thomas edison > a lifetime of invention : early life
thomas edison > early life : telegraph work and early inventions, 1862-1876


Edison the Wandering Telegraph Operator

Edison became a full fledged telegraph operator at the age of sixteen.  He got his first job as night operator at the Grand Trunk Railway’s Port Huron station at a salary of $25.00 per week.  As night operator his duties were very light, merely to record passing trains.  Accordingly, Edison spent all day in his workshop at home, experimenting on things, telegraphic and chemical.  The result was, he did not get enough sleep and was consequently always heavy and drowsy and his work very unsatisfactory and he would have been discharged had it not been that the train dispatcher liked him and shielded him.  However, neglect and carelessness could not go on forever, so he finally was dismissed.  He next got a job with the Western Union Telegraph Company which he held for only a few months.  After going from pillar to post for about five years, because he could not hold a job, on account of his meddling with the instruments, he became discouraged and financially broke, so he wrote to a former friend who was a telegraph operator in Boston, Massachusetts, named Adams.  Through him, he succeeded in getting employment as an operator, but his stay in Boston was short and he next landed in New York City, hungry and almost penniless.

Big Money in New York City: 1869

While walking along Wall Street in New York City one morning, Edison entered the head office of the Laws Gold Indicator, which was the forerunner of the Stock Ticker.  These instruments were used for sending out to brokers quotations on gold.  This was the time Jay Gould was cornering gold, resulting in the financial crisis, known as Black Friday on September 24, 1869.  Edison had been sitting in the office, waiting to see the proprietor, Dr. S.S. Laws, when the general transmitting instrument suddenly came to a stop with a crash, causing a lot of excitement, because the whole system was paralyzed.  Dr. S.S. Laws, the inventor and presiding officer of the Gold Exchange, was standing by the broken down machine with half a dozen of his most expert workmen, all trying to locate the trouble.  Edison had been watching the performance and finally piped up, saying, “I don’t see any particular trouble there.” “Why?” asked Laws quickly.  “I think I can fix it up right away,” said Edison.  “Jump in and see what you can do,” said laws.  Edison went at it and found a loose contact spring had fallen between the wheels of the instrument, and by the use of a small Dr. Laws, realizing he was in the presence of a young man who understood his business, said to Edison, “Do you think you can improve on this machine?”  Edison answered that he thought he could, so Dr. Laws told him to go ahead and see what he could do, and engaged him as Mechanical Superintendent at a salary of $300.00 per month.  Within a day or two thereafter, Edison presented him with a new device, which became the real Gold Stock Ticker.

Edison had been developing the Duplex and Quadruplex telegraph instruments, but had laid that work aside to devote his time to the Gold Ticker.  Seeing there was a big field for those Gold Tickers, the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company was organized, with General Marshall Lefferts as president and Dr. Laws’ company was absorbed.  General Lefferts requested Edison to improve the Ticker and Edison produced the Edison Universal Printer which proved a forerunner of the Gold Stock Ticker.  When Edison submitted his specification s for the new model, he was asked by General Lefferts how much he would take for the idea.  A proposition of this kind was new to Edison, and for a moment, he did not know what to say.  But he was shrewd enough to stall, by asking what he was offered.  Without much hesitation General Lefferts said, “Would $40,000.00 be satisfactory?”  Edison was dumbfounded that such a staggering figure would be offered him and he almost fainted.  He had in mind to ask $5,000.00 which he thought would be a fortune.

This $40,000.00 was the first money Edison ever received for an invention.  He was paid by check and went to the bank to get the money, but was refused for lack of identification.  He misunderstood what he was told because of his deafness, and thought the check was no good, so he rushed back to the office and demanded cash for $40,000.00.  He did not trust the bank, so he took the money home with him, but being afraid of being robbed he had a sleepless night.  The next day he told them at the office what he had done and asked them to help him out of the difficulty.  They told him it was a joke, on their part, to let him take the cash and that what the bank wanted was someone to identify him.  He was accompanied to the bank and it was arranged to have an account opened in his name.

First Electrical Firm

At this time, 1869, was born one of the first electrical businesses in the newest of all new industries- the firm of Pope, Edison and Co., of New York, who advertised themselves as “Electrical Engineers.”  Franklin L. Pope was distinguished inventor, a writer and an expert electrician.  The new firm was primarily interested in telegraphic problems and inventions.

In 1870, with the $40,000 from Edison’s first stock ticker invention, a factory was opened in Newark, NJ, for the manufacture of gold and stock tickers and telegraph instruments as well as to complete the Duplex and Quadruplex telegraph instruments.  Here Edison assisted Sholes, the inventor of the typewriter, to produce a working machine.  In the next few years, Edison completed the quadduplex telegraph system followed by automatic duplex and multiplex systems, as well as a number of other useful inventions.  Edwin W. Rice, of General Electric, once remarked that Edison’s electric telegraph was one of the few commercial applications of electricity of its day and that his inventions of the quadruplex, sextuplex, and multiplex systems revolutionized the telegraphic art and saved, even in those early days, the investment of many millions of dollars in wires and poles.

Sources: Ernest J. Berggren - Edison Pioneer. History of G.E., Personal Story of Inventors, The Schenectady Union Star, Friday June 12, 1936, Schenectady Museum Archive Historical File 44-4.

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