The White MagicianA Faithful Portrayal of Thomas Alva Edison, the Greatest Inventor the World has ever Seen.
By Rudolph De Cordova.
Pearson's Magazine - February 1898Illustrations are at the approximate place where they appeared in the original magazine; in most cases they do not relate to the surrounding text. They have been reduced considerably in size for this release, larger versions can be found on the FF CD-ROM
THE last thing on earth one would expect to find in the neighbourhood of the house of Thomas Alva Edison, the man who, probably more than any other, has done most to bring electric lighting into common use, is an ordinary gas lamp. Oddly enough, however, it is the first thing one notices in approaching his magnificent home, which is now situated in Llewellyn Park, in the town of Orange, New Jersey. In spite of all that he himself has done to reduce distance to a phrase, the "Wizard of Menlo Park" found that too great demands were made on his time in the frequent journeys which his avocations compelled him to make to New York itself, and therefore he had to move nearer the city. Orange is but little more than half-an-hour's run on the train from New York, and in three-quarters of an hour the distance can be covered in the trolley cars which run to Jersey City, at a cost of twopence halfpenny. Add three-halfpence for crossing the river, and Edison's house is a fourpenny ride from the metropolis of the New World.
His house stands on a hill away from the road which passes through the very heart of the pine-timbered park, and looks down on the town of Orange nestling at its feet. It is a two storeyed house built in the manner of most American country houses. Its upper part is of wood painted of a drab colour, while the lower storey is of red brick. It has enormous windows, and the inevitable porch or piazza, which is covered with creepers.
It is a delightfully comfortable house, with every evidence of refinement and taste which can be gratified by the possession of wealth.
But who heeds the setting when he gazes on the jewel? The house fades into insignificance in the presence of the man who talks of himself and his work with that supreme unconsciousness of self which is the highest attribute of achievement. Although time has silvered his brown hair which is growing back from the temples, it has written no hieroglyphic of age upon his smooth, unshaven face, or dimmed the merry twinkle of his eye, or taken aught from the good-humoured curve of the mouth. Edison is a humorist if ever there was one - a staunch believer in that saving grace of fun which is so apt to be ignored in the hard struggle for existence. "I make my work a kind of play, a joke," he says. "I see the funny side of everything, and ally my men do the same, and we are telling stories all the time."
Yet, judged by the ordinary standard, the daily work of this man would paralyse the advocates for an eight-hour day.He goes to his work at seven in the morning, and stays in the laboratory till seven in the evening, when he returns home to supper. Then he either goes back to the laboratory or sits at home reading up the subjects at which he is working, so as to be ready to answer any questions which his men may put to him.
Ask him about his habits, and he will tell you: "Till 1888 I used to work twenty hours a day. Now, however, I am getting older and I don't have the snap I used to ; I can only work about sixteen hours." Two days' work in one, kept up continuously all the year round, for Edison finds so-called holidays hang heavily on his hands.
He has notoriously set at naught every law of nature which the physicians lay down for the guidance of the ordinary mortals, but he is, and always has been, in splendid health. On this point he says: "I never used to have any regular meals, but I never had dyspepsia because I have always been so irregular in my habits that no amount of irregularity could ever throw me out of gear. I always eat common plain mechanics' food, bread, butter, beefsteak, pie, and I drink coffee, or tea, or water. I scarcely ever use alcohol, a glass of whisky and water once a week being the most I take. I never drink when I am at work, and onlv at my meals. I do not think, though, that coffee or tea helps me with my work, though I am sure if a man wants to keep his head clear he ought to leave alcohol alone. I do not believe smoking hurts, and I smoke about six cigars a day. Nearly all the time I have a cigar in my mouth, but I suppose it goes out about four hundred times a day, for, when I get thinking of things, I forget to smoke, and so I use about two boxes of matches every day in lighting up."
Although what the world would call an inveterate smoker, Edison's taste in tobacco is peculiarly primitive. He has no knowledge at all on the subject. The following anecdote will illustrate this fact. At one time he used to buy very expensive cigars, which, as they were left about in the workshop, were used by all and sundry of the workmen, who, no doubt, considered that whatever belonged to Edison belonged to them. One day, however, Edison thought the thing had gone far enough, probably because he wanted a cigar and there were none, so a friend suggested that they should play a practical joke on the men. He had some cigars made of brown paper, rags, and horsehair, which he considered a sufficiently obnoxious combination. They were duly sent down to the laboratory, and the friend went off to California. After about six months he returned, and one of the first questions he put to Edison was : "Well, how did the cigars work?"
"What cigars?" asked Edison, who had quite forgotten the occurrence.
"Why, the cigars I had made for you - the rags and horse hair and brown paper cigars, of course."
"Where did you put them?" asked Edison.
"Why, there," he replied, indicating the box.
"That box?" said Edison. "Why those are the cigars I have been smoking myself all along."
Since that time Edison has never made any claim to being a connoisseur of tobacco.
When he is thinking, he invariably chews a toothpick or the stump of a cigar. "can't think in bed," he says. "for as soon as I put my head on the pillow I go to sleep, and it would take a 12in. cannon to wake me up at any other time than that at which I have decided to wake. At that hour, however, or within a few minutes of it, I am certain to be awake. My life is to a large extent different now from what it used to be, for in the old days I used to lie down on a bench and sleep for half-an-hour at one time and an hour at another, just as I happened to be able to snatch the opportunity, and often I never took my clothes off for a week at a time. My father, however, was that way too. It is a peculiarity; and I suppose I was born with that peculiarity.
"Most people think that this constant application to work would, after five or six years, break a man down. They are correct in a way, but they forget the effect of interest in the work. Take the case of a bibliomaniac; he can work year in and year out without taking any holiday, and without suffering any bad effects; then, too, a boy can play for sixteen hours a day, but it would half kill him to saw wood for two hours.
"I am a boy who plays at my work," said Edison. "Down at Menlo Park we used to have a hundred men, and they all worked night and day. They turned into their bunks for a little while, and at a given time a man would call them, when they would jump up and buckle to work agaia without any trouble. I have had men come to me there who wanted to work for nothing; they found the life so pleasant. They were full of the spirit of the place, and most of them have since gone to different parts of the world, filling important positions in the industries which I get up. I am a pioneer, and men are needed to develop my ideas, so I am all the time taking new men on the place to fill the positions of those who have left."
The relationship of Edison with his men is naturally a subject of more than passing interest. Every great employer of the higher kind of assistance has always been an accurate judge of human nature, so far as the qualifications for his own particular purposes are concerned, and he has always been guided in his estimate and choice of men by certain definite rules, the result of his own observation. Edison is no exception to them. He always picks his men himself, but the points which he observes in forming his opinion he keeps to himself.
As he says: " I have a lot of characteristics that I look at, and the man I would take would be no good in most other pursuits. I have one test which, however, I do not mind telling. I would take a man on and put him on a long job. If he knocked off work and went to sleep that night, he was no good for my, purpose. It showed me that he had no interest in his work. If, however, his eyes were bright next morning, and he had not been to sleep, it showed me that he had an interest in his business, and I knew he was all right. I have never known that test fail.
"Again, you will notice that all the great captains of industry have a tremendous drop of the ear. It is long and big. None of these men, however, come round here asking me for work. They are always in business for themselves. They are the kind of men who, as somebody said, `are so long in their fore-thought that it sags in the middle.'"
Few Americans have such a sincere and unqualified admiration for Englishmen as Edison has, and none could possibly praise English characteristics or English inventors more heartily. "I like Englishmen," he will tell you ; "there is so much that is solid about them. In time, when we get general arbitration over the whole world, and peace is assured, then we shall get great industrial wars. This will give a chance for intellect to work instead of brute force. I think the Anglo-Saxon will be right in it, and the English race will dominate the world. That, I believe, is as certain as death.
"When I say the English race, I of course mean the English and American. They have the some characteristics of practicability, commercial instinct, and cold, logical reasoning powers. All the difference is that the American is a little more nervous and energetic, but if the Englishman is slower he has more 'stick to' than we have. He is a hard fellow to beat in the long-run, is the Englishman. You may get ahead of him at first, but in the end he is a pretty tough citizen to run up against.
"After all, when it comes to big machinery we are not in it with England. Of course, we are getting there slowly, but it will be a long time before we catch up with where the old country is. We have in America at present only one or two concerns as big as England has, and they are only late creations - for example, our ironworks and ship building factories. Our capacity does not amount to anything by the side of what England can do.
"A little while ago people were startled by the fact that we Americans were actually shipping rails to London. The reason for this is that we `hump' things over here, and are never satisfied, or not so easily satisfied as Englishmen are. They can get just as much power out of a furnace as we can. They have better coal and equally as good oil as ours, but the one fault with them is that they are not go-ahead enough. The principle they seem to work on is this. They construct a good machine which works at fifty-horse power. It works well, and so they keep it going there. Then the American imports one. He runs it at fifty, then he runs it at a hundred, then he lets her go at two hundred, and so on up to a thousand-horsepower, and he keeps her going till she bursts. He has found out how how much power he can get out of that machine, and he says she ought to work well at two-hundred-horse power, so he builds another machine himself and works it there."
At the present time Edison is busily engaged in experiments with the X-rays as applied to surgical purposes. He wants to develop an apparatus which will enable the surgeon to see the parts and organs lying in the body exactly as he would if the body were transparent, so that he will know exactly where to cut and what to do in case of necessity without having to resort to X-ray photography. The principle on which he is working is the discovery of chemical crystals which will give off light by means of the X-rays. He is, and has been for some time, making experiments at the rate of thirty a day, but there are thousands more to be done. He is sanguine, however, of success, for he is getting better and better results all the time.
Another ingenious machine which he has recently been perfecting has been a method for telegraphing pictures over a distance as far as from New York to Chicago, in just the same way as messages are conveyed by means of electricity. Many plans have been devised for doing this. One of the earliest was the use of two sheets of paper ruled into very small squares. Across the top of the paper the squares were numbered, and down the sides they were lettered. The artist drew his picture on one of these prepared sheets of paper and telegraphed in regular sequence the numbers and the letters through which his lines passed. At the other end of the wire, the artist who received the message drew lines through the corresponding squares on his sheet of paper. In this way a very rough and quite inaccurate representation was obtained of the picture drawn at the first end.
Some years ago, however, Edison, in conjunction with Patrick Kenny, began a machine to improve on this, but it was abandoned for a long time. Finally, a New York daily newspaper, which makes illustrations one of its features, asked Edison whether it would not be possible to devise a machine by which pictures could be telegraphed just as words are. "It is possible now," laconically replied the inventor. "I have two machines in my laboratory which, whilst they are unfinished, might in a short time be finished to do what you require."
He set to work, and in a very short time produced a finished machine which could be carried in a box about twelve inches square by ten inches high, and which could send an outline drawing five inches long by three inches high from New York to Chicago, a distance of one thousand miles. The whole of the process is automatic, and depends on a cliemically-prepared paper which, when the electric current passes through, is re-acted upon, forming a sort of ink. There are no squares on the paper, no letters, no numbers, no source of inaccuracy. It is done by the simple action, independent of human agency, of subtle forces which can never err.
The artist who is making the original sketch does so on a piece of soft paper with a hard pencil, which indents the lines it makes into the paper. This drawing he wraps round a cylinder on the top of the machine, and presses a button which starts the machinery, making the cylinder revolve slowly. Attached to this cylinder is a tiny pointer or finger of metal, which touches the paper all the time. As soon as it reaches one of the lines of the sketch the friction changes, and the finger in that instant opens the machinery, which allows the electric current to travel through to the other end of the wire, where a similar finger is touching a similar turning cylinder, round which a corresponding piece of paper is wrapped.
This receiving paper has been previously treated with a sensitising solution, and when the electric spark started by the impress of the sending finger in the line of the artist's sketch reaches the point of the receiving finger, the electricity changes the colour of the paper at that point. In this way a dot of exactly the same size as that formed by the finger passing over the line of the sketch is made on the receiving paper.
As soon as the machine has completed one circle, it is automatically lowered about the hundredth part of an inch, and once more the fingers travel round the paper at that distance from the first circle. As soon as it comes into contact with the indention at this level, the current is made as before, and instantly another dot is registered at the farther or receiving end of the wire. In this way in a horizontal course the finger travels, dropping a fraction of an inch with each encircling of the paper. A continuous series of dots is thus produced, and these dots make up lines, for they are so close together that they produce almost the effect of a smooth, straight line.
By means of this machine it is expected to have the picture reproduced in New York within five minutes after it has been finished by the artist in Chicago.
It was while employed as a telegraph operator that he made the first of those particularly practical inventions with which his name has become familiar. This, as everyone acquainted with Edison's life history will remember, was an electric bell which he attached to his machine, and which, when he was called by the operator at the other end of the wire, rang, thus enabling him to sleep when he was not actively employed in sending or receiving messages, and that without in any way interfering with the efficacy of his work and his readiness when required for duty.
Another of these ingenious little inventions is not by any means as well known. It was a device to rid his office of the cockroaches which are at once the bane of certain households and the terror of a large number of its feminine inmates. To the electrician, electricity naturally appealed as the means to the desired end, and he accordingly, affixed sheets of tin foil to the wall of the office, covered them with such food as peculiarly appealed to the appetite of his voracious little friends, connected the tin foil to a battery by means of a wire, and when the hordes of roaches were feasting he turned on the electric current and, in a moment, sizzling cockroaches fell in scores to the ground. No patent was taken out on this invention, and therefore it is free to all similarly afflicted to try the experiment for the destruction of these pests.
Edison is an omnivorous reader, but his reading is to a great extent technical. His relaxation in this direction is found in novels, not in poetry. Curiously enough, he does not like either Dickens or Thackeray, preferring Charles Reade, Wilkie Collins, and Black. He is peculiarly fond of "Les MisÚrables," which is probably his favourite novel. Poetry of the ordinary sort he describes as "mere jingle," which seems to him "like boys' play." His method of reading is likely to seem peculiar to ordinary mortals, for he never reads words. As he says himself, he looks at "five lines at a time, and gets a mental picture of the author's meaning."
An exception must be made to Edison's seemingly wholesale condemnation of poetry, so far as his individual taste is concerned, for Tennyson and Longfellow have unquestionably won his admiration, since he acknowledges to liking "Enoch Arden" and "Evangeline," which two he describes as his favourite poems, and it need hardly be said that to a man of such catholic tastes the catholicity of Shakespeare makes a special appeal.
Music has a decided influence on him, and he is passionately fond of it. In proof of this it may be stated that at one time there was an organ in the laboratory at Menlo Park. Edison hired a German musician to play it, and he and his men used frequently to work all through the night to music, for he has found that he not only works better, but actually feels better, when he is under the influence of "sweet sounds." He has a similar admiration for all flowers, especially roses. One of his peculiarities is that he does not like pen and ink, and whenever he has to write, and can possibly do so, he always makes use of a pencil.
It was Lord Beaconsfield who said that when he found he was working with his brains he was quite unable to take physical exercise, as it unfitted him for his mental occupation, the latter being sufficient to keep him in perfectly good health. In theory, at all events, Edison thinks the same, for, as he says himself, he never takes any exercise. As, however, he acknowledges to walking twenty miles a day in the laboratory, it is hardly wonderful that he can do perfectly well without that exercise which ordinary mortals need to keep them physically fit.
For years he has been a stock subject for American newspaper articles, and he and his inventions have probably been more written about than all other modern inventors, or their work, together. He recognises this, for, as he laughingly observes: "Whenever news is slack in New York, the editors of the papers always send a reporter to see me, with instructions to see if they can dig up something out of me. Some of the things that have been said are curious, and if the English people who read these things think they are all true, they must have a funny idea of me."