Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, February 11, 1847. In 1854 the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, where seven-year-old Tom Edison set up his first chemical laboratory in the cellar of their large house.
Edison’s career as a telegraph operator began when he snatched a station agent’s young son from the path of a moving freight car. Out of gratitude the father taught
Edison the new science of telegraphy. By the time he was seventeen, Edison was “on the road” as a telegraph operator. He drifted from Stratford, Canada to Adrian, Michigan; Fort Wayne; Indianapolis; and Boston.
When he was 21 years old Edison went to New York, almost penniless. By fixing a broken down machine in the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company, he landed a $300-a-month job as superintendent of the company.
While Tom worked 12 hours a day six days a week for Western Union, he continued his practice of “moonlighting” on several of his own projects. Within six months, he had applied for and received his first patent. The invention was a beautifully designed and highly efficient electric vote-recording machine. When he tried to sell it, however, members of the Massachusetts Legislature thoroughly denigrated it, claiming “its speed in tallying votes would disrupt the status-quo.”
The problem was that – during times of stress-political bodies of that period often relied upon the brief delays that were provided by the process of manually counting votes to influence and change the opinions of their colleagues. “This is exactly what we do not want” a seasoned politician told him, adding that “Your invention would destroy the only hope the minority would have of influencing legislation….It would deliver them over bound hand and foot to the majority.” Although Tom was greatly disappointed, he grasped the implication. Even though his invention allowed each voter to instantly cast his vote from his seat – exactly as it was supposed to do – the idea was so far ahead of its time it was devoid of “immediate sales appeal.”
Because of his desperate need for money, Tom now made a fundamental adjustment in his, heretofore, relatively naive outlook on the world of business…. From now on, he vowed, he would never waste time inventing things that people were not likely to want to buy. It is important to note, here, that it was during Tom’s 17 month stint in Boston that he was first exposed to lectures at Boston Tech (now M.I.T.) and the ideas of several associates on the state-of-the-art of “multiplexing” telegraph signals. This theory involved the transmission of multiple impulses at different frequencies over telegraph wires, producing horn-like simulations of the human voice and, ultimately, crude images (the first internet?) via an instrument called the harmonic telegraph. This fascinating new area of electrical science – in which both he Alexander Graham Bell became obsessed – eventually led to the invention of the first articulating telephone, the first fax machine,etc.
It should also be noted here that Benjamin Bridden an obscure genius who was the same age as Bell and Edison – and who later provided critically important assistance to Bell in inventing the telephone – now provided extremely valuable input to Edison in heightening his understanding of the state-of-the-art of the multiplex transmitter.
Nevertheless, it was George B. Stearns who – with Bridden’s help – eventually beat everyone to the punch and obtained the first patent for a duplex telegraph line, a device which facilitated the first two way telegraphic communication.