Telegrapher for Hire
In his later years, Edison claimed that it was the experience of selling newspapers at inflated prices on the days of Civil War battles that led him to life as a telegrapher. "It struck me then," he claimed, "that the telegraph must be about the best thing going, for it was the telegraphic notices on the bulletin boards that had done the trick." Intrigued by the possibilities of the telegraph, which was reshaping communication in America in the 1860s, Edison begged friends to teach him how to use one and began experimenting with telegraph lines and Morse code.
Edison became an apprentice to telegrapher James MacKensie in the summer of 1862. MacKensie helped Edison land his first telegraphing job, as an operator for Western Union in Port Huron. At fifteen, Edison was still learning about discipline: he spent much of his shift conducting electrical and chemical experiments and was a poor message transmitter. These habits cost him his second telegrapher job as a night transmitter in Ontario.
From 1863 to 1867 Edison drifted around the midwest as a "tramp telegrapher." He bounced along, moving through larger and larger cities, using his telegraphing jobs mostly as laboratories for his experiments. He usually left these jobs when he was fired for misbehaving on the job or failing to send and receive messages properly. It was at one such job in Indianapolis, in 1864, that Edison produced what he called "his first invention": a Morse repeater. The device slowed down the presentation of telegraph messages coming in off the press wire so the operators could process all the copy.
Slowly, Edison matured as an operator, eventually rising in the ranks to be given the title of first-class operator. Though he was better paid, he did not stop being fired from jobs for experimenting when he should have been working. More importantly though, he also matured as an experimenter. He immersed himself in scientific and technological literature and began to keep notebooks with his comments and drawings.
After an aborted attempt to go to Brazil and work as a telegrapher, Edison found himself in Boston in the spring of 1868. He found a job in the Western Union office and began frequenting the Court Street factory of Charles Williams, Jr., a telegraph manufacturer. This factory was a meeting place for experimenters, and Edison was able to buy equipment and exchange ideas with the others. It was at the factory that Edison produced a working model of his first patented invention, the vote recorder.
After the telegraph revolutionized communications in the United States, one of the highest paid new professions after the Civil War was that of a telegraph operator. As a new figure on the American scene, the "tramp telegrapher" took on romantic notions. Young boys like Edison imagined a life of glamorous rootlessness and excitement. In truth, there were few men who actually made their living this way. Those that did were often highly skilled, undiscplined men with a variety of problems, usually alcoholism. Most telegraph operators stayed in the same location.
Edison, on the other hand, was a "tramp telegrapher" with below-average skills. His moves from place to place and office to office were usually preceded and motivated by a job dismissal. Still unable to submit to authority and structure, Edison often put his jobs in jeopardy by experimenting when he was on the job or using the delicate equipment for his own projects. The fact that he had little trouble finding jobs in new cities speaks to the demand for telegraphers at the time.
At the same time, Edison's blossoming as an inventor was greatly helped by his experience as a telegrapher. He benefited from the long stretches of time in which he was left alone to think and fiddle with experiments. Because it was such a new and important invention, the world of the telegraph operator was one of challenges, problem solving, and innovation. And witnessing the ruthless bargaining, price cuts, and business proposals of Western Union, which eventually became the top telegraph operator in the midwestern United States, helped Edison get an idea of the economic marketplace. Edison picked up many successful business practices from Western Union.
The Court Street factory is an important landmark in American invention history. It was here that Alexander Graham Bell first worked on telephone technology. Other important inventors, like Thomas Hall (electric-motored toy trains) and Joseph Stearns (the duplex telegraph system), also lived in the same building and would frequent the factory to discuss ideas. Edison drank up the opportunity to meet some of his future colleagues (and business rivals) and to get an idea of the world into which he would soon be entering.
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