“The mind can not conceive what man will do in the Twentieth Century with his chained lightning.”—Thomas A. Edison
Some years ago, a law was passed out in Ohio, making any man ineligible to act as a magistrate who had not studied law and been duly admitted to the bar. Men who had not studied law were deemed lacking in the sense of justice. This law was designed purely for one man—Samuel M. Jones of Toledo. Was ever a Jones so honored before?
In Athens, of old, a law was once passed declaring that every man, either of whose parents was an alien, was not a citizen and therefore ineligible to hold office.
This law was aimed at the head of one man—Themistocles.
“And so you are an alien?” was the taunting remark flung at the mother of Themistocles.
And the Greek matron proudly answered, “Yes, I am an alien—but my son is Themistocles.”
Down at Lilly Dale the other day, a woman told me that she had talked with the mother of Edison, and the spirit-voice had said: “It is true I was a Canadian schoolteacher, and this at a time when very few women taught, but I am the mother of him you call Thomas A. Edison. I studied and read and wrote and in degree I educated myself. I had great ambition—I thirsted to know, to do, to become. But I was hampered and chained in an uncongenial atmosphere. My body struggled with its bonds, so that I grew weak, worried, sick, and died, leaving my boy to struggle his way alone.
My only regret at death was the thought that I was leaving my boy. I thought that through my marriage I had killed my career—sacrificed myself. But my boy became heir to all my hunger for knowledge, and he has accomplished what I dimly dreamed. He has made plain what I only guessed. From my position here I have whispered secrets to him that only the freed spirits knew. I once thought my life was a failure, but now I know that the word ‘failure’ is a term used only by foolish mortals. In the universal sense there is no such thing as failure.”
Just here it seems to me that some one once said that we get no mind without brain. But we had here the brain of the medium, otherwise this alleged message from the spirit realm would not be ours. So we will not now tarry to discuss psychic phenomena, but go on to other things. But the woman from Lilly Dale said something, just the same.
Edison was born at the little village of Milan, Ohio, which lies six miles from Norwalk on the road between Cleveland and Toledo.
On the breaking out of the Civil War the boy was fourteen years old. His parents had moved to Sarnia, Canada, and then across to Port Huron.
Young Edison used to ride up and down from Detroit on the passenger-boats and sell newspapers. His standing with the Detroit “Free Press,” backed up by his good-cheer and readiness to help the passengers with their babies and bundles, gave him free passage on all railroads and steamboat-lines.
There was a public library at Detroit where any one could read, but books could not be taken away.
All Edison’s spare time was spent at the library, which to him was a gold-mine. All his mother’s books had been sold, stolen or given away.
And ahoy there, all you folks who have books! Do you not know what books are to a child hungry for truth, that has no books?
Of course you do not!
Books to a boy like young Edison are treasures-trove, in which is stored the learning of all great and good and wise who have ever lived.
And the boy has to read, and read for a decade, in order to find that books are not much after all.
When Edison saw the inside of that library and was told he could read any or all of the books, he said, “If you please, Mister, I’ll begin here.” And he tackled the first shelf, mentally deciding that he would go through the books ten feet at a time.
A little later he bought at an auction fifty volumes of the “North American Review,” and moving the books up to his home at Port Huron proceeded to read them.
The war was on—papers sold for ten cents each and business was good.
Edison was making money—and saving it. He only plunged on books.
Over at Mount Clemens, at the Springs, folks congregated, and there young Edison took weekly trips selling papers.
On one such visit he rescued the little son of the station-agent from in front of a moving train. In gratitude, the man took the boy to his house and told him he must make it his home while in Mount Clemens; and then after supper the youngster went down to the station; and what was more, the station-agent took him in behind the ticket-window, where the telegraph-instrument clicked off dots and dashes on a long strip of paper.
Edison looked on with open mouth.
“Would you like to become a telegraph-operator?” asked the agent.
“Sure!” was the reply.
Already the boy had read up on the subject in his library of the “North American Review,” and he really knew the history of the thing better than did the agent.
Edison was now a newsboy on the Grand Trunk, and he arranged his route so as to spend every other night at Mount Clemens.
In a few months he could handle the key about as well as the station-agent.
About this time the ice had carried out the telegraph-line between Port Huron and Sarnia. The telegraph people were in sore straits. Edison happened along and said to the local operator, “Come out here, Bill, on this switch-engine and we’ll fix things!” By short snorts of the whistle for dots and long ones for dashes, they soon caught the ear of the operator on the other side. He answered back, “What t’ell is the matter with you fellows?” And Edison and the other operator roared with laughter, so that the engineer thought their think-boxes needed re-babbitting.
And that scheme of telegraphy with a steam-whistle was Edison’s first invention.
Instead of going to college Edison started a newspaper—a kind of amateur affair, in which he himself wrote editorials, news-items and advertisements—this when he was seventeen years old.
The best way to become a skilled writer is to write; and if there is a better way to learn than by doing, the world has not yet discovered it.
Also, if there is a finer advantage for a youth who would be a financier than to have a shiftless father, it has not been recorded.
When nineteen, Edison had two thousand dollars in cash—more money than his father had ever seen at any one time.
The Grand Trunk folks found that their ex-trainboy could operate, and so they called on him to help them out, up and down the line. Then the Western Union wanted extra good men, and young Edison was given double pay to go to New Orleans, where there was a pitiful dearth of operators, the Southern operators being mostly dead, and Northern men not caring to live in the South.
So Edison traveled North and South and East and West, gathering gear. He had studied the science of telegraphy closely enough to see that it could be improved upon. One message at a time for one wire was absurd—why not two, or four, and why not send messages both ways at once!
It was the general idea then that electricity traveled: Edison knew better—electricity merely rendered the wire sensitive.
Edison was getting a reputation among his associates. He had read everything, and when his key was not busy, there was in his hand a copy of Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall.”
He wrote a hand like copperplate and could “take” as fast as the best could send. And when it came to “sending,” he had made the pride of Chicago cry quits.
The Western Union had need of a specially good man at Albany while the Legislature was in session, and Edison was sent there. He took the key and never looked at the clock—he cleaned up the stuff. He sat glued to his chair for ten hours, straight.
At one time, the line suddenly became blocked between Albany and New York. The manager was in distress, and after exhausting all known expedients went to Edison. The lanky youth called up a friend of his in Pittsburgh and ordered that New York give the Pittsburgh man the Albany wire. “Feel your way up the river until you find me,” were the orders.
Edison started feeling his way down the river.
In twenty minutes he called to the manager, “The break is two miles below Poughkeepsie—I’ve ordered the section-boss at Poughkeepsie to take a repairer on his handcar and go and fix it!”
Of course, this plain telegraph-operator had no right to order out a section-boss; but nevertheless he did it. He shouldered responsibility like Tom Potter of the C., B. & Q.
Not long after the Albany experience, Edison was in New York, not looking for work as some say, but nosing around Wall Street investigating the “Laws Automatic Ticker.” The machine he was looking at suddenly stopped, and this blocked all the tickers on the line. An expert was sent for, but he could not start it.
“I’ll fix it,” said a tall, awkward volunteer, the same which was Edison.
History is not yet clear as to whether Edison had not originally “fixed” it, and Edison so far has not confessed.
And there being no one else to start the machine, Edison was given a chance, and soon the tickers were going again. This gave him an introduction to the stock-ticker folks, and the Western Union people he already knew.
This was in Eighteen Hundred Seventy, and Edison was then twenty-three years old.
He studied out how stock-reporting could be bettered and invented a plan which he duly patented, and then laid his scheme before the Western Union managers.
A stock company was formed, and young Edison, aged twenty-four, was paid exactly forty thousand dollars for his patent, and retained by the Company as Electrical Adviser at three hundred dollars a month.
In Eighteen Hundred Seventy-four, when he was twenty-seven, he had perfected his duplex telegraph apparatus and had a factory turning out telegraph-instruments and appliances at Newark, New Jersey, where three hundred men were employed.
In Eighteen Hundred Seventy-six, the year of the Centennial Exposition, Edison told the Exposition Managers that if they would wait a year or so he would light their show with electricity.
He moved to the then secluded spot of Menlo Park to devote himself to experiments, spending an even hundred thousand dollars in equipment as a starter. Results followed fast, and soon we had the incandescent lamp, trolley-car, electric pen and many other inventions. It was on the night of October the Twenty-third, Eighteen Hundred Seventy-nine, that Edison first turned the current through an incandescent burner and got the perfect light. He sat and looked at the soft, mild, beautiful light and laughed a joyous peal of laughter that was heard in the adjoining rooms. “We’ve got it, boys!” he cried, and the boys, a dozen of them, came tumbling in. Arguments started as to how long it would last. One said an hour. “Twenty-four hours,” said Edison. They all vowed they would watch it without sleep until the carbon film was destroyed and the light went out. It lasted just forty hours.
Around Edison grew up a group of great workers—proud to be called “Edison Men”—and some of these went out and made for themselves names and fortunes.
Edison was born in Eighteen Hundred Forty-seven. Consequently, at this writing he is sixty-three years old. He is big and looks awkward, because his dusty-gray clothes do not fit, and he walks with a slight stoop. When he wants clothes he telephones for them. His necktie is worn by the right oblique, his iron-gray hair is combed by the wind. On his cherubic face usually sits a half-quizzical, pleased smile, that fades into a look plaintive and very gentle. The face is that of a man who has borne burdens and known sorrow, of one who has overcome only after mighty effort. I was going to say that Edison looks like a Roman Emperor, but I recall that no Roman Emperor deserves to rank with him—not even Julius Cæsar! The face is that of Napoleon at Saint Helena, unsubdued.
The predominant characteristics of the man are his faith, hope, good-cheer and courage. But at all times his humor is apt to be near the surface.
Had Edison been as keen a businessman as Rockefeller, and kept his own in his own hands, he would today be as rich as Rockefeller.
But Edison is worth, oh, say, two million dollars, and that is all any man should be worth—it is all he needs. Yet there are at least a hundred men in the world today, far richer than Edison, who have made their fortunes wholly and solely by appropriating his ideas.
Edison has trusted people, and some of them have taken advantage of his great, big, generous, boyish spirit to do him grievous wrong. But the nearest I ever heard him come to making a complaint was when he said to me, “Fra Elbertus, you never wrote but one really true thing!”
“Well, what was that, Mr. Edison?”
“You said, ‘There is one thing worse than to be deceived by men, and that is to distrust them.’ Now people say I have been successful, and so I have, in degree, and it has been through trusting men. There are a few fellows who always know just what I am doing—I confide in them—I explain things to them just to straighten the matter out in my own mind.”
But of the men who have used Edison’s money and ideas, who have made it a life business to study his patents and then use them, evading the law, not a word!
From Eighteen Hundred Seventy to Eighteen Hundred Ninety, Edison secured over nine hundred patents, or at the rate of one patent every ten days. Very few indeed of these patents ever brought him any direct return, and now his plan is to invent and keep the matter a secret in his “family.”
“The value of an idea lies in the using of it,” he said to me. “You patent a thing and the other fellow starts even with you. Keep it to yourself and you have the machinery going before the other fellow is awake. Patents may protect some things, and still others they only advertise. Up in Buffalo you have a great lawyer who says he can drive a coach and four through any will that was ever made—and I guess he can. All good lawyers know how to break wills and contracts, and there are now specialists who secure goodly fees for busting patents. If you have an idea, go ahead and invent a way to use it and keep your process secret.”
The Edison factories at West Orange cover a space of about thirty acres, all fenced in with high pickets and barb-wire. Over two thousand people are employed inside that fence. There are guards at the gates, and the would-be visitor is challenged as if he were an enemy. If you want to see any particular person, you do not go in and see him—he comes to you and you sit in a place like the visitors’ dock at Sing-Sing.
With me it was different: I had a note that made the gates swing wide. However, one gatekeeper scrutinized the note and scrutinized me, and then went back into a maze of buildings for advice. When he came back, the General Manager was with him and was reproving him. In a voice full of defense the County Down watchman said: “Ah, now, and how did I know but that it was a forgery? And anyhow, I’d never let in a man what looks like that, even if he had an order from Bill Taft.”
The Edison factories, all enclosed in the high fence and under guard, include four separate and distinct corporations, each with its own set of offices. Edison himself owns a controlling interest in each corporation, and the rest of the stock is owned by the managers or “family.” With his few trusted helpers he is most liberal. Not only do they draw goodly salaries, but they have an interest in the profits that is no small matter.
The secrets of the place are protected by having each workman stick right to one thing and work in one room. No running around is allowed—each employee goes to a certain place and remains there all day. To be found elsewhere is a misdemeanor, and while spies at the Edison factory are not shot, they have been known to disappear into space with great velocity.
To make amends for the close restrictions on workers, an extra wage is paid and the eight-hour day prevails, so help is never wanting.
Ninety-nine workers out of a hundred want their wages, and nothing else. Promotion, advancement and education are things that never occur to them. But for the few that have the stuff in them, Edison is always on the lookout. His place is really a college, for to know the man is an education. He radiates good-cheer and his animation is catching.
To a woman who wanted him to write a motto for her son, Edison wrote, “Never look at the clock!” The argument is plain—get the thing done.
And around the Edison laboratory there is no use of looking at the clock, for none of them runs. That is the classic joke of the place. Years ago Edison expressed his contempt for the man who watched the clock, and now every Christmas his office family take up a collection and buy him a clock, and present it with great ceremony. He replies in a speech on the nebular hypothesis and all are very happy. One year the present assumed the form of an Ingersoll Dollar Watch, which the Wizard showed to me with great pride. In the stockade is a beautiful library building and here you see clocks galore, some of which must have cost a thousand dollars a piece, all silent. One clock had a neatly printed card attached, “Don’t look at this clock—it has stopped.” And another, “You may look at this clock, for you can’t stop it!” It was already stopped.
One very elegant clock had a solid block of wood where the works should have been, but the face and golden hands were all complete.
However, one clock was running, with a tick needlessly loud, but this clock had no hands.
The Edison Library is a gigantic affair, with two balconies and bookstacks limitless.
The intent was to have a scientific library right at hand that would compass the knowledge of the world. The Laboratory is quite as complete, for in it is every chemical substance known to man, all labeled, classified and indexed. Seemingly, Edison is the most careless, indifferent and slipshod of men, but the real fact is that such a thorough business general the world has seldom seen. If he wants, say, the “Electrical Review” for March, Eighteen Hundred Ninety-One, he hands a boy a slip of paper and the book is in his hands in five minutes. Edison of all men understands that knowledge consists in having a clerk who can quickly find the thing. In his hands the card-index has reached perfection.
Edison has no private office, and his desk in the great library has not had a letter written on it since Eighteen Hundred Ninety-five. “I hate to disturb the mice,” he said as he pointed it out indifferently.
He arrives at the stockade early—often by seven o’clock, and makes his way direct to the Laboratory, which stands in the center of the campus. All around are high factory buildings, vibrating with the suppressed roar and hum of industry.
In the Laboratory, Edison works, secure and free from interruption unless he invites it. Much of his time is spent in the Chemical Building, a low, one-story structure, lighted from the top. It has a cement floor and very simple furniture, the shelves and tables being mostly of iron. “We are always prepared for fires and explosions here,” said Edison in half-apology for the barrenness of the rooms.
The place is a maze of retorts, kettles, tubes, siphons and tiny brass machinery. In the midst of the mess stood two old-fashioned armchairs—both sacred to Edison. One he sits in, and the other is for his feet, his books, pads and paper.
Here he sits and thinks, reads or muses or tells stories or shuffles about with his hands in his pockets. Edison is a man of infinite leisure. He has the faculty of throwing details upon others. At his elbow, shod in sneakers silent, is always a stenographer. Then there is a bookkeeper who does nothing but record the result of every experiment, and these experiments are going on constantly, attended to by half a dozen quiet and alert men, who work like automatons. “I have tried a million schemes that will not work—I know everything that is no good. I work by elimination,” says Edison.
When hot on the trail of an idea he may work here for three days and nights without going home, and his wife is good enough and great enough to leave him absolutely to himself. In a little room in the corner of the Laboratory is a little iron cot and three gray army blankets. He can sleep at any time, and half an hour’s rest will enable him to go on. When he can’t quite catch the idea, he closes up his brain-cells for ten minutes and sleeps, then up and after it again.
Mrs. Edison occasionally sends meals down for the Wizard when he is on the trail of a thought and does not want to take time to go home.
One day the dinner arrived when Edison was just putting salt on the tail of an idea. There was no time to eat, but it occurred to the inventor that if he would just quit thinking for ten minutes and sleep, he could awaken with enough brain-power to throw the lariat successfully. So he just leaned back, put his feet in the other chair and went to sleep.
The General Manager came in and saw the dinner on the table and Edison sleeping, so he just sat down and began to eat the dinner. He ate it all, and tiptoed out.
Edison slept twenty minutes, awoke, looked at the empty dishes, pulled down his vest, took out his regular after-dinner cigar, lighted it and smoked away in sweet satisfaction, fully believing that he had had his dinner; and even after the General Manager had come in and offered to bet him a dollar he hadn’t, he was still of the same mind.
This spirit of sly joking fills the place, set afloat by the master himself. Edison dearly loves a joke, and will quit work any time to hear one. It is the five minutes’ sleep and the good laugh that keep his brain from becoming a hotbox—he gets his rest!
“When do you take your vacation, Mr. Edison?” a lady asked him.
“Election night every November,” was the reply. And this is literally true, for on that night there is a special wire run into the Orange Clubhouse, and Edison takes the key and sits there until daylight taking the returns, writing them out carefully in that copperplate Western Union hand. He is as careful about his handwriting now as if he were writing out train-orders.
“If I wanted to live a hundred years I would use neither tobacco nor coffee,” said Edison as we sat at lunch. “But you see I’d rather get a little really good work done than live long and do nothing to speak of. And so I spur what I am pleased to call my mind, at times with coffee and a good cigar—just pass the matches, thank you! Some day some fellow will invent a way of concentrating and storing up sunshine to use instead of this old, absurd Prometheus scheme of fire. I’ll do the trick myself if some one else doesn’t get at it. Why, that is all there is about my work in electricity—you know, I never claimed to have invented electricity—that is a campaign lie—nail it!”
“Sunshine is spread out thin and so is electricity. Perhaps they are the same, but we will take that up later. Now the trick was, you see, to concentrate the juice and liberate it as you needed it. The old-fashioned way inaugurated by Jove, of letting it off in a clap of thunder, is dangerous, disconcerting and wasteful. It doesn’t fetch up anywhere. My task was to subdivide the current and use it in a great number of little lights, and to do this I had to store it. And we haven’t really found out how to store it yet and let it off real easy-like and cheap. Why, we have just begun to commence to get ready to find out about electricity. This scheme of combustion to get power makes me sick to think of—it is so wasteful. It is just the old, foolish Prometheus idea, and the father of Prometheus was a baboon.”
“When we learn how to store electricity, we will cease being apes ourselves; until then we are tailless orangutans. You see, we should utilize natural forces and thus get all of our power. Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and the tides are manifestations of energy.”
“Do we use them? Oh, no! We burn up wood and coal, as renters burn up the front fence for fuel. We live like squatters, not as if we owned the property.
“There must surely come a time when heat and power will be stored in unlimited quantities in every community, all gathered by natural forces. Electricity ought to be as cheap as oxygen, for it can not be destroyed.
“Now, I am not sure but that my new storage-battery is the thing. I’d tell you about that, but I don’t want to bore you. Of course, I know that nothing is more interesting to the public than a good lie. You see, I have been a newspaperman myself—used to run a newspaper—in fact, Veritas and Old Subscriber once took exception to one of my editorials and threw me into the Detroit River—that is where I got my little deafness—what’s that? No, I did not say my deftness—I got that in another way. But about lies, you have heard that one about my smoking big, black cigars! Well, the story is that the boys in the office used to steal my cigars, and so I got a cigarmaker to make me up a box that looked just like my favorite brand, only I had ’em filled with hemp, horsehair and a touch of asafetida. Then I just left the box where the boys would be sure to dip into it; but it seems the cigarman put them on, and so they just put that box into my own private stock and I smoked the fumigators and never knew the difference.
“That whole story is a pernicious malrepresentation invented by the enemy of mankind in order to throw obloquy over a virtuous old telegraph-operator—brand it!”
Witness, therefore, that I have branded it, forevermore!
Once upon a day I wrote an article on Alexander Humboldt. And in that article among other things I said, “This world of ours, round like an orange and slightly flattened at the Poles, has produced but five educated men.”
And ironical ladies and gents from all parts of the United States wrote me on postal cards, begging that I should name the other four. Let us leave the cynics to their little pleasantries, and make our appeal to people who think.
Education means evolution, development, growth. Education is comparative, for there is no fixed standard—all men know more than some men, and some men know more than some other men. “Every man I meet is my master in some particular,” said Emerson. But there are five men in history who had minds so developed, and evolved beyond the rest of mankind so far, that they form a class by themselves, and deserve to be called Educated Men.
The men I have in mind were the following: Pericles, Builder of Athens.
Aristotle, tutor of Alexander, and the world’s first naturalist.
Leonardo, the all-round man—the man who could do more things, and do them well, than any other man who every lived.
Sir Isaac Newton, the mathematician, who analyzed light and discovered the law of gravitation.
Alexander von Humboldt, explorer and naturalist, who compassed the entire scientific knowledge of the world, issued his books in deluxe limited editions at his own expense, and sold them for three thousand dollars a set.
Newton and Humboldt each wore a seven and three-fourths hat. Leonardo and Aristotle went untaped, but Pericles had a head so high and so big that he looked like a caricature, and Aristophanes, a nice man who lived at the same time, said that the head of Pericles looked like a pumpkin that had been sat upon. All the busts of Pericles represent him wearing a helmet—this to avoid what the artists thought an abnormality, the average Greek having a round, smooth chucklehead like that of a Bowery bartender.
America has produced two men who stand out so far beyond the rest of mankind that they form a class by themselves: Benjamin Franklin and Thomas A. Edison.
Franklin wore a seven and a half hat; Edison wears a seven and three-fourths.
The difference in men is the difference in brain-power. And while size does not always token quality, yet size and surface are necessary to get power, and there is no record of a man with a six and a half head ever making a ripple on the intellectual sea. Without the cells you get no mind, and if mind exists without the cells, it has not yet been proven. The brain is a storage-battery made up of millions of minute cells.
The weight of an average man’s brain is forty-nine ounces. Now, Humboldt’s brain weighed fifty-six ounces, and Newton’s and Franklin’s weighed fifty-seven. Let us hope the autopsist will not have a chance to weigh Edison’s brain for many years, but when he does the mark will register fifty-seven ounces.
An orang-utan weighs about the same as a man, but its brain weighs only a pound, against three pounds for a man. Give a gorilla a brain weighing fifty ounces, and he would be a Methodist Presiding Elder. Give him a brain the same size of Edison’s, say fifty-seven ounces, and instead of spending life in hunting for snakes and heaving cocoanuts at monkeys as respectable gorillas are wont, he would be weighing the world in scales of his own invention and making, and measuring the distances of the stars.
Pericles was taught by the gentle Anaxagoras, who gave all his money to the State in order that he might be free. The State reciprocated by cutting off his head, for republics are always ungrateful.
Aristotle was a pupil of Plato and worked his way through college, sifting ashes, washing windows and sweeping sidewalks.
Leonardo was self-taught and gathered knowledge as a bee gathers honey, although honey isn’t honey until the bee digests it.
Sir Isaac Newton was a Cambridge man. He held the office of Master of the Mint, and to relieve himself of the charge of atheism he anticipated the enemy and wrote a book on the Hebrew Prophets, which gave the scientists the laugh on him, but made his position with the State secure. Newton is the only man herein mentioned who knew anything about theology, all the others being “infidels” in their day, devoting themselves strictly to this world. Humboldt was taught by the “natural method,” and never took a college degree.
Franklin was a graduate of the University of Hard Knocks, and Edison’s Alma Mater is the same.
There is one special characteristic manifested by the Seven Educated men I have named—good-cheer, a great welling sense of happiness! They were all good animals: they gloried in life; they loved the men and women who were still on earth; they feasted on the good things in life; breathed deeply; slept soundly and did not bother about the future. Their working motto was, “One world at a time.”
They were all able to laugh.
Genius is a great fund of joyousness.
Each and all of these men influenced the world profoundly. We are different people because they lived. Every house, school, library and workshop in Christendom is touched by their presence.
All are dead but Edison, yet their influence can never die. And no one in the list has influenced civilization so profoundly as Edison. You can not look out of a window in any city in Europe or America without beholding the influence of his thought. You may say that the science of electricity has gone past him, but all the Sons of Jove have built on him.
He gave us the electric light and the electric car and pointed the way to the telephone—three things that have revolutionized society. As Athens at her height was the Age of Pericles, so will our time be known as the Age of Edison.