Thomas Edison: In the Driftway

Thomas Edison: In the Driftway

The Drifter remembers the great inventor.


In the course of his long wanderings the Drifter not unnaturally ran across Thomas A. Edison on more than one occasion. The last time he called upon him he found him so deaf that communication had to be by means of a pad and pencil, but the kindliness of the man was in evidence then as always. Down to his last day there was something childlike and charming about him. He had. too, the inventor’s belief in the complete success of each and every invention. Thus, a few years ago, he offered to a friend of the Drifter’s a ground-floor participation in the completed storage battery. Mr. Edison was certain that he had sounded the death-knell of the gasoline automobile, and no one could have shaken his faith in that idea. The Drifter’s own most precious recollection of Mr. Edison is his taking Von Helmholtz, the great German physicist, out to West Orange to introduce him to the Wizard, and act as interpreter. Nothing could have been more striking than the difference hetwen these two men–one the finished product of the universities and laboratories of the Continent, the discoverer who accomplished all that he achieved by scientific means from a completely scientific background; the other a selfmade American inventor with so little schooling to his credit that in Europe men would have believed him absolutely unfitted either to invent anything of importance or, indeed, to deal with science. They met as equals; their mutual respect was obvious and moving; they were on warm terms of friendship at once. The Drifter remembers how both of these great men looked at the latest funnel for the phonograph, which at that time still depended upon this form of amplifier. “We know nothing whatever about this,” said Edison, “why it is that like the megaphone it increases the volume of the sound.” The great German agreed with a nod.

Several stories of Mr. Edison’s earlier life have stuck in the Drifter’s memory. He remembers how Mr. Edison proposed to his first wife. He had been courting her in the parlor of a mid-Victorian boarding-house and there seemed to be no other place where they could meet. Again and again Edison came only to find the parlor full of the other boarders. Finally in despair he drew a quarter from his pocket and ticked off in Morse code the sentiments which his ardor would no longer let him withhold. The first Mrs. Edison, so the story runs, was also a telegrapher. She reached forward, took the quarter from Mr. Edison’s hand, and ticked the desired answer upon the marble-topped table between them. It was not so long after that a friend, entering Edison’s attic room one morning, found him strangely well got up, but wandering up and down his room in more than the usual blue study. He asked Edison what it was all about. Edison replied that he was trying to remember. Some minutes later he burst out with; “Oh, yes, I know now, I’m going to be married today.”

There are several versions of the next story. The Drifter likes this one best, and gives it in the words of a friend to whom Mr. Edison told it. Edison sold his first invention for $25,000. Being given an order upon the cashier of the Western Union Telegraph Company for that amount, he astounded that worthy official by asking for it in five- and ten-dollar bills. It took every pocket that he had to dispose of the bundles, and still they came. So he tightened his belt and put the surplus inside his shirt. The next morning when the cashier arrived at his post he found Edison sitting at the door. “What can I do for you, Mr. Edison ?” “Take this money away from me. I put it under the mattress last night, but I could not sleep a wink. What shall I do with it?” The cashier took pity, Edison’s first bank account was forthwith established, and he was initiated into the mysteries of a check book–he who until then had never seen more than fifty dollars at a time. Doubtless it was hard for him to draw the first check. In later years he drew many, many checks of far larger amounts, for he was wont to squander millions and millions on inventions that failed, like his device for extracting ore, and his Portland cement works, always in the abiding faith that he was just on the point of a discovery to electrify the world. The Drifter feels that a great colleague was lost in in Edison’s absorption in his inventing. Otherwise he was a man to have reveled in drifting.


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