Thomas A. Edison: A Change of Business - Telegraph Operator

Edison took up his train duties promptly, without any evidence of ill feeling towards the conductor who had treated him so harshly. A few weeks after that unpleasant occurrence, the train stopped one morning at Mount Clemens, to take on some freight cars, which were waiting on the sidetrack.

As usual, the train boy, with his papers under his arm, was peering about the station house to see what was going on. Suddenly, as he looked around the corner, he saw the two-year-old son of the station agent, playing on the track, while the heavy freight car that was being backed down to the train, was almost upon him. Without a second's hesitation, the newsboy threw his papers to the ground and plunged forward to save the child. With one flying leap he seized the boy and cleared the track, falling on the gravel beyond, just out of' reach of the wheels of the car. The baggage-master, who saw the act and thought that both boys would be killed, gave a shriek, which brought everyone around the station to the spot.

When the child's father heard the story, he felt so grateful to the brave boy that he would have been glad to give him a rich reward. He was a poor man, however, and could not express his thanks in money.

But there was one thing he could do, to better the boy's fortune. He was a good telegraph operator; he would teach young Edison telegraphing, and get him a position where he could earn twenty-five dollars a month. Taking the boy's hand, he said, "You have saved jimmy's life, Al. and I'd like to show you how I feel about it. I haven't anything to give you, but if you'll stop off here two or three nights in the week I'll teach you to telegraph and get you a good job."

Edison's face lighted up with pleasure. "I don't want any pay for pulling Jimmy out from under that freight car," he said loftily. "But I would like mighty well to learn to telegraph. Nothing better! If it suits you we'll begin to-night."

The lessons were commenced at once and Mr. Mackenzie, the agent, found his work as instructor really pleasant at first. His pupil came regularly and made such surprising progress that it was a great satisfaction to teach him. But after a few days the train passed and "AI" did not get off.

This happened several days in succession. Mr. Mackenzie felt disappointed. "I declare he's like all the rest of them," he mused. I thought he had some grit. But I've always noticed that when a boy is so quick and learns so fast, he never keeps at it." He was mistaken, however, that time.

That very evening when the train came in, young Edison swung himself off with a beaming face. He carried a small package neatly tied up" which he was eager to show his friend. It proved to be a tiny telegraph instrument, which he had made at a gunsmith's shop in Detroit. It was so small that it could be placed on a small envelope, yet it was perfectly complete, and worked well when tested.

The young student in telegraphy had not lost interest, but he had come to a place where he could get along without a regular teacher. He was used to doing things in his own way and at his own time, and having received a good start from Mr. Mackenzie, was able to go on without much further help from him. He had made friends with many of the telegraph operators along the railroad. He now visited their offices to practice his art. He found them all interested in his progress and ready to give him a word of advice when he needed it. In three months' time he had so thoroughly mastered the business that Mr. Mackenzie said the boy knew enough to teach him.

He was not satisfied with being able to work the instrument, to send and receive messages. His inquiring mind wanted to discover how the instrument worked and why. He immediately began to experiment with electricity in his cellar laboratory.

With the help of a friend he constructed a short telegraph line of his own.· At first he tried to obtain a current from a very curious dynamo. He had noticed the sparks that may be produced by stroking a cat. Half in fun, and half in earnest, he got two large black cats and tried with much rubbing to create an electrical current, but was obliged to resort to the ordinary battery.

Edison gave up his position as train boy and spent most of his time at the Western Union Telegraph office in Port Huron. When there was more work to do than usual, or when one of the regular operators was not at his post, Edison was hired to' work for a short time. He did good work and was soon given a regular position at a salary of twenty-five dollars a month, with the promise of additional pay for extra work.

Frances M. Perry, “The Story of Thomas A. Edison: A Change of Business.” In Four American Inventors: A Book for Young Americans, New York, Cincinnati, and Chicago: American Book Company, 1901, Pages 220-224

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