When he arrived in Boston in the summer of 1868 he did not look like a man who would someday change the world. Clutching all his worldly possessions in a canvas bag, he was the very definition of a "hayseed," a country boy who came to make his mark in the big city. So he passed, undistinguished, through the downtown crowds as he made his way to the local Western Union office, holding a letter of introduction from a friend back in Ohio. At the telegraph office he displayed the one skill that set him apart from the crowd, a seemingly natural gift to be able to receive and send Morse code very quickly. The telegraph system was the backbone of communications after the Civil War (author Tom Standage called it The Victorian Internet) and skilled operators were highly valued so, despite the office manager's misgivings about the appearance of this "country bumpkin" the young man was hired, although it was for the overnight "graveyard" shift. Still, it must have been an exciting time for him as he copied and sent messages from across the country.
This Western Union office in New York was similar to the one our young Ohioan worked in Boston
The overnight shift actually suited the young man. He didn't sleep much, anyway. Too many ideas floating around in his head for devices that he wanted to build and sell to what he assumed would be a line of investors. No, our young telegraph operator didn't want to spend the rest of his life just "pounding brass," he wanted to be rich. So after his shift at the Western Union office he walked over to this building, at 109 Court Street, in a section of the city known then as Scollay Square (where Boston's City Hall and the JFK Federal Building are located today.)
109 Court Street, Boston, MA
Charles Williams manufactured telegraph equipment here, but he also rented out space in the attic to about a half a dozen people. In every way this place was just like today's high-tech "incubators," where like-minded experimenters went to pursue their dreams of building the next great thing. Williams not only provided space, but also access to wire, motors, transformers, and other material needed for electronic work.
Our young telegrapher knew exactly what the world needed. Just about anybody involved with telegraphy did. In 1868 it was only possible to send one message down a single wire at one time which meant if we wanted to pass more messages, we had to string up more wires. Which we did, with abandon...
65th Street in New York City in the 1880s
That's why the Holy Grail of inventions was the elusive Multiple (or Multiplex) Telegraph, a device that would permit more than one telegraph signal to pass through a single wire. Our young inventor thought he had a way to do that. Working diligently in his off hours from the telegraph office he designed such an apparatus. But after repeated attempts he failed to get it to work. Frustrated, he put the idea aside and went to work on a completely different type of machine - an automatic vote counter. The device, which worked precisely as designed, earned him his very first patent in June of 1869. Now he was a real inventor! The next step was to find a buyer for the device, and through an investor he was able to secure a demonstration in Washington before several Congressmen. He was sure they would jump at the opportunity to use a device that would speed the legislative process.
Automatic Vote Recorder
The actual response from the committee chairman? "If there is any invention on earth that we don't want down here, that is it."
What our young inventor thought would be a welcome way to reduce the gridlock in Washington was seen more as a disruption of time-honored Congressional traditions such as vote-changing and filibustering. He returned to Boston not as much frustrated as motivated to build something else, only this time to make sure that it was something he could sell. Today we call that market research, back then it was the pure fire of his determination. Perhaps, also, to prove the teacher wrong who said to his mother "you might as well take the boy out school, he's addled."
By now you've probably guessed that the name of our young telegrapher/inventor was Thomas Edison. Now in Boston almost two years, he had failed twice to achieve his goal of being a successful inventor, the first time because the device (the multiple telegraph) didn't work, the second time (the automatic vote counter) because he couldn't sell it. For his next invention he would then display the knack that would lead to over 2,300 patents and a multi-million dollar fortune. He found a problem, in this case the need to synchronize multiple stock tickers in financial offices and banks all over the country (the currently deployed device, invented by Edward Calahan a few years earlier, required exchange companies to deploy workers to manually reset and calibrate the tickers). For Edison, that meant thousands of ready-to-buy customers. All he needed was a working prototype.
He spent his last few months in Boston attempting to build one, but none of them worked. He had managed to find a few investors, but their patience ran out in late 1869 and young Edison, who had such faith in this new idea that he had quit his job at the telegraph office, was now as broke as when he arrived two years earlier. He moved to New York where his luck changed after meeting a telegraph executive and inventor named Franklin L. Pope, who happened to work for the company that owned the patent to the previous generation of stock ticker. Pope gave Edison some space at the company’s Wall Street headquarters to pursue his concept. What happened next is legendary.
As explained in the Menlo Park Museum website, "...within a few days, the master ticker tape machine had a major breakdown throwing the entire office and many New York businesses into turmoil. Since Edison was always around the office, he offered to fix the machine. When he did so within two hours, he was offered a job the following day as Pope’s assistant." Using his knowledge of the inner workings of telegraph devices (garnered from years as a telegraph operator) he not only designed a way to synchronize multiple tickers, but in a later model devised a way to print characters to represent shortened names of the company along with numbers for the current price. This was a huge deal, because up until this time the machines printed in Morse code, requiring employees with that skill, and the time to transcribe the data.
Thomas Edison's Stock Ticker with Alphanumeric print
As the Menlo Park website explains, "...after working for Dr. Laws (the company president) Edison set up his own engineering business and was soon hired by Western Union to be in charge of all of their equipment. Within a short span of time, his boss at Western Union offered to buy out all his new inventions and improvements to the equipment for a lump sum price of $40,000."
An invention that worked and money to show for his effort. What could be better? Edison used the funds to start his own incubator in an empty factory building in Newark, New Jersey. A few years later he would purchase property in the New Jersey town of Menlo Park where, thanks to monumental inventions such as the light bulb and phonograph, he would earn the public's adoration and the nickname "The Wizard of Menlo Park." This, despite his alleged ruthless, painful electrocution of an elephant to prove a point. But that's a subject for my next blog.
Oh, by the way, Edison was not the only inventor to pursue his dreams in that attic laboratory at 109 Court Street. Look again at the picture at the top of this blog. That's a recreation of the laboratory of a Boston University Professor of the Deaf, who had his own ideas on how to solve the problem that eluded Edison, that of multiple telegraphy. This professor (along with his assistant, named Watson) got sidetracked when he realized that he could send more than just dots and dashes. Because it was here in 1875, in the exact same place where Edison had built his first patented invention, that Alexander Graham Bell first heard the sound of the human voice through an electric device.
As Paul Harvey would have said, "and now you know the rest of the story..."