Browse The Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives Home Page

Thomas A. Edison: Heading East To Boston

Edison had a friend in Boston. This man urged him to come east. He said that he would receive a better salary and have greater opportunities for study and invention. When a vacancy occurred in the Boston office, he recommended Edison for the place. And so it happened that when Edison was twenty-one years old, he was called to the great city of Boston.
Here is the account the inventor himself gives of his first appearance in the Boston telegraph office:

"I had been four days and nights on the road, and, having had very little sleep, did not present a very fresh or stylish appearance, especially as compared to the operators of the East, who were far more dressy than their brethren of the West. The manager asked me when I was ready to go to work. "

'Now,' I replied. I was then told to return at 5:50 P. M., and punctually at that hour I entered the main operating rooms, and was introduced to the night manager. My peculiar appearance caused much mirth, and, as I afterwards learnt, the night operators consulted together how they might 'put a job on the jay from the woolly West. ' I was given a pen and assigned the New York No. I wire."

" After waiting upwards of one hour I was told to come over to a special table, and take a special report for the Boston Herald, the conspirators having arranged to have one of the fastest senders in New York to send the dispatch and 'salt' the new man. I sat down unsuspiciously at the table and the New York man started slowly."

"I had long since perfected myself in a simple and rapid style of handwriting, devoid of flourishes, and susceptible of being increased from forty-five to fifty-four words a minute by gradually reducing the size of the lettering. This was several words faster than any other operator in the United States."

"Soon the N ew York man increased his speed, to which I easily adapted my pace. This put my rival on his mettle, and he put on his best powers, which, however, were soon reached.  At this point I happened to look up, and saw the operators all looking over my shoulder, with their faces shining with fun and excitement I knew then that they were trying to put a job on me,  but kept my own counsel and went on placidly with my work, even sharpening a pencil at intervals, by way of extra aggravation.

"The New York man then commenced to slur over his words, running them together, and sticking the signals; but I had been used to this style of telegraphy in taking reports and was not in the least discomfited. Finally when I thought the fun had gone far enough, and having about completed the special, I quietly opened the key and remarked, 'Say, young man, change off, and send with your other foot.' This broke the New York man all up, and he turned the job over to another man to finish."

Men are usually ready to respect real merit. Edison's fellow-workers, on discovering his ability, gave the new comer a cordial welcome among them, in spite of his careless dress.

But better even than that, Edison found his new employer to be a man of high intelligence. He could talk over his ideas with him without fear of being called a "luny." It was a new pleasure to the young man to find sympathy and appreciation concerning the questions that were of the highest interest to him.

The Boston Public Library furnished him with valuable works, which he had not been able to obtain in the West. He met men of scientific learning and came in contact with highly skil1ed artisans.

Everything in his new life stimulated his ambition and encouraged him to attempt great things. Much of the time he felt as he expressed it one morning to a friend: "I've got so much to do and life is so short, I'm going to hustle."

His regular work occupied the night hours. That left the day free. He spent as few as possible of the precious hours in sleep. Having found that he could not carryon his experiments in the telegraph office here, as he had so often done in the West, he opened a small shop of his own.

In that shop he spent a large part of each day. Sometimes he devoted all of his time to working on his own inventions. Again, he took orders and did work for others.
He became known in Boston as an authority on electricity, and was even invited to speak on the subject before a school of young women.

He was especially interested at' this time in inventing an electrical instrument for recording votes in a great assembly like the House of Representatives. He made an excellent machine that did its work faultlessly, and had it patented.

After all his labor and expense he found that legislative bodies did not care for such an accurate and speedy vote recorder. His invention was useless. This was a bitter disappointment to him and he did not forget the lesson it taught him: never invent anything without first finding out whether it is needed.

Having failed with his vote recorder because of his ignorance of parliamentary customs, he returned to the familiar field of telegraphy and once more tried to solve the problem of sending two messages over a wire at one time. There was no doubt that a contrivance, which would make that possible, would be in demand.

He progressed so well with his experiments that in 1869 he was ready to make a trial of his invention on a large scale.

At this time his engagement with the Western Union Telegraph Company being completed, he resolved to go to New York.

Frances M. Perry, “The Story of Thomas A. Edison: In Boston.” In Four American Inventors: A Book for Young Americans, New York, Cincinnati, and Chicago: American Book Company, 1901, Pages 233-237.

Return to Top of Page