to get items for his little
journal, and to bulletin his special news of the Civil War along the line. The next step
was natural, and having with his knowledge of chemistry no trouble about "setting up"
his batteries, the difficulties of securing apparatus were chiefly those connected with the
circuits and the instruments. American youths to-day are given, if of a mechanical turn of
mind, to amateur telegraphy or telephony, but seldom, if ever, have to make any part of
the system constructed. In Edison's boyish days it was quite different, and telegraphic
supplies were hard to obtain. But 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 keys. With an idea of securing current cheaply, Edison applied the
little that he knew about static electricity, and actually experimented with cats, which he
treated vigorously as frictional machines until the animals fled in dismay, and Edison had
learned his first great lesson in the relative value of sources of electrical energy. The line
was made to work, however, and additional to the messages that the boys interchanged,
Edison secured practice in an ingenious manner. His father insisted on 11.30 as proper
bedtime, which left but a short interval after the long day on the train. But each evening,
when the boy went home with a bundle of papers that had not been sold in the town, his
father would sit up reading the "returnables." Edison, therefore, on some excuse, left the
papers with his friend, but suggested that he could get the news from him by telegraph,
bit by bit. The scheme interested his father, and was put into effect, the messages being
written down and handed over for perusal. This yielded good practice nightly, lasting
until 12 and 1 o'clock, and was maintained for some time until Mr. Edison became
willing that his son should stay up for a reasonable time. The papers were then brought
home again, and the boys amused themselves to their hearts' content until the line was
pulled down by a stray cow wandering through the orchard. Meantime better instruments
had been secured, and the rudiments of telegraphy had been fairly mastered.
The mixed train on which Edison was employed as newsboy did the way-freight work
and shunting at the Mount Clemens station, about half an hour being usually spent in the
work. One August morning, in 1862, while the shunting was in progress, and a laden
box-car had been pushed out of a siding, 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 glazed cap, and made a dash for the child, whom he picked up
and lifted to safety without a second to spare, as the wheel of the car struck his heel; and
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
at once offered to teach the rescuer, whom he knew and liked, the art of train telegraphy
and to make an operator of him. It is needless to say that the proposal was eagerly