Heroes of the Telegraph

Author: J. Munro

Chapter IX. Thomas Alva Edison.

Thomas Alva Edison, the most famous inventor of his time and country, was born at Milan, Erie County, Ohio, in the United States, on February 11, 1847. His pedigree has been traced for two centuries to a family of prosperous millers in Holland, some of whom emigrated to America in 1730. Thomas, his great-grandfather, was an officer of a bank in Manhattan Island during the Revolution, and his signature is extant on the old notes of the American currency. Longevity seems a characteristic of the strain, for Thomas lived to the patriarchal term of 102, his son to 103, and Samuel, the father of the inventor, is, we understand, a brisk and hale old man of eighty-six.

Born at Digby, in the county of Annapolis, Nova Scotia, on August 16, 1804, Samuel was apprenticed to a tailor, but in his manhood he forsook the needle to engage in the lumber trade, and afterwards in grain. He resided for a time in Canada, where, at Vienna, he was married to Miss Nancy Elliott, a popular teacher in the high school. She was of Scotch descent, and born in Chenango County, New York, on January 10, 1810. After his marriage he removed, in 1837, to Detroit, Michigan, and the following year settled in Milan.

In his younger days Samuel Edison was a man of fine appearance. He stood 6 feet 2 inches in his stockings, and even at the age of sixtyfour he was known to outjump 260 soldiers of a regiment quartered at Fort Gratiot, in Michigan. His wife was a fine-looking woman, intelligent, well-educated, and a social favourite. The inventor probably draws his physical endurance from his father, and his intellect from his mother.

Milan is situated on the Huron River, about ten miles from the lake, and was then a rising town of 3,000 inhabitants, mostly occupied with the grain and timber trade. Mr. Edison dwelt in a plain cottage with a low fence in front, which stood beside the roadway under the shade of one or two trees.

The child was neither pale nor prematurely thoughtful; he was rosycheeked, laughing, and chubby. He liked to ramble in the woods, or play on the banks of the river, and could repeat the songs of the boatmen ere he was five years old. Still he was fond of building little roads with planks, and scooping out canals or caverns in the sand.

An amusing anecdote is imputed to his sister, Mrs. Homer Page, of Milan. Having been told one day that a goose hatches her goslings by the warmth of her body, the child was missed, and subsequently found in the barn curled up in a nest beside a quantity of eggs!

The Lake Shore Railway having injured the trade of Milan, the family removed to Port Huron, in Michigan, when Edison was about seven years old. Here they lived in an old-fashioned white frame-house, surrounded by a grove, and commanding a fine view of the broad river, with the Canadian hills beyond. His mother undertook his education, and with the exception of two months he never went to school. She directed his opening mind to the acquisition of knowledge, and often read aloud to the family in the evening. She and her son were a loving pair, and it is pleasant to know that although she died on April 9, 1871, before he finally emerged from his difficulties, her end was brightened by the first rays of his coming glory.

Mr. Edison tells us that his son never had any boyhood in the ordinary sense, his early playthings being steam-engines and the mechanical powers. But it is like enough that he trapped a wood-chuck now and then, or caught a white-fish with the rest.

He was greedy of knowledge, and by the age of ten had read the PENNY ENCYCLOPAEDIA; Hume’s HISTORY OF ENGLAND; Dubigne’s HISTORY OF THE REFORMATION; Gibbon’s DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, and Sears’ HISTORY OF THE WORLD. His father, we are told, encouraged his love of study by making him a small present for every book he read.

At the age of twelve he became a train-boy, or vendor of candy, fruit, and journals to the passengers on the Grand Trunk Railway, between Port Huron and Detroit. The post enabled him to sleep at home, and to extend his reading by the public library at Detroit. Like the boy Ampere, he proposed, it is said, to master the whole collection, shelf by shelf, and worked his way through fifteen feet of the bottom one before he began to select his fare.

Even the PRINCIPIA of Newton never daunted him; and if he did not understand the problems which have puzzled some of the greatest minds, he read them religiously, and pressed on. Burton’s ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY, Ure’s DICTIONARY OF CHEMISTRY, did not come amiss; but in Victor Hugo’s LES MISERABLES and THE TOILERS OF THE SEA he found a treasure after his own heart. Like Ampere, too, he was noted for a memory which retained many of the facts thus impressed upon it, as the sounds are printed on a phonogram.

The boy student was also a keen man of business, and his pursuit of knowledge in the evening did not sap his enterprises of the day. He soon acquired a virtual monopoly for the sale of newspapers on the line, and employed four boy assistants. His annual profits amounted to about 500 dollars, which were a substantial aid to his parents. To increase the sale of his papers, he telegraphed the headings of the war news to the stations in advance of the trains, and placarded them to tempt the passengers. Ere long he conceived the plan of publishing a newspaper of his own. Having bought a quantity of old type at the office of the DETROIT FREE PRESS, he installed it in a spingless car, or ’caboose’ of the train meant for a smoking-room, but too uninviting to be much used by the passengers. Here he set the type, and printed a smallsheet about a foot square by pressing it with his hand. The GRAND TRUNK HERALD, as he called it, was a weekly organ, price three cents, containing a variety of local news, and gossip of the line. It was probably the only journal ever published on a railway train; at all events with a boy for editor and staff, printer and ’devil,’ publisher and hawker. Mr. Robert Stephenson, then building the tubular bridge at Montreal, was taken with the venture, and ordered an extra edition for his own use. The London TIMES correspondent also noticed the paper as a curiosity of journalism. This was a foretaste of notoriety.

Unluckily, however, the boy did not keep his scientific and literary work apart, and the smoking-car was transformed into a laboratory as well as a printing house.

Having procured a copy of Fresenius’ QUALITIVE ANALYSIS and some old chemical gear; he proceeded to improve his leisure by making experiments. One day, through an extra jolt of the car, a bottle of phosphorus broke on the floor, and the car took fire. The incensed conductor of the train, after boxing his ears, evicted him with all his chattels.

Finding an asylum in the basement of his father’s house (where he took the precaution to label all his bottles ’poison’), he began the publication of a new and better journal, entitled the PAUL PRY. It boasted of several contributors and a list of regular subscribers. One of these (Mr. J.H.B.), while smarting under what he considered a malicious libel, met the editor one day on the brink of the St. Clair, and taking the law into his own hands, soused him in the river. The editor avenged his insulted dignity by excluding the subscriber’s name from the pages of the PAUL PRY.

Youthful genius is apt to prove unlucky, and another story (we hope they are all true, though we cannot vouch for them), is told of his partiality for riding with the engine-driver on the locomotive. After he had gained an insight into the working of the locomotive he would run the train himself; but on one occasion he pumped so much water into the boiler that it was shot from the funnel, and deluged the engine with soot. By using his eyes and haunting the machine shops he was able to construct a model of a locomotive.

But his employment of the telegraph seems to have diverted his thoughts in that direction, and with the help of a book on the telegraph he erected a makeshift line between his new laboratory and the house of James Ward, one of his boy helpers. The conductor was run on trees, and insulated with bottles, and the apparatus was home-made, but it seems to have been of some use. Mr. James D. Reid, author of THE TELEGRAPH IN AMERICA, would have us believe that an attempt was made to utilise the electricity obtained by rubbing a cat connected up in lieu of a battery; but the spirit of Artemus Ward is by no means dead in the United States, and the anecdote may be taken with a grain of salt. Such an experiment was at all events predestined to an ignominious failure.

An act of heroism was the turning-point in his career. One day, at the risk of his life, he saved the child of the station-master at Mount Clemens, near Port Huron, from being run over by an approaching train, and the grateful father, Mr. J. A. Mackenzie, learning of his interest in the telegraph, offered to teach him the art of sending and receiving messages. After his daily service was over, Edison returned to Mount Clemens on a luggage train and received his lesson.

At the end of five months, while only sixteen years of age, he forsook the trains, and accepted an offer of twenty-five dollars a month, with extra pay for overtime, as operator in the telegraph office at Port Huron, a small installation in a jewelry store. He worked hard to acquire more skill; and after six months, finding his extra pay withheld, he obtained an engagement as night operator at Stratford, in Canada. To keep him awake the operator was required to report the word ’six,’ an office call, every half-hour to the manager of the circuit. Edison fulfilled the regulation by inventing a simple device which transmitted the required signals. It consisted of a wheel with the characters cut on the rim, and connected with the circuit in such a way that the night watchman, by turning the wheel, could transmit the signals while Edison slept or studied.

His employment at Stratford came to a grievous end. One night he received a service message ordering a certain train to stop, and before showing it to the conductor he, perhaps for greater certainty, repeated it back again. When he rushed out of the office to deliver it the train was gone, and a collision seemed inevitable; but, fortunately, the opposing trains met on a straight portion of the track, and the accident was avoided. The superintendent of the railway threatened to prosecute Edison, who was thoroughly frightened, and returned home without his baggage.

During this vacation at Port Huron his ingenuity showed itself in a more creditable guise. An ’ice-jam’ occurred on the St. Clair, and broke the telegraph cable between Port Huron and Sarnia, on the opposite shore. Communication was therefore interrupted until Edison mounted a locomotive and sounded the whistle in short and long calls according to the well-known ’Morse,’ or telegraphic code. After a time the reporter at Sarnia caught the idea, and messages were exchanged by the new system.

His next situation was at Adrian, in Michigan, where he fitted up a small shop, and employed his spare time in repairing telegraph apparatus and making crude experiments. One day he violated the rules of the office by monopolising the use of the line on the strength of having a message from the superintendent, and was discharged.

He was next engaged at Fort Wayne, and behaved so well that he was promoted to a station at Indianapolis. While there he invented an ’automatic repeater,’ by which a message is received on one line and simultaneously transmitted on another without the assistance of an operator. Like other young operators, he was ambitious to send or receive the night reports for the press, which demand the highest speed and accuracy of sending. But although he tried to overcome his faults by the device of employing an auxiliary receiver working at a slower rate than the direct one, he was found incompetent, and transferred to a day wire at Cincinnati. Determined to excel, however, he took shift for the night men as often as he could, and after several months, when a delegation of Cleveland operators came to organise a branch of the Telegraphers’ Union, and the night men were out on ’strike,’ he received the press reports as well as he was able, working all the night. For this feat his salary was raised next day from sixty-five to one hundred and five dollars, and he was appointed to the Louisville circuit, one of the most desirable in the office. The clerk at Louisville was Bob Martin, one of the most expert telegraphists in America, and Edison soon became a first-class operator.

In 1864, tempted by a better salary, he removed to Memphis, where he found an opportunity of introducing his automatic repeater, thus enabling Louisville to communicate with New Orleans without an intermediary clerk. For this innovation he was complimented ; but nothing more. He embraced the subject of duplex telegraphy, or the simultaneous transmission of two messages on the same wire, one from each end; but his efforts met with no encouragement. Men of routine are apt to look with disfavour on men of originality; they do not wish to be disturbed from the official groove ; and if they are not jealous of improvement, they have often a narrow-minded contempt or suspicion of the servant who is given to invention, thinking him an oddity who is wasting time which might be better employed in the usual way. A telegraph operator, in their eyes, has no business to invent. His place is to sit at his instrument and send or receive the messages as fast as he can, without troubling his mind with inventions or anything else. When his shift is over he can amuse himself as he likes, provided he is always fit for work. Genius is not wanted.

The clerks themselves, reckless of a culture which is not required, and having a good string to their bow in the matter of livelihood, namely, the mechanical art of signalling, are prone to lead a careless, gay, and superficial life, roving from town to town throughout: the length and breadth of the States. But for his genius and aspirations, Edison might have yielded to the seductions of this happy-go-lucky, free, and frivolous existence. Dissolute comrades at Memphis won upon his good nature; but though he lent them money, he remained abstemious, working hard, and spending his leisure upon books and experiments. To them he appeared an extraordinary fellow; and so far from sympathising with his inventions, they dubbed him ’Luny,’ and regarded him as daft.

What with the money he had lent, or spent on books or apparatus, when the Memphis lines were transferred from the Government to a private company and Edison was discharged, he found himself without a dollar. Transported to Decatur, he walked to Nashville, where he found another operator, William Foley, in the like straits, and they went in company to Louisville. Foley’s reputation as an operator was none of the best; but on his recommendation Edison obtained a situation, and supported Foley until he too got employment.

The squalid office was infested with rats, and its discipline was lax, in all save speed and quality of work, and some of his companions were of a dissipated stamp. To add to his discomforts, the line he worked was old and defective; but he improved the signals by adjusting three sets of instruments, and utilising them for three different states of the line. During nearly two years of drudgery under these depressing circumstances, Edison’s prospects of becoming an inventor seemed further off than ever. Perhaps he began to fear that stern necessity would grind him down, and keep him struggling for a livelihood. None of his improvements had brought him any advantage. His efforts to invent had been ridiculed and discountenanced. Nobody had recognised his talent, at least as a thing of value and worthy of encouragement, let alone support. All his promotion had come from trying to excel in his routine work. Perhaps he lost faith in himself, or it may be that the glowing accounts he received of South America induced him to seek his fortune there. At all events he caught the ’craze’ for emigration that swept the Southern States on the conclusion of the Civil War, and resolved to emigrate with two companions, Keen and Warren.

But on their arriving at New Orleans the vessel had sailed. In this predicament Edison fell in with a travelled Spaniard, who depicted the inferiority of other countries, and especially of South America, in such vivid colours, that he changed his intention and returned home to Michigan. After a pleasant holiday with his friends he resumed his occupation in the Louisville office.

Contact with home seems to have charged him with fresh courage. He wrote a work on electricity, which for lack of means was never published, and improved his penmanship until he could write a fair round backhand at the rate of forty-five words a minute—that is to say, the utmost that an operator can send by the Morse code. The style was chosen for its clearness, each letter being distinctly formed, with little or no shading.

His comrades were no better than before. On returning from his work in the small hours, Edison would sometimes find two or three of them asleep in his bed with their boots on, and have to shift them to the floor in order that he might ’turn in.’

A new office was opened, but strict orders were issued that nobody was to interfere with the instruments and their connections. He could not resist the infringement of this rule, however, and continued his experiments.

In drawing some vitriol one night, he upset the carboy, and the acid eating its way through the floor, played havoc with the furniture of a luxurious bank in the flat below. He was discharged for this, but soon obtained another engagement as a press operator in Cincinnati. He spent his leisure in the Mechanics’ Library, studying works on electricity and general science. He also developed his ideas on the duplex system; and if they were not carried out, they at least directed him to the quadruplex system with which his name was afterwards associated.

These attempts to improve his time seem to have made him unpopular, for after a short term in Cincinnati, he returned to Port Huron. A friend, Mr. F. Adams, operator in the Boston office of the Western Union Telegraph Company, recommended Edison to his manager, Mr. G. F. Milliken, as a good man to work the New York wire, and the berth was offered to Edison by telegraph. He accepted, and left at once for Boston by the Grand Trunk Railway, but the train was snowed up for two days near the bluffs of the St. Lawrence. The consequence might have been serious had provisions not been found by a party of foragers.

Mr. Milliken was the first of Edison’s masters, and perhaps his fellows, who appreciated him. Mediocrity had only seen the gawky stripling, with his moonstruck air, and pestilent habit of trying some new crotchet. Himself an inventor, Milliken recognised in his deep-set eye and musing brow the fire of a suppressed genius. He was then just twenty-one. The friendship of Mr. Milliken, and the opportunity for experiment, rendered the Boston office a congenial one.

His by-hours were spent in a little workshop he had opened. Among his inventions at this period were a dial telegraph, and a ’printer’ for use on private lines, and an electro-chemical vote recorder, which the Legislature of Massachusetts declined to adopt. With the assistance of Mr. F. L. Pope, patent adviser to the Western Union Telegraph Company, his duplex system was tried, with encouraging results.

The ready ingenuity of Edison is shown by his device for killing the cockroaches which overran the Boston office. He arranged some strips of tinfoil on the wall, and connected these to the poles of a battery in such a way that when the insects ran towards the bait which he had provided, they stepped from one foil to the other, and completed the circuit of the current, thus receiving a smart shock, which dislodged them into a pail of water, standing below.

In 1870, after two years in Boston, where he had spent all his earnings, chiefly on his books and workshop, he found himself in New York, tramping the streets on the outlook for a job, and all but destitute. After repeated failures he chanced to enter the office of the Laws Gold Reporting Telegraph Company while the instrument which Mr. Laws had invented to report the fluctuations of the money market had broken down. No one could set it right; there was a fever in the market, and Mr. Laws, we are told, was in despair. Edison volunteered to set it right, and though his appearance was unpromising, he was allowed to try.

The insight of the born mechanic, the sleight of hand which marks the true experimenter, have in them something magical to the ignorant. In Edison’s hands the instrument seemed to rectify itself. This was his golden opportunity. He was engaged by the company, and henceforth his career as an inventor was secure. The Gold Indicator Company afterwards gave him a responsible position. He improved their indicator, and invented the Gold and Stock Quotation Printer, an apparatus for a similar purpose. He entered into partnership with Mr. Pope and Mr. Ashley, and introduced the Pope and Edison Printer. A private line which he established was taken over by the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company, and soon their system was worked almost exclusively with Edison’s invention.

He was retained in their service, and that of the Western Union Telegraph Company, as a salaried inventor, they having the option of buying all his telegraphic inventions at a price to be agreed upon.

At their expense a large electrical factory was established under his direction at Newark, New Jersey, where he was free to work out his ideas and manufacture his apparatus. Now that he was emancipated from drudgery, and fairly started on the walk which Nature had intended for him, he rejoiced in the prolific freedom of his mind, which literally teemed with projects. His brain was no longer a prey to itself from the ’local action,’ or waste energy of restrained ideas and revolving thoughts. [The term ’local action’ is applied by electricians to the waste which goes on in a voltaic battery, although its current is not flowing in the outer circuit and doing useful work.] If anything, he attempted too much. Patents were taken out by the score, and at one time there were no less than forty-five distinct inventions in progress. The Commissioner of Patents described him as ’the young man who kept the path to the Patent Office hot with his footsteps.’

His capacity for labouring without rest is very remarkable. On one occasion, after improving his Gold and Stock Quotation Printer, an order for the new instruments, to the extent of 30,000 dollars, arrived at the factory. The model had acted well, but the first instruments made after it proved a failure. Edison thereupon retired to the upper floor of the factory with some of his best workmen, and intimated that they must all remain there until the defect was put right. After sixty hours of continuous toil, the fault was remedied, and Edison went to bed, where he slept for thirty-six hours.

Mr. Johnson, one of his assistants, informs us that for ten years he worked on an average eighteen hours a day, and that he has been known to continue an experiment for three months day and night, with the exception of a nap from six o’clock to nine of the morning. In the throes of invention, and under the inspiration of his ideas, he is apt to make no distinction between day and night, until he arrives at a result which he considers to be satisfactory one way or the other. His meals are brought to him in the laboratory, and hastily eaten, although his dwelling is quite near. Long watchfulness and labour seem to heighten the activity of his mind, which under its ’second wind,’ so to speak, becomes preternaturally keen and suggestive. He likes best to work at night in the silence and solitude of his laboratory when the noise of the benches or the rumble of the engines is stilled, and all the world about him is asleep.

Fortunately, he can work without stimulants, and, when the strain is over, rest without narcotics; otherwise his exhausted constitution, sound as it is, would probably break down. Still, he appears to be ageing before his time, and some of his assistants, not so well endowed with vitality, have, we believe, overtaxed their strength in trying to keep up with him.

At this period he devised his electric pen, an ingenious device for making copies of a document. It consists essentially of a needle, rapidly jogged up and down by means of an electro-magnet actuated by an intermittent current of electricity. The writing is traced with the needle, which perforates another sheet of paper underneath, thus forming a stencil-plate, which when placed on a clean paper, and evenly inked with a rolling brush, reproduces the original writing.

In 1873 Edison was married to Miss Mary Stillwell, of Newark, one of his employees. His eldest child, Mary Estelle, was playfully surnamed ’Dot,’ and his second, Thomas Alva, jun., ’Dash,’ after the signals of the Morse code. Mrs. Edison died several years ago.

While seeking to improve the method of duplex working introduced by Mr. Steams, Edison invented the quadruplex, by which four messages are simultaneously sent through one wire, two from each end. Brought out in association with Mr. Prescott, it was adopted by the Western Union Telegraph Company, and, later, by the British Post Office. The President of the Western Union reported that it had saved the Company 500,000 dollars a year in the construction of new lines. Edison also improved the Bain chemical telegraph, until it attained an incredible speed. Bain had left it capable of recording 200 words a minute; but Edison, by dint of searching a pile of books ordered from New York, Paris, and London, making copious notes, and trying innumerable experiments, while eating at his desk and sleeping in his chair, ultimately prepared a solution which enabled it to register over 1000 words a minute. It was exhibited at the Philadelphia Centenial Exhibition in 1876, where it astonished Sir William Thomson.

In 1876, Edison sold his factory at Newark, and retired to Menlo Park, a sequestered spot near Metuchin, on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and about twenty-four miles from New York. Here on some rising ground he built a wooden tenement, two stories high, and furnished it as a workshop and laboratory. His own residence and the cottages of his servants completed the little colony.

The basement of the main building was occupied by his office, a choice library, a cabinet replete with instruments of precision, and a large airy workshop, provided with lathes and steam power, where his workmen shaped his ideas into wood and metal.

The books lying about, the designs and placards on the walls, the draught-board on the table, gave it the appearance of a mechanics’ clubroom. The free and lightsome behaviour of the men, the humming at the benches, recalled some school of handicraft. There were no rigid hours, no grinding toil under the jealous eye of the overseer. The spirit of competition and commercial rivalry was absent. It was not a question of wringing as much work as possible out of the men in the shortest time and at the lowest price. Moreover, they were not mere mechanical drudges—they were interested in their jobs, which demanded thought as well as skill.

Upstairs was the laboratory proper—a long room containing an array of chemicals; for Edison likes to have a sample of every kind, in case it might suddenly be requisite. On the tables and in the cupboards were lying all manner of telegraphic apparatus, lenses, crucibles, and pieces of his own inventions. A perfect tangle of telegraph wires coming from all parts of the Union were focussed at one end of the room. An ashcovered forge, a cabinet organ, a rusty stove with an old pivot chair, a bench well stained with oils and acids, completed the equipment of this curious den, into which the sunlight filtered through the chemical jars and fell in coloured patches along the dusty floor.

The moving spirit of this haunt by day and night is well described as an overgrown school-boy. He is a man of a slim, but wiry figure, about five feet ten inches in height. His face at this period was juvenile and beardless. The nose and chin were shapely and prominent, the mouth firm, the forehead wide and full above, but not very high. It was shaded by dark chestnut hair, just silvered with grey. His most remarkable features were his eyes, which are blue-grey and deeply set, with an intense and piercing expression. When his attention was not aroused, he seemed to retire into himself, as though his mind had drifted far away, and came back slowly to the present. He was pale with nightwork, and his thoughtful eyes had an old look in serious moments. But his smile was boyish and pleasant, and his manner a trifle shy.

There was nothing of the dandy about Edison, He boasted no jewelled fingers or superfine raiment. An easy coat soiled with chemicals, a battered wide-awake, and boots guiltless of polish, were good enough for this inspired workman. An old silver watch, sophisticated with magnetism, and keeping an eccentric time peculiar to it, was his only ornament. On social occasions, of course, he adopted a more conventional costume. Visitors to the laboratory often found him in his shirt-sleeves, with dishevelled hair and grimy hands.

The writer of ’A Night with Edison’ has described him as bending like a wizard over the smoky fumes of some lurid lamps arranged on a brick furnace, as if he were summoning the powers of darkness.

’It is much after midnight now,’ says this author. ’The machinery below has ceased to rumble, and the tired hands have gone to their homes. A hasty lunch has been sent up. We are at the thermoscope. Suddenly a telegraph instrument begins to click. The inventor strikes a grotesque attitude, a herring in one hand and a biscuit in the other, and with a voice a little muffled with a mouthful of both, translates aloud, slowly, the sound intelligible to him alone: "London.—News of death of Lord John Russell premature." "John Blanchard, whose failure was announced yesterday, has suicided (no, that was a bad one) SUCCEEDED! in adjusting his affairs, and will continue in business."’

His tastes are simple and his habits are plain. On one occasion, when invited to a dinner at Delmonico’s restaurant, he contented himself with a slice of pie and a cup of tea. Another time he is said to have declined a public dinner with the remark that 100,000 dollars would not tempt him to sit through two hours of ’personal glorification.’ He dislikes notoriety, thinking that a man is to be ’measured by what he does, not by what is said about him.’ But he likes to talk about his inventions and show them to visitors at Menlo Park. In disposition he is sociable, affectionate, and generous, giving himself no airs, and treating all alike. His humour is native, and peculiar to himself, so there is some excuse for the newspaper reporters who take his jokes about the capabilities of Nature AU SERIEUX; and publish them for gospel.

His assistants are selected for their skill and physical endurance. The chief at Menlo Park was Mr. Charles Batchelor, a Scotchman, who had a certain interest in the inventions, but the others, including mathematicians, chemists, electricians, secretary, bookkeeper, and mechanics, were paid a salary. They were devoted to Edison, who, though he worked them hard at times, was an indulgent master, and sometimes joined them in a general holiday. All of them spoke in the highest terms of the inventor and the man.

The Menlo establishment was unique in the world. It was founded for the sole purpose of applying the properties of matter to the production of new inventions. For love of science or the hope of gain, men had experimented before, and worked out their inventions in the laboratories of colleges and manufactories. But Edison seems to have been the first to organise a staff of trained assistants to hunt up useful facts in books, old and modern, and discover fresh ones by experiment, in order to develop his ideas or suggest new ones, together with skilled workmen to embody them in the fittest manner; and all with the avowed object of taking out patents, and introducing the novel apparatus as a commercial speculation. He did not manufacture his machines for sale; he simply created the models, and left their multiplication to other people. There are different ways of looking at Nature:

’To some she is the goddess great;
To some the milch-cow of the field;
Their business is to calculate
The butter she will yield.’

The institution has proved a remarkable success. From it has emanated a series of marvellous inventions which have carried the name of Edison throughout the whole civilised world. Expense was disregarded in making the laboratory as efficient as possible; the very best equipment was provided, the ablest assistants employed, and the profit has been immense. Edison is a millionaire; the royalties from his patents alone are said to equal the salary of a Prime Minister.

Although Edison was the master spirit of the band, it must not be forgotten that his assistants were sometimes co-inventors with himself. No doubt he often supplied the germinal ideas, while his assistants only carried them out. But occasionally the suggestion was nothing more than this: ’I want something that will do so-and-so. I believe it will be a good thing, and can be done.’ The assistant was on his mettle, and either failed or triumphed. The results of the experiments and researches were all chronicled in a book, for the new facts, if not then required, might become serviceable at a future time. If a rare material was wanted, it was procured at any cost.

With such facilities, an invention is rapidly matured. Sometimes the idea was conceived in the morning, and a working model was constructed by the evening. One day, we are told, a discovery was made at 4 P.M., and Edison telegraphed it to his patent agent, who immediately drew up the specification, and at nine o’clock next morning cabled it to London. Before the inventor was out of bed, he received an intimation that his patent had been already deposited in the British Patent Office. Of course, the difference of time was in his favour.

When Edison arrived at the laboratory in the morning, he read his letters, and then overlooked his employees, witnessing their results and offering his suggestions; but it often happened that he became totally engrossed with one experiment or invention. His work was frequently interrupted by curious visitors, who wished to see the laboratory and the man. Although he had chosen that out-of-the-way place to avoid disturbance, they were never denied: and he often took a pleasure in showing his models, or explaining the work on which he was engaged. There was no affectation of mystery, no attempt at keeping his experiments a secret. Even the laboratory notes were open to inspection. Menlo Park became a kind of Mecca to the scientific pilgrim; the newspapers and magazines despatched reporters to the scene; excursion parties came by rail, and country farmers in their buggies; till at last an enterprising Yankee even opened a refreshment room.

The first of Edison’s greater inventions in Menlo Park was the ’loudspeaking telephone.’ Professor Graham Bell had introduced his magnetoelectric telephone, but its effect was feeble. It is, we believe, a maxim in biology that a similarity between the extremities of a creature is an infallible sign of its inferiority, and that in proportion as it rises in the scale of being, its head is found to differ from its tail. Now, in the Bell apparatus, the transmitter and the receiver were alike, and hence Clerk Maxwell hinted that it would never be good for much until they became differentiated from each other. Consciously or unconsciously Edison accomplished the feat. With the hardihood of genius, he attempted to devise a telephone which would speak out loud enough to be heard in any corner of a large hall.

In the telephone of Bell, the voice of the speaker is the motive power which generates the current in the line. The vibrations of the sound may be said to transform themselves into electrical undulations. Hence the current is very weak, and the reproduction of the voice is relatively faint. Edison adopted the principle of making the vibrations of the voice control the intensity of a current which was independently supplied to the line by a voltaic battery. The plan of Bell, in short, may be compared to a man who employs his strength to pump a quantity of water into a pipe, and that of Edison to one who uses his to open a sluice, through which a stream of water flows from a capacious dam into the pipe. Edison was acquainted with two experimental facts on which to base the invention.

In 1873, or thereabout, he claimed to have observed, while constructing rheostats, or electrical resistances for making an artificial telegraph line, that powdered plumbago and carbon has the property of varying in its resistance to the passage of the current when under pressure. The variation seemed in a manner proportional to the pressure. As a matter of fact, powdered carbon and plumbago had been used in making small adjustable rheostats by M. Clerac, in France, and probably also in Germany, as early as 1865 or 1866. Clerac’s device consisted of a small wooden tube containing the material, and fitted with contacts for the current, which appear to have adjusted the pressure. Moreover, the Count Du Moncel, as far back as 1856, had clearly discovered that when powdered carbon was subjected to pressure, its electrical resistance altered, and had made a number of experiments on the phenomenon. Edison may have independently observed the fact, but it is certain he was not the first, and his claim to priority has fallen to the ground.

Still he deserves the full credit of utilising it in ways which were highly ingenious and bold. The ’pressure-relay,’ produced in 1877, was the first relay in which the strength of the local current working the local telegraph instrument was caused to vary in proportion to the variation; of the current in the main line. It consisted of an electromagnet with double poles and an armature which pressed upon a disc or discs of plumbago, through which the local current Passed. The electromagnet was excited by the main line current and the armature attracted to its poles at every signal, thus pressing on the plumbago, and by reducing its resistance varying the current in the local circuit. According as the main line current was strong or weak, the pressure on the plumbago was more or less, and the current in the local circuit strong or weak. Hence the signals of the local receiver were in accordance with the currents in the main line.

Edison found that the same property might be applied to regulate the strength of a current in conformity with the vibrations of the voice, and after a great number of experiments produced his ’carbon transmitter.’ Plumbago in powder, in sticks, or rubbed on fibres and sheets of silk, were tried as the sensitive material, but finally abandoned in favour of a small cake or wafer of compressed lamp-black, obtained from the smoke of burning oil, such as benzolene or rigolene. This was the celebrated ’carbon button,’ which on being placed between two platinum discs by way of contact, and traversed by the electric current, was found to vary in resistance under the pressure of the sound waves. The voice was concentrated upon it by means of a mouthpiece and a diaphragm.

The property on which the receiver was based had been observed and applied by him some time before. When a current is passed from a metal contact through certain chemical salts, a lubricating effect was noticeable. Thus if a metal stylus were rubbed or drawn over a prepared surface, the point of the stylus was found to slip or ’skid’ every time a current passed between them, as though it had been oiled. If your pen were the stylus, and the paper on which you write the surface, each wave of electricity passing from the nib to the paper would make the pen start, and jerk your fingers with it. He applied the property to the recording of telegraph signals without the help of an electro-magnet, by causing the currents to alter the friction between the two rubbing surfaces, and so actuate a marker, which registered the message as in the Morse system.

This instrument was called the ’electromotograph,’ and it occurred to Edison that in a similar way the undulatory currents from his carbon transmitter might, by varying the friction between a metal stylus and the prepared surface, put a tympanum in vibration, and reproduce the original sounds. Wonderful as it may appear, he succeeded in doing so by the aid of a piece of chalk, a brass pin, and a thin sheet or disc of mica. He attached the pin or stylus to the centre of the mica, and brought its point to bear on a cylindrical surface of prepared chalk. The undulatory current from the line was passed through the stylus and the chalk, while the latter was moved by turning a handle; and at every pulse of the electricity the friction between the pin and chalk was diminished, so that the stylus slipped upon its surface. The consequence was a vibration of the mica diaphragm to which the stylus was attached. Thus the undulatory current was able to establish vibrations of the disc, which communicated themselves to the air and reproduced the original sounds. The replica was loud enough to be heard by a large audience, and by reducing the strength of the current it could be lowered to a feeble murmur. The combined transmitter and receiver took the form of a small case with a mouthpiece to speak into, an car-piece on a hinged bracket for listening to it, press-keys for manipulating the call-bell and battery, and a small handle by which to revolve the little chalk cylinder. This last feature was a practical drawback to the system, which was patented in 1877.

The Edison telephone, when at its best, could transmit all kinds of noises, gentle or harsh; it could lift up its voice and cry aloud, or sink it to a confidential whisper. There was a slight Punchinellian twang about its utterances, which, if it did not altogether disguise the individuality of the distant speaker, gave it the comicality of a clever parody, and to hear it singing a song, and quavering jauntily on the high notes, was irresistibly funny. Instrumental notes were given in all their purity, and, after the phonograph, there was nothing more magical in the whole range of science than to hear that fragment of common chalk distilling to the air the liquid melody of sweet bells jingling in tune. It brought to mind that wonderful stone of Memnon, which responded to the rays of sunrise. It seemed to the listener that if the age of miracles was past that of marvels had arrived, and considering the simplicity of the materials, and the obscurity of its action, the loud-speaking telephone was one of the most astonishing of recent inventions.

After Professor Hughes had published his discovery of the microphone, Edison, recognising, perhaps, that it and the carbon transmitter were based on the same principle, and having learnt his knowledge of the world in the hard school of adversity, hastily claimed the microphone as a variety of his invention, but imprudently charged Professor Hughes and his friend, Mr. W. H. Preece, who had visited Edison at Menlo Park, with having ’stolen his thunder.’ The imputation was indignantly denied, and it was obvious to all impartial electricians that Professor Hughes had arrived at his results by a path quite independent of the carbon transmitter, and discovered a great deal more than Edison had done. For one thing, Edison believed the action of his transmitter as due to a property of certain poor or ’semi-conductors,’ whereby their electric resistance varied under pressure. Hughes taught us to understand that it was owing to a property of loose electrical contact between any two conductors.

The soft and springy button of lamp-black became no longer necessary, since it was not so much the resistance of the material which varied as the resistance at the contacts of its parts and the platinum electrodes. Two metals, or two pieces of hard carbon, or a piece of metal and a piece of hard carbon, were found to regulate the current in accordance with the vibrations of the voice. Edison therefore discarded the soft and fragile button, replacing it by contacts of hard carbon and metal, in short, by a form of microphone. The carbon, or microphone transmitter, was found superior to the magneto-electric transmitter of Bell; but the latter was preferable as a receiver to the louder but less convenient chemical receiver of Edison, and the most successful telephonic system of the day is a combination of the microphone, or new carbon transmitter, with the Bell receiver.

The ’micro-tasimeter,’ a delicate thermoscope, was constructed in 1878, and is the outcome of Edison’s experiments with the carbon button. Knowing the latter to be extremely sensitive to minute changes of pressure, for example, those of sonorous vibrations, he conceived the idea of measuring radiant heat by causing it to elongate a thin bar or strip of metal or vulcanite, bearing at one end on the button. To indicate the effect, he included a galvanometer in the circuit of the battery and the button. The apparatus consisted of a telephone button placed between two discs of platinum and connected in circuit with the battery and a sensitive galvanometer. The strip was supported so that one end bore upon the button with a pressure which could be regulated by an adjustable screw at the other. The strip expanded or contracted when exposed to heat or cold, and thrust itself upon the button more or less, thereby varying the electric current and deflecting the needle of the galvanometer to one side or the other. The instrument was said to indicate a change of temperature equivalent to one-millionth of a degree Fahrenheit. It was tested by Edison on the sun’s corona during the eclipse observations of July 29, 1875, at Rawlings, in the territory of Wyoming. The trial was not satisfactory, however, for the apparatus was mounted on a hen-house, which trembled to the gale, and before he could get it properly adjusted the eclipse was over.

It is reported that on another trial the light from the star Arcturus, when focussed on the vulcanite, was capable of deflecting the needle of the galvanometer. When gelatine is substituted for vulcanite, the humidity of the atmosphere can also be measured in the same way.

Edison’s crowning discovery at Menlo Park was the celebrated ’phonograph,’ or talking machine. It was first announced by one of his assistants in the pages of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN for 1878. The startling news created a general feeling of astonishment, mingled with incredulity or faith. People had indeed heard of the talking heads of antiquity, and seen the articulating machines of De Kempelen and Faber, with their artificial vocal organs and complicated levers, manipulated by an operator. But the phonograph was automatic, and returned the words which had been spoken into it by a purely mechanical mimicry. It captured and imprisoned the sounds as the photograph retained the images of light. The colours of Nature were lost in the photograph, but the phonograph was said to preserve the qualities even of the human voice. Yet this wonderful appliance had neither tongue nor teeth, larynx nor pharynx. It appeared as simple as a coffee-mill. A vibrating diaphragm to collect the sounds, and a stylus to impress them on a sheet of tinfoil, were its essential parts. Looking on the record of the sound, one could see only the scoring of the stylus on the yielding surface of the metal, like the track of an Alpine traveller across the virgin snow. These puzzling scratches were the foot-prints of the voice.

Speech is the most perfect utterance of man; but its powers are limited both in time and space. The sounds of the voice are fleeting, and do not carry far; hence the invention of letters to record them, and of signals to extend their range. These twin lines of invention, continued through the ages, have in our own day reached their consummation. The smoke of the savage, the semaphore, and the telegraph have ended in the telephone, by which the actual voice can speak to a distance; and now at length the clay tablet of the Assyrian, the wax of the ancient Greek, the papyrus of the Egyptian, and the modern printing-press have culminated in the phonograph, by which the living words can be preserved into the future. In the light of a new discovery, we are apt to wonder why our fathers were so blind as not to see it. When a new invention has been made, we ask ourselves, Why was it not thought of before? The discovery seems obvious, and the invention simple, after we know them. Now that speech itself can be sent a thousand miles away, or heard a thousand years after, we discern in these achievements two goals toward which we have been making, and at which we should arrive some day. We marvel that we had no prescience of these, and that we did not attain to them sooner. Why has it taken so many generations to reach a foregone conclusion? Alas! they neither knew the conclusion nor the means of attaining to it. Man works from ignorance towards greater knowledge with very limited powers. His little circle of light is surrounded by a wall of darkness, which he strives to penetrate and lighten, now groping blindly on its verge, now advancing his taper light and peering forward; yet unable to go far, and even afraid to venture, in case he should be lost.

To the Infinite Intelligence which knows all that is hidden in that darkness, and all that man will discover therein, how poor a thing is the telephone or phonograph, how insignificant are all his ’great discoveries’! This thought should imbue a man of science with humility rather than with pride. Seen from another standpoint than his own, from without the circle of his labours, not from within, in looking back, not forward, even his most remarkable discovery is but the testimony of his own littleness. The veil of darkness only serves to keep these little powers at work. Men have sometimes a foreshadowing of what will come to pass without distinctly seeing it. In mechanical affairs, the notion of a telegraph is very old, and probably immemorial. Centuries ago the poet and philosopher entertained the idea of two persons far apart being able to correspond through the sympathetic property of the lodestone. The string or lovers’ telephone was known to the Chinese, and even the electric telephone was thought about some years before it was invented. Bourseul, Reis, and others preceded Graham Bell.

The phonograph was more of a surprise; but still it was no exception to the rule. Naturally, men and women had desired to preserve the accents as well as the lineaments of some beloved friend who had passed away. The Chinese have a legend of a mother whose voice was so beautiful that her children tried to store it in a bamboo cane, which was carefully sealed up. Long after she was dead the cane was opened, and her voice came out in all its sweetness, but was never heard again. A similar idea (which reminds us of Munchausen’s trumpet) is found in the NATURAL MAGICK of John Baptista Porta, the celebrated Neapolitan philosopher, and published at London in 1658. He proposes to confine the sound of the voice in leaden pipes, such as are used for speaking through; and he goes on to say that ’if any man, as the words are spoken, shall stop the end of the pipe, and he that is at the other end shall do the like, the voice may be intercepted in the middle, and be shut up as in a prison, and when the mouth is opened, the voice will come forth as out of his mouth that spake it. . . . I am now upon trial of it. If before my book be printed the business take effect, I will set it down; if not, if God please, I shall write of it elsewhere.’ Porta also refers to the speaking head of Albertus Magnus, whom, however, he discredits. He likewise mentions a colossal trumpeter of brass, stated to have been erected in some ancient cities, and describes a plan for making a kind of megaphone, ’wherewith we may hear many miles.’

In the VOYAGE A LA LUNE of De Cyrano Bergerac, published at Paris in 1650, and subsequently translated into English, there is a long account of a ’mechanical book’ which spoke its contents to the listener. ’It was a book, indeed,’ says Cyrano, ’but a strange and wonderful book, which had neither leaves nor letters,’ and which instructed the Youth in their walks, so that they knew more than the Greybeards of Cyrano’s country, and need never lack the company of all the great men living or dead to entertain them with living voices. Sir David Brewster surmised that a talking machine mould be invented before the end of the century. Mary Somerville, in her CONNECTION OF THE PHYSICAL SCIENCES, wrote some fifty years ago: ’It may be presumed that ultimately the utterances or pronunciation of modern languages will be conveyed, not only to the eye, but also to the ear of posterity. Had the ancients possessed the means of transmitting such definite sounds, the civilised world must have responded in sympathetic notes at the distance of many ages.’ In the MEMOIRES DU GEANT of M. Nadar, published in 1864, the author says: ’These last fifteen years I have amused myself in thinking there is nothing to prevent a man one of these days from finding a way to give us a daguerreotype of sound—the phonograph —something like a box in which melodies will be fixed and kept, as images are fixed in the dark chamber.’ It is also on record that, before Edison had published his discovery to the world, M. Charles Cros deposited a sealed packet at the Academie des Sciences, Paris, giving an account of an invention similar to the phonograph.

Ignorance of the true nature of sound had prevented the introduction of such an instrument. But modern science, and in particular the invention of the telephone with its vibrating plate, had paved the way for it. The time was ripe, and Edison was the first to do it.

In spite of the unbridled fancies of the poets and the hints of ingenious writers, the announcement that a means of hoarding speech had been devised burst like a thunderclap upon the world.

[In seeing his mother’s picture Byron wished that he might hear her voice. Tennyson exclaims, ’Oh for the touch of a vanished hand, and the sound of a voice that is still!’ Shelley, in the WITCH OF ATLAS, wrote: ’The deep recesses of her odorous dwelling Were stored with magic treasures—sounds of air, Which had the power all spirits of compelling, Folded in cells of crystal silence there; Such as we hear in youth, and think the feeling Will never die—yet ere we are aware, The feeling and the sound are fled and gone, And the regret they leave remains alone.’ Again, in his SPIRIT OF SOLITUDE, we find: ’The fire of those soft orbs has ceased to burn, And silence too enamoured of that voice Locks its mute music in her rugged cell,’]

The phonograph lay under the very eyes of Science, and yet she did not see it. The logograph had traced all the curves of speech with ink on paper; and it only remained to impress them on a solid surface in such a manner as to regulate the vibrations of an artificial tympanum or drum. Yet no professor of acoustics thought of this, and it was left to Edison, a telegraphic inventor, to show them what was lying at their feet.

Mere knowledge, uncombined in the imagination, does not bear fruit in new inventions. It is from the union of different facts that a new idea springs. A scholar is apt to be content with the acquisition of knowledge, which remains passive in his mind. An inventor seizes upon fresh facts, and combines them with the old, which thereby become nascent. Through accident or premeditation he is able by uniting scattered thoughts to add a novel instrument to a domain of science with which he has little acquaintance. Nay, the lessons of experience and the scruples of intimate knowledge sometimes deter a master from attempting what the tyro, with the audacity of genius and the hardihood of ignorance, achieves. Theorists have been known to pronounce against a promising invention which has afterwards been carried to success, and it is not improbable that if Edison had been an authority in acoustics he would never have invented the phonograph. It happened in this wise. During the spring of 1877, he was trying a device for making a telegraph message, received on one line, automatically repeat itself along another line. This he did by embossing the Morse signals on the travelling paper instead of merely inking them, and then causing the paper to pass under the point of a stylus, which, by rising and falling in the indentations, opened and closed a sending key included in the circuit of the second line. In this way the received message transmitted itself further, without the aid of a telegraphist. Edison was running the cylinder which carried the embossed paper at a high speed one day, partly, as we are told, for amusement, and partly to test the rate at which a clerk could read a message. As the speed was raised, the paper gave out a humming rhythmic sound in passing under the stylus. The separate signals of the message could no longer be distinguished by the ear, and the instrument seemed to be speaking in a language of its own, resembling ’human talk heard indistinctly.’ Immediately it flashed on the inventor that if he could emboss the waves of speech upon the paper the words would be returned to him. To conceive was to execute, and it was but the work of an hour to provide a vibrating diaphragm or tympanum fitted with an indenting stylus, and adapt it to the apparatus. Paraffined paper was selected to receive the indentations, and substituted for the Morse paper on the cylinder of the machine. On speaking to the tympanum, as the cylinder was revolved, a record of the vibrations was indented on the paper, and by re-passing this under the indenting point an imperfect reproduction of the sounds was heard. Edison ’saw at once that the problem of registering human speech, so that it could be repeated by mechanical means as often as might he desired, was solved.’ [T. A. Edison, NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW, June, 1888; New York ELECTRICAL REVIEW, 1888,]

The experiment shows that it was partly by accident, and not by reasoning on theoretical knowledge, that the phonograph was discovered. The sound resembling ’human talk heard indistinctly’ seems to have suggested it to his mind. This was the germ which fell upon the soil prepared for it. Edison’s thoughts had been dwelling on the telephone; he knew that a metal tympanum was capable of vibrating with all the delicacies of speech, and it occurred to him that if these vibrations could be impressed on a yielding material, as the Morse signals were embossed upon the paper, the indentations would reproduce the speech, just as the furrows of the paper reproduced the Morse signals. The tympanum vibrating in the curves of speech was instantly united in his imagination with the embossing stylus and the long and short indentations on the Morse paper; the idea of the phonograph flashed upon him. Many a one versed in acoustics would probably have been restrained by the practical difficulty of impressing the vibrations on a yielding material, and making them react upon the reproducing tympanum. But Edison, with that daring mastery over matter which is a characteristic of his mechanical genius, put it confidently to the test.

Soon after this experiment, a phonograph was constructed, in which a sheet of tinfoil was wrapped round a revolving barrel having a spiral groove cut in its surface to allow the point of the indenting stylus to sink into the yielding foil as it was thrust up and down by the vibrating tympanum. This apparatus— the first phonograph—was published to the world in 1878, and created a universal sensation. [SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, March 30, 1878] It is now in the South Kensington Museum, to which it was presented by the inventor.

The phonograph was first publicly exhibited in England at a meeting of the Society of Telegraph Engineers, where its performances filled the audience with astonishment and delight. A greeting from Edison to his electrical brethren across the Atlantic had been impressed on the tinfoil, and was spoken by the machine. Needless to say, the voice of the inventor, however imperfectly reproduced, was hailed with great enthusiasm, which those who witnessed will long remember. In this machine, the barrel was fitted with a crank, and rotated by handle. A heavy flywheel was attached to give it uniformity of motion. A sheet of tinfoil formed the record, and the delivery could he heard by a roomful of people. But articulation was sacrificed at the expense of loudness. It was as though a parrot or a punchinello spoke, and sentences which were unexpected could not be understood. Clearly, if the phonograph were to become a practical instrument, it required to be much improved. Nevertheless this apparatus sufficiently demonstrated the feasibility of storing up and reproducing speech, music, and other sounds. Numbers of them were made, and exhibited to admiring audiences, by license, and never failed to elicit both amusement and applause. To show how striking were its effects, and how surprising, even to scientific men, it may be mentioned that a certain learned SAVANT, on hearing it at a SEANCE of the Academie des Sciences, Paris, protested that it was a fraud, a piece of trickery or ventriloquism, and would not be convinced.

After 1878 Edison became too much engaged with the development of the electric light to give much attention to the phonograph, which, however, was not entirely overlooked. His laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey, where the original experiments were made, was turned into a factory for making electric light machinery, and Edison removed to New York until his new laboratory at Orange, New Jersey, was completed. Of late he has occupied the latter premises, and improved the phonograph so far that it is now a serviceable instrument. In one of his 1878 patents, the use of wax to take the records in place of tinfoil is indicated, and it is chiefly to the adoption of this material that the success of the ’perfected phonograph’ is due. Wax is also employed in the ’graphophone’ of Mr. Tainter and Professor Bell, which is merely a phonograph under another name. Numerous experiments have been made by Edison to find the bees-wax which is best adapted to receive the record, and he has recently discovered a new material or mixture which is stated to yield better results than white wax.

The wax is moulded into the form of a tube or hollow cylinder, usually 4 1/4 inches long by 2 inches in diameter, and 1/8 inch thick. Such a size is capable of taking a thousand words on its surface along a delicate spiral trace; and by paring off one record after another can be used fifteen times. There are a hundred or more lines of the trace in the width of an inch, and they are hardly visible to the naked eye. Only with a magnifying glass can the undulations caused by the vibrating stylus be distinguished. This tube of wax is filed upon a metal barrel like a sleeve, and the barrel, which forms part of a horizontal spindle, is rotated by means of a silent electro-motor, controlled by a very sensitive governor. A motion of translation is also given to the barrel as it revolves, so that the marking stylus held over it describes a spiral path upon its surface. In front of the wax two small metal tympanums are supported, each carrying a fine needle point or stylus on its under centre. One of these is the recording diaphragm, which prints the sounds in the first place; the other is the reproducing diaphragm, which emits the sounds recorded on the wax. They are used, one at a time, as the machine is required, to take down or to render back a phonographic message.

The recording tympanum, which is about the size of a crown-piece, is fitted with a mouthpiece, and when it is desired to record a sentence the spindle is started, and you speak into the mouthpiece. The tympanum vibrates under your voice, and the stylus, partaking of its motion, digs into the yielding surface of the wax which moves beneath, and leaves a tiny furrow to mark its passage. This is the sonorous record which, on being passed under the stylus of the reproducing tympanum, will cause it to give out a faithful copy of the original speech. A flexible indiarubber tube, branching into two ear-pieces, conveys the sound emitted by the reproducing diaphragm to the ears. This trumpet is used for privacy and loudness; but it may be replaced by a conical funnel inserted by its small end over the diaphragm, which thereby utters its message aloud. It is on this plan that Edison has now constructed a phonograph which delivers its reproduction to a roomful of people. Keys and pedals are provided with which to stop the apparatus either in recording or receiving, and in the latter case to hark back and repeat a word or sentence if required. This is a convenient arrangement in using the phonograph for correspondence or dictation. Each instrument, as we have seen, can be employed for receiving as well as recording; and as all are made to one pattern, a phonogram coming from any one, in any art of the world, can be reproduced in any other instrument. A little box with double walls has been introduced for transmitting the phonograms by post. A knife or cutter is attached to the instrument for the purpose of paring off an old message, and preparing a fresh surface of the wax for the reception of a new one. This can be done in advance while the new record is being made, so that no time is lost in the operation. A small voltaic battery, placed under the machine, serves to work the electric motor, and has to be replenished from time to time. A process has also been devised for making copies of the phonograms in metal by electrodeposition, so as to produce permanent records. But even the wax phonogram may be used over and over again, hundreds of times, without diminishing the fidelity of the reproduction.

The entire phonograph is shown in our figure. [The figure is omitted from this e-text] It consists of a box, B, containing the silent electro-motor which drives the machine, and supporting the works for printing and reproducing the sounds. Apart from the motive power, which might, as in the graphophone, be supplied by foot, the apparatus is purely mechanical, the parts acting with smoothness and precision. These are, chiefly, the barrel or cylinder, C, on which the hollow wax is placed; the spindle, S, which revolves the cylinder and wax; and the two tympana, T, T’, which receive the sounds and impress them on the soft surface of the wax. A governor, G, regulates the movement of the spindle; and there are other ingenious devices for starting and stopping the apparatus. The tympanum T is that which is used for recording the sounds, and M is a mouthpiece, which is fixed to it for speaking purposes. The other tympanum, T’, reproduces the sounds; and E E is a branched ear-piece, conveying them to the two ears of the listener. The separate wax tube, P, is a phonogram with the spiral trace of the sounds already printed on its surface, and ready for posting.

The box below the table contains the voltaic battery which actuates the electro-motor. A machine which aims at recording and reproducing actual speech or music is, of course, capable of infinite refinement, and Edison is still at work improving the instrument, but even now it is substantially perfected.

Phonographs have arrived in London, and through the kindness of Mr. Edison and his English representative, Colonel G. E. Gouraud, we have had an opportunity of testing one. A number of phonograms, taken in Edison’s laboratory, were sent over with the instruments, and several of them were caused to deliver in our hearing the sounds which were

’sealed in crystal silence there.’

The first was a piece which had been played on the piano, quick time, and the fidelity and loudness with which it was delivered by the hearing tube was fairly astonishing, especially when one considered the frail and hair-like trace upon the wax which had excited it. There seemed to be something magical in the effect, which issued, as it were, from the machine itself. Then followed a cornet solo, concert piece of cornet, violin, and piano, and a very beautiful duet of cornet and piano. The tones and cadences were admirably rendered, and the ear could also faintly distinguish the noises of the laboratory. Speaking was represented by a phonogram containing a dialogue between Mr. Edison and Colonel Gouraud which had been imprinted some three weeks before in America. With this we could hear the inventor addressing his old friend, and telling him to correspond entirely with the phonograph. Colonel Gouraud answers that he will be delighted to do so, and be spared the trouble of writing; while Edison rejoins that he also will be glad to escape the pains of reading the gallant colonel’s letters. The sally is greeted with a laugh, which is also faithfully rendered.

One day a workman in Edison’s laboratory caught up a crying child and held it over the phonograph. Here is the phonogram it made, and here in England we can listen to its wailing, for the phonograph reproduces every kind of sound, high or low, whistling, coughing, sneezing, or groaning. It gives the accent, the expression, and the modulation, so that one has to be careful how one speaks, and probably its use will help us to improve our utterance.

By speaking into the phonograph and reproducing the words, we are enabled for the first time to hear ourselves speak as others hear us; for the vibrations of the head are understood to mask the voice a little to our own ears. Moreover, by altering the speed of the barrel the voice can be altered, music can be executed in slow or quick time, however it is played, inaudible notes can be raised or lowered, as the case may be, to audibility. The phonograph will register notes as low as ten vibrations a second, whereas it is well known the lowest note audible to the human ear is sixteen vibrations a second. The instrument is equally capable of service and entertainment. It can be used as a stenograph, or shorthand-writer. A business man, for instance, can dictate his letters or instructions into it, and they can be copied out by his secretary. Callers can leave a verbal message in the phonograph instead of a note. An editor or journalist can dictate articles, which may be written out or composed by the printer, word by word, as they are spoken by the reproducer in his ears.

Correspondence can be carried on by phonograms, distant friends and lovers being able thus to hear each other’s accents as though they were together, a result more conducive to harmony and good feeling than letter-writing. In matters of business and diplomacy the phonogram will teach its users to be brief, accurate, and honest in their speech; for the phonograph is a mechanical memory more faithful than the living one. Its evidence may even be taken in a court of law in place of documents, and it is conceivable that some important action might be settled by the voice of this DEUS EX MACHINA. Will it therefore add a new terror to modern life? Shall a visitor have to be careful what he says in a neighbour’s house, in case his words are stored up in some concealed phonograph, just as his appearance may be registered by a detective camera? In ordinary life—no; for the phonograph has its limitations, like every other machine, and it is not sufficiently sensitive to record a conversation unless it is spoken close at hand. But there is here a chance for the sensational novelist to hang a tale upon.

The ’interviewer’ may make use of it to supply him with ’copy,’ but this remains to be seen. There are practical difficulties in the way which need not be told over. Perhaps in railway trains, steamers, and other unsteady vehicles, it will be-used for communications. The telephone may yet be adapted to work in conjunction with it, so that a phonogram can be telephoned, or a telephone message recorded in the phonograph. Such a ’telephonograph’ is, however, a thing of the future. Wills and other private deeds may of course be executed by phonograph. Moreover, the loud-speaking instrument which Edison is engaged upon will probably be applied to advertising and communicating purposes. The hours of the day, for example, can be called out by a clock, the starting of a train announced, and the merits of a particular commodity descanted on. All these uses are possible; but it is in a literary sense that the phonograph is more interesting. Books can now be spoken by their authors, or a good elocutionist, and published in phonograms, which will appeal to the ear of the ’reader’ instead of to his eye. ’On, four cylinders 8 inches long, with a diameter of 5,’ says Edison, ’I can put the whole of NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.’ To the invalid, especially, this use would come as a boon; and if the instrument were a loud speaker, a circle of listeners could be entertained. How interesting it would be to have NICHOLAS NICKLEBY read to us in the voice of Dickens, or TAM O’ SHANTER in that of Burns! If the idea is developed, we may perhaps have circulating libraries which issue phonograms, and there is already some talk of a phonographic newspaper which will prattle politics and scandal at the breakfast-table. Addresses, sermons, and political speeches may be delivered by the phonograph; languages taught, and dialects preserved; while the study of words cannot fail to benefit by its performance.

Musicians will now be able to record their improvisations by a phonograph placed near the instrument they are playing. There need in fact be no more ’lost chords.’ Lovers of music, like the inventor himself, will be able to purchase songs and pieces, sung and played by eminent performers, and reproduce them in their own homes. Musicsellers will perhaps let them out, like books, and customers can choose their piece in the shop by having it rehearsed to them.

In preserving for us the words of friends who have passed away, the sound of voices which are stilled, the phonograph assumes its most beautiful and sacred character. The Egyptians treasured in their homes the mummies of their dead. We are able to cherish the very accents of ours, and, as it were, defeat the course of time and break the silence of the grave. The voices of illustrious persons, heroes and statesmen, orators, actors, and singers, will go down to posterity and visit us in our homes. A new pleasure will be added to life. How pleasant it would be if we could listen to the cheery voice of Gordon, the playing of Liszt, or the singing of Jenny Lind!

Doubtless the rendering of the phonograph will be still further improved as time goes on ; but even now it is remarkable ; and the inventor must be considered to have redeemed his promises with regard to it. Notwithstanding his deafness, the development of the instrument has been a labour of love to him; and those who knew his rare inventive skill believed that he would some time achieve success. It is his favourite, his most original, and novel work. For many triumphs of mind over matter Edison has been called the ’Napoleon of Invention,’ and the aptness of the title is enhanced by his personal resemblance to the great conqueror. But the phonograph is his victory of Austerlitz; and, like the printing-press of , it will assuredly immortalise his name.

’The phonograph,’ said Edison of his favourite, ’is my baby, and I expect it to grow up a big fellow and support me in my old age.’ Some people are still in doubt whether it will prove more than a curious plaything; but even now it seems to be coming into practical use in America, if not in Europe.

After the publication of the phonograph, Edison, owing, it is stated, to an erroneous description of the instrument by a reporter, received letters from deaf people inquiring whether it would enable them to hear well. This, coupled with the fact that he is deaf himself, turned his thoughts to the invention of the ’megaphone,’ a combination of one large speaking and two ear-trumpets, intended for carrying on a conversation beyond the ordinary range of the voice—in short, a mile or two. It is said to render a whisper audible at a distance of 1000 yards; but its very sensitiveness is a drawback, since it gathers up extraneous sounds.

To the same category belongs the ’aerophone,’ which may be described as a gigantic tympanum, vibrated by a piston working in a cylinder of compressed air, which is regulated by the vibrations of the sound to be magnified. It was designed to call out fog or other warnings in a loud and penetrating tone, but it has not been successful.

The ’magnetic ore separator’ is an application of magnetism to the extraction of iron particles from powdered ores and unmagnetic matter. The ground material is poured through a funnel or ’hopper,’ and falls in a shower between the poles of a powerful electro-magnet, which draws the metal aside, thus removing it from the dress.

Among Edison’s toys and minor inventions may be mentioned a ’voice mill,’ or wheel driven by the vibrations of the air set up in speaking. It consists of a tympanum or drum, having a stylus attached as in the phonograph. When the tympanum vibrates under the influence of the voice, the stylus acts as a pawl and turns a ratchet-wheel. An ingenious smith might apply it to the construction of a lock which would operate at the command of ’Open, Sesame!’ Another trifle perhaps worthy of note is his ink, which rises on the paper and solidifies, so that a blind person can read the writing by passing his fingers over the letters.

Edison’s next important work was the adaptation of the electric light for domestic illumination. At the beginning of the century the Cornish philosopher, Humphrey Davy, had discovered that the electric current produced a brilliant arch or ’arc’ of light when passed between two charcoal points drawn a little apart, and that it heated a fine rod of charcoal or a metal wire to incandescence—that is to say, a glowing condition. A great variety of arc lamps were afterwards introduced; and Mr. Staite, on or about the year 1844-5, invented an incandescent lamp in which the current passed through a slender stick of carbon, enclosed in a vacuum bulb of glass. Faraday discovered that electricity could be generated by the relative motion of a magnet and a coil of wire, and hence the dynamo-electric generator, or ’dynamo,’ was ere long invented and improved.

In 1878 the boulevards of Paris were lit by the arc lamps of Jablochkoff during the season of the Exhibition, and the display excited a widespread interest in the new mode of illumination. It was too brilliant for domestic use, however, and, as the lamps were connected one after another in the same circuit like pearls upon a string, the breakage of one would interrupt the current and extinguish them all but for special precautions. In short, the electric light was not yet ’subdivided.’

Edison, in common with others, turned his attention to the subject, and took up the neglected incandescent lamp. He improved it by reducing the rod of carbon to a mere filament of charcoal, having a comparatively high resistance and resembling a wire in its elasticity, without being so liable to fuse under the intense heat of the current. This he moulded into a loop, and mounted inside a pear-shaped bulb of glass. The bulb was then exhausted of its air to prevent the oxidation of the carbon, and the whole hermetically sealed. When a sufficient current was passed through the filament, it glowed with a dazzling lustre. It was not too bright or powerful for a room; it produced little heat, and absolutely no fumes. Moreover, it could be connected not in but across the main circuit of the current, and hence, if one should break, the others would continue glowing. Edison, in short, had ’subdivided’ the electric light.

In October, 1878, he telegraphed the news to London and Paris, where, owing to his great reputation, it caused an immediate panic in the gas market. As time passed, and the new illuminant was backward in appearing, the shares recovered their old value. Edison was severely blamed for causing the disturbance; but, nevertheless, his announcement had been verified in all but the question of cost. The introduction of a practical system of electric lighting employed his resources for several years. Dynamos, types of lamps and conductors, electric meters, safety fuses, and other appliances had to be invented. In 1882 he returned to New York, to superintend the installation of his system in that city.

His researches on the dynamo caused him to devise what he calls an ’harmonic engine.’ It consists of a tuning-fork, kept in vibration by two small electro-magnets, excited with three or four battery cells. It is capable of working a small pump, but is little more than a scientific curiosity. With the object of transforming heat direct from the furnace into electricity, he also devised a ’pyro-electric generator,’ but it never passed beyond the experimental stage.

The same may be said for his pyro-electric motor. His dynamo-electric motors and system of electric railways are, however, a more promising invention. His method of telegraphing to and from a railway train in motion, by induction through the air to a telegraph wire running along the line, is very ingenious, and has been tried with a fair amount of success.

At present he is working at the ’Kinetograph,’ a combination of the phonograph and the instantaneous photograph as exhibited in the zoetrope, by which he expects to produce an animated picture or simulacrum of a scene in real life or the drama, with its appropriate words and sounds.

Edison now resides at Llewellyn Park, Orange, a picturesque suburb of New York. His laboratory there is a glorified edition of Menlo Park, and realises the inventor’s dream. The main building is of brick, in three stories; but there are several annexes. Each workshop and testing room is devoted to a particular purpose. The machine shops and dynamo rooms are equipped with the best engines and tools, the laboratories with the finest instruments that money can procure. There are drawing, photographic, and photometric chambers, physical, chemical, and metallurgical laboratories. There is a fine lecture-hall, and a splendid library and reading-room. He employs several hundred workmen and assistants, all chosen for their intelligence and skill. In this retreat Edison is surrounded with everything that his heart desires. In the words of a reporter, the place is equally capable of turning out a ’chronometer or a Cunard steamer.’ It is probably the finest laboratory in the world.

In 1889, Edison, accompanied by his second wife, paid a holiday visit to Europe and the Paris Exhibition. He was received everywhere with the greatest enthusiasm, and the King of Italy created him a Grand Officer of the Crown of Italy, with the title of Count. But the phonograph speaks more for his genius than the voice of the multitude, the electric light is a better illustration of his energy than the ribbon of an order, and the finest monument to his pluck, sagacity, and perseverance is the magnificent laboratory which has been built through his own efforts at Llewellyn Park. [One of his characteristic sayings may be quoted here: ’Genius is an exhaustless capacity for work in detail, which, combined with grit and gumption and love of right, ensures to every man success and happiness in this world and the next.’]


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Chicago: J. Munro, "Chapter IX. Thomas Alva Edison.," Heroes of the Telegraph in Heroes of the Telegraph Original Sources, accessed September 24, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CRFYR6N1QU9G2SV.

MLA: Munro, J. "Chapter IX. Thomas Alva Edison." Heroes of the Telegraph, in Heroes of the Telegraph, Original Sources. 24 Sep. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CRFYR6N1QU9G2SV.

Harvard: Munro, J, 'Chapter IX. Thomas Alva Edison.' in Heroes of the Telegraph. cited in , Heroes of the Telegraph. Original Sources, retrieved 24 September 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CRFYR6N1QU9G2SV.