Thomas A. Edison: Youthful Business Ventures

When Thomas, or Alva (he was called by his middle name during his boyhood) was twelve years of age, his father considered him old enough to earn his own living.  He was therefore willing to have him take a position as train boy on the Grand Trunk Railroad.

Young Edison was just the person to enjoy a train boy's life. He was fitted to make a success of the business. Forward and self-confident, he had a pleasant, jovial manner, which made him popular with strangers. He. was quick-witted enough to say just the thing about his wares to amuse or interest the passengers. And he sold enough newspapers and sweetmeats to clear a good profit.

Besides, he was shrewd and self-reliant. Finding that the sale of papers depended on the news they contained, he looked them over carefully before buying, and soon learned to judge accurately the number he could sell.

The Civil War was then going on, and when there was exciting war news, papers were in great demand. One day he opened the paper and found an account of the battle of Pittsburg Landing. He said to himself, "I could see a thousand of these papers, if I had them, and if the people at the stations only knew there had been a battle." Here were two big "ifs," but the boy promptly made up his mind how to overcome them.

He went to the telegraph office and sent dispatches to the towns at which his train stopped, announcing that a terrible battle had been fought. He felt sure that the news would spread rapidly through the villages, and crowds would be at the stations waiting for the papers.

He then went to the newspaper office and asked the business manager to sell him one thousand copies of the Detroit Free Press, on credit. The manager refused curtly. Nothing daunted the boy sought the office of the editor, Mr. W. F. Story.

"I am the newsboy on the Grand Trunk Railroad, from Detroit to Port Huron, and I should like to have one thousand copies of to-day's 'Press,' containing the account of the battle," he said blandly.

"I have no money to pay for them, but I am sure I shall be able to pay you out of the proceeds of the day's sale."

The editor looked at him in surprise." And where do you expect to, find purchasers for so many papers?" he asked. When he heard what the youth had done to secure his customers, he smiled and gave him an order for the papers.

Edison· was not mistaken; he found his papers in such demand "that he was able to raise the price first to ten cents, then to twenty-five cents. He made what seemed to him a fortune out of the day's work.

Profit in money was not, however, all that Thomas Edison gained from his experience as train boy. The busy, varied life he led was in many ways an education to the active, wide-awake boy. While attending. to his work he gave it his undivided attention. But when he had finished it, he dismissed it from his mind and interested himself in other things.

He learned a' good deal about the country through which he traveled every day. Most boys are thoroughly well acquainted with the one town in which they live, but he knew Detroit as well as Port Huron, and was familiar with the geography and business of the country and villages between those cities.

Photo 4a21109u - Grand Trunk Western Railroad Ticket Office Detroit MI - c1905

Grand Trunk Western Railroad Ticket Office Detroit Michigan - c1905. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

His train was a mixed train, made. up of freight and passenger cars. The newsboy considered himself a very important part of that train. He knew it from engine to caboose, and was on good terms with all the trainmen. Indeed, he felt an interest and pride not only in "my train," but in "my road, "as he called the Grand Trunk Railroad.

He knew its officers, its trainmen, its station agents, the telegraph operators, and even the trackmen. He could always be depended upon for the latest railroad news either in the nature of business or personal gossip.

Finding that others were as much interested as he in what was going on- along the road, but were slower in finding it out, he decided to print a railroad newspaper. He got some old type from the office of the ., Detroit Free Press" where he had made friends, and set up a printing office in the corner of a freight car.

One-half of the car was fitted up as a smoker, and the newsboy took possession of the unused half. There, when he had nothing else to do. he worked hard on a paper of which he was proprietor, editor, business manager, reporter, and printer.

He issued his paper weekly and called it "The Grand Trunk Herald." It was a small paper consisting of two sheets printed on one side only. It was poorly printed, and the grammar and punctuation were often faulty, but it contained much that was of interest to those who were connected with the railroad.

Besides such business items as changes in time, the connections made with the train by stagecoaches, and announcements of articles lost and found, it was filled with current railroad news and observations by the editor, which give us a good idea of the character and habits of the boy. Here are some extracts from the "Herald:"

"Heavy shipments at Baltimore; we were delayed the other day at New Baltimore Station, waiting for a friend, and while waiting took upon ourselves to have a things generally; we saw in the freight house of the G. T. R. 400 barrels of flour and 150 hogs waiting for shipment to Port Lana."

" John Robinson, baggage master at James Creek Station, fell off the platform yesterday and hurt his leg. The boys are 'sorry for John."

"No. 3 Burlington engine has gone into the shed for repairs."

"The more to do the more done. We have observed along the line of railway at the different stations where there is only one Porter, such as at Utica, where he is fully engaged from morning until late at night, that he has everything clean and in first-class order, even on the platforms the snow does not lie for a week after it has fallen, but is swept off before it is almost down, at other stations, where there is two Porters, things are vice-versa."

"Premiums. We believe that the Grand Trunk Railway give premiums every six months to their engineers who use the least wood and oil running the usual journey. Now we have rode with Mr. E. L. Northrop, one of their engineers, and we do not believe you could fall in with another engineer more careful or attentive to his engine, being the most steady driver that we have ever rode behind [and we consider ourselves some judge having been railway riding for over two years constantly ] always kind and obliging and ever at his post. His engine we contend does not cost one fourth for repairs what the other engines do. We would respectfully recommend him to the kindest consideration of the G. T. R. officers."

The good-natured self-importance of the young editor, with his pompous editorial "We," is amusing. But though the reader may smile at the fourteen-year-old boy's recommendation of the experienced engineer to the attention of the railroad officer, he feels that the writer must have been a sensible boy and that he knew what he was talking about. Edison's remarks about the well-kept station house show the boy's appreciation of order and punctual attention to duty. What he has to say is sensible and sincere, and it is not surprising that he found readers.

He had over three hundred subscribers for his paper, at three cents a copy. Of course the readers of the "Herald" were all railroad men.

This little sheet gained some notoriety, however, and was mentioned in a London paper as the only newspaper in the world published on a train.

Edison's success with the “Herald” induced him to undertake to print a paper of more general interest. His second paper was called" Paul Pry." In this paper, Edison used great freedom in expressing opinions of men and things. On one occasion, a personal paragraph in his paper so angered a reader, that, seeing the editor near the river, he gave him a good ducking. This severe punishment dampened the youthful editor's enthusiasm for journalism, and he gave up the business a short time after the occurrence.

Frances M. Perry, “The Story of Thomas A. Edison: Youthful Busines Ventures.” In Four American Inventors: A Book for Young Americans, New York, Cincinnati, and Chicago: American Book Company, 1901, Pages 209-215

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