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Thomas A. Edison: Telegrapher and Inventor

Edison was not a dreamer. He may have had vague notions of doing something great in the distant future, but they did not interfere with the accomplishment of his practical, definite ideas. Having become a telegraph operator, his modest ambition was to be a good one. More than that, he wanted to be able to receive "press reports." That is, he wanted to be able to work so fast that he could handle the long dispatches sent to the newspapers.

That was not an easy task. Indeed for a while he gave up hope of being able to keep up with the clickings of an expert sender, without the help of some mechanical device. If he could only find a way to make those confusing dots and dashes come more slowly!

His busy brain and nimble fingers working together, soon discovered a way to do this. He contrived a repeating receiver, which recorded the message as rapidly as the best sender could send it, and repeated it as slowly as the poorest receiver could wish.

When this repeater was in working order, Edison secured an engagement to take some pressreport work. He told the sender to "rush" him. The man did so, but no matter how rapidly he worked, he did not seem to be able to confuse the marvelous receiver. Edison was meanwhile copying slowly from his faithful repeater. He was able in this way to hand in beautifully written, unscratcned, and unblotted sheets of report, which aroused the astonishment and admiration of all who saw them.

Soon, however, a report came in that had to be delivered immediately. Then the inventor was in difficulty. and had to admit that he was not such a fast receiver as he seemed.

To invent the repeater, required a higher order of mind perhaps, than was necessary to receive messages rapidly. But Edison felt no pride in that achievement. His object was to be a rapid receiver and nothing else would satisfy him.

He next made a series of thorough experiments in penmanship, to discover which was the most rapid style of writing. After a long and careful examination he· decided on the clear, round, upright characters which he used all the rest of his life. It is interesting to notice that this youth was about thirty years ahead of the writ!ng teachers in adopting the beautiful vertical writing, which is taught in many schools today.

Obliged to give up press-report work until he had gained greater skill, Edison devoted his time to practicing as the only means of acquiring the . speed he desired. He worked all day and, whenever he could get employment, all night, snatching , bits of sleep when he could. His constant diligence soon enabled him to work so fast that he was put at one end of a line worked by a Louisville operator, who was one of the fastest senders in the country. His experience at that wire made him as expert as even he desired to be.

But he was not ready to sit down to rest. As soon as one thing became easy for Edison he always began working on something else.

While at Memphis, he constructed an instrument called an automatic repeater, which made it possible to connect separate telegraph lines in such a way as to transfer messages from one wire to the other without the aid of an operator.

He then began to try to discover how two messages might be sent over the same wire at the same time. He spent a large part of his time reading and experimenting with this end in view.
His fellow operators laughed at him and called him the "luny," because he had so many "queer notions" and did not care for the things they enjoyecd. He worked constantly, dressed shabbily, and spent most of his money for scientific books and materials with which to make experiments. His gay comrades liked him in spite of his peculiarities. He was ready with jokes, and funny stories, and could be depended on to lend an empty-pocketed friend a dollar in the days of scarcity which usually preceded pay day.

His employers were often impatient with him. They thought it strange that a young man who could telegraph so well, was not content to do it, but must needs neglect his work, while he wasted time and kept the office in confusion with some impossible scheme.

This is the reason that for five years Edison roamed from town to town, through the central states, never having much trouble to get a place because he was such a good operator, and never keeping one long because he could not overcome his impulse to invent.

During those five years he suffered a good many hardships and formed very irregular habits of work, often studying and working all night long. But while. many of his comrades fell into evil ways, Edison lived a clean, straight life. This was one reason why he was able to work so hard without injuring his health.

Frances M. Perry, “The Story of Thomas A. Edison: Telegrapher and Inventor.” In Four American Inventors: A Book for Young Americans, New York, Cincinnati, and Chicago: American Book Company, 1901, Pages 229-233.

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