The Spark of Genius
Thomas Edison created the first light bulb 125 years ago. But he was not only America's greatest inventor. He was also a master entrepreneur
His first job was to climb aboard a train at Port Huron at 7 a.m. with copies of the Detroit Free Press to sell to passengers on the three-hour journey to Detroit and back. The budding entrepreneur persuaded the conductor to let him store berries, fruit, and vegetables, as well as sandwiches and peanuts, and deputized two other boys to sell the food for him. He also made a cheeky habit of walking into the composing room of the Free Press to find out what the next day's headlines would be, and a year into the Civil War, on April 6, 1862, he scored a coup. A proof of next day's sensational front page reported that as many as 60,000 might be dead in a battle at Shiloh (actual deaths were 24,000). He had enough money to buy only 300 papers but talked his way into the sanctum of the fierce managing editor, Wilbur F. Storey, and got 1,000 copies on credit. Edison had already bribed officials at the railroad office to telegraph the fact that there had been a battle to every train station on the way back to Port Huron. He was mobbed at the first stop, raised prices at every station thereafter, and ended with a sell-out auction--and the princely sum of around $150. "I determined at once to be a telegrapher," he recalled later.
His luck was in. Late that summer, he plucked a 3-year-old boy from the path of a boxcar, and the grateful father--the railroad's stationmaster--offered telegraph lessons as a reward. Five months later, Al--now to be called Tom--began wandering Middle America as one of the hundreds of young "tramp" telegraph operators. In demand because so many telegraphers had been called into the armies on both sides, the tramps were fond of gambling, cursing, drinking, smoking, playing jokes, and carousing with women. Edison chewed tobacco ceaselessly, gambled a little, and played practical jokes, but he spent most of his spare time reading in lonely boardinghouse rooms and fiddling with telegraph equipment in railway stations on his preferred night shifts.
By the time he arrived in Boston in 1868, after jobs with Western Union and the military, Edison was a haunted man. The little sleep he had was populated by polarized magnets, springs, cylinders, rotating gears, armatures, batteries, and rheostats, all dancing intricate patterns with labyrinthine strands of wire to make the most marvelous advances in telegraphy, and all vanishing as soon as he awoke. He rented a corner of Charles Williams Jr.'s instrument workshop (the same workshop where Alexander Graham Bell encountered his collaborator Thomas A. Watson). Here Edison improved on the standard stock telegraph tape printer and went into business with other telegraphers to sell his machine and a stock-and-gold quotation service.
But there was not enough money for all his ideas in Boston, so Edison decamped for New York. Soon after his arrival in Manhattan in June 1869, at the age of 22, he was in the office of Dr. Sam Laws's Gold Indicator's wire service as a piecework assistant when its machine broke down. Hundreds of brokers' messengers fought at the door for the information while Wall Street came to a stop and the experts responsible for transmission worked themselves into impotent rage.