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June 2012

19th Century Telecom Pioneer, Thomas Edison: How He Succeeded as Told by Himself

19th Century Telecom Pioneer, Thomas Edison: How He Succeeded as Told by Himself

Queens, presidents, movie actors, and football stars.  These are the celebrities of our time.  They receive daily devotion from our TV, newspaper, and internet media.

Yet the most influential and newsworthy agents of our civilization are neither governments, sports teams,  nor Hollywood moguls, but corporations — large, small, even Mom and Pop firms.  Corporations -- whose very name implies “cooperations” among people, processes, capital, and technology -- are the principle drivers of our common wealth and also where most of us dedicate our lives five or six days a week.

Not only does popular media largely ignore the achievements of business, they often demonize captains of industry, painting them as robber barons or worse.  The one exception is the late Steve Jobs who the media made into a folk hero, probably because he brought us cool gadgets as opposed to mundane things like food, gasoline, or the telecom service that enabled Jobs' gadgets.

How They Succeeded

Strange as it may seem, there once was a time when the media actually lionized industrialists, inventors, and entrepreneurs.  Evidence of that can be seen in abundance in a remarkable book entitled “How They Succeeded”, published in 1901.

Inside the book are interviews with giants from America’s so-called Gilded Age: Alexander Graham Bell, John D.  Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, and Andrew Carnegie to name the most famous.  And while capitalist success is heralded in the book, the book is about success in many fields, so there are interviews with famous poets, dancers, composers, and journalists too.

I first thought to reproduce Alexander Bell’s chapter here, but I found more interesting the interview with Thomas Edison, who also made massive contributions to telecom including telephone and multiplexing technology inventions.

So here it is, a sparingly edited interview with the Steve Jobs of the late 19th century.  Edison’s remarks reaffirm the principles that deliver success in any century or in any human pursuit: drive, dedication, focus, and an ability to turn good luck into victory.

Chapter XIV.  A Talk with Edison

Orison Swett Marden: To discover the opinion of Thomas A.  Edison on “success in life” is an easy matter if one can first discover Mr.  Edison.  I camped three weeks in the vicinity of Orange, New Jersey, waiting the chance to meet the great inventor.

It seemed a hopeless quest until I actually met him.  I later learned that he is actually one of the most accessible people and only reluctantly allows himself to be hemmed in by the demands of his work.

“Mr.  Edison is always glad to see any visitor,” said a business colleague, “except when he’s hot on the trail of something he has been working on, and then it is almost impossible to see him.”

He certainly was not hot on the trail of anything on the morning when, for the tenth time, I rang at the gate in the fence which surrounds the laboratory.  A young man appeared who conducted me up the walk to the Edison laboratory office.

The Library

The library at the laboratory is one of the most costly and well-equipped scientific libraries in the world.  The collection of writings on patent laws and patents, for instance, is exhaustive.  At a glance it shows the breadth of thought of this man who grew up with hardly any school education.

On the second floor, in one of the offices of the machine-shop, I was asked to wait, while a grimy youth took my business card, which he said he would “slip under the door of Mr.  Edison’s office.”

I waited a while until a working man, who had entered softly, came up beside me.  He looked with a sort of “Well, what is it?” in his eyes, and quickly it began to come to me that the man in the sooty, oil-stained clothes was Edison himself.  The working garb seemed rather incongruous, but there was no mistaking the broad forehead, with its shock of blackish hair streaked with gray.  The gray eyes, too, were revelations in the way of alert comprehensiveness.

Oh! was all I could get out at the time.  And smiling in a youthful and genial way, he said:

Thomas Edison: Want to see me?

Why, yes, certainly, to be sure, I stammered.

He looked at me blankly. “You’ll have to talk louder,” said an assistant who worked in another portion of the room. “He doesn‘t hear too well.”

This fact was new to me, but I raised my voice accordingly.  After the usual get-acquainted remarks, when he acknowledged he was fifty-two years old and that he was born in Erie County, Ohio of Dutch parents and the ancestors had emigrated to America in 1730, the particulars became more interesting.

His great-grandfather, I learned, was a banker of high standing in New York; and, when Thomas was only seven, the family fortune suffered reverses so serious that he was forced to become a wage-earner at an unusually early age and the family had to move from his birthplace to Michigan.

Did you enjoy mathematics as a boy?

Not much.  I tried to read Newton’s Principia at the age of eleven.  That disgusted me with pure mathematics.  I should not have been allowed to take up such serious work.

You were anxious to learn?

Yes, indeed.  I attempted to read through the entire Free Library in Detroit, but other things interfered before I could accomplish that.

A Chemical Newsboy

Were you a book-worm and dreamer?

Not at all.  I became a newspaper sales boy, and liked the work.  I made my first coup as a newsboy in 1869.

What was it?

On a “futures” contract I bought a thousand copies of the Detroit Free Press containing important war news, and gaining a little time on my rivals, I sold the entire batch like hot cakes.  The price reached twenty-five cents a paper before the end of the route.

He laughed and continued:

I ran the Grand Trunk Herald, too, at that time a little paper I issued from the train.

When did you begin to be interested in inventions?

Well, I began to dabble in chemistry at that time.  I secretly set up a small laboratory on the train.

Mr.  Edison subsequently admitted that, one time while doing experiments in his make-shift lab, a bottle of sulfuric acid got broken.  That got the attention of the train conductor who was especially sensitive to harsh odors.  When the conductor discovered what happened, he booted Edison and his equipment from the train.  This incident would have been only amusing but it also explains his deafness.  The irate conductor had boxed Edison on the ear causing his lifelong deafness.


What was your first work in a practical line?

A telegraph line between my home and another boy’s.  I made it with the help of an old river cable, some stove-pipe wire, and glass-bottle insulators.  I had my laboratory in the cellar and studied telegraphy outside.

What was the first really important thing you did?

I saved a boy’s life.


The boy was playing on the track near the depot.  I saw he was in danger and caught him, getting out of the way just in time.  His father was station-master, and taught me telegraphy in return.

Dramatic situations appear at every turn in Edison’s life.  He was continually arriving on the scene at critical moments, and always with the good sense to take things into his own hands.  Learning telegraphy gave him a chance to show how apt a pupil he was, so the railroad company soon gave him regular employment.  At seventeen, he had become one of the most expert telegraph operators on the road.

Did you make much use of your inventive talent at this time?

Yes, I invented an automatic attachment for my telegraph instrument which would send in the signal to show I was awake at my post, when I was comfortably snoring in a corner.  I didn‘t do much of that, however, because I was sent to Canada in disgrace after some boyish trick.

Were you in Canada long?

Only one winter.  At one point, a storm cut off all contact between the Canadian town I was in and an American town, Sarnier, across the river.  We were completely cut off from telegraphy or any other means of communication till I got hold of a locomotive whistle and tooted a Morse Code message that way.  I had to do it again and again, but eventually they understood over the water and answered back in the same way.

According to his own and various recorded accounts, Edison was successively in charge of important telegraph wires in Memphis, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Louisville.  He lived in the free-and-easy atmosphere of a few free-lance operators, yet refused to join them during their regular carousing.  So highly esteemed was he for his honesty, that, when the others were off on a spending spree, his colleagues would make him the custodian of the funds they felt obliged to save.

His Use of Money

Were you good at saving your own money?

No.  I never was much for saving money.  I devoted every cent, regardless of future needs, to scientific books and materials for experiments.

You believe that is an excellent way to succeed?

Well, it helped me greatly to future success.


What was your next invention?

It was an automatic telegraph recorder, a machine that enabled me to record dispatches at my leisure and send them off as fast as needed.

How did you come to invent that?

Well, I had perfected a style of handwriting which would allow me to legibly record from the wire between 47 and 54 words a minute.  But I was only a moderately rapid sender, so I had to create a device to improve that side.

How did you manage to attract public attention to your ability?

I didn‘t manage that.  Some things I did created attention.  A device that I invented in 1868, which utilized one submarine cable for two circuits, caused considerable talk, and the Franklin telegraph office of Boston gave me a position.

When he first came to the East coast, Edison had no ready money and arrived rather unkempt.  His colleagues, the other telegraphy operators, decided to play a joke on this country “hayseed” and have someone send him a Morse code message faster than he could record it.  So Edison was assigned to a wire manipulated by a New York operator famous for his speed.  Despite the fact that the New Yorker was in on the joke and was doing his most speedy telegraphy, Edison wrote out the long message accurately, and, when he realized he was being duped, was soon firing taunts over the wire at the sender’s slowness.

Had you patented many things up to the time of your coming East?

Nothing, I received my first patent in 1869.

For what?

A machine for recording votes, and designed to be used in the State Legislature.

I didn‘t know such machines were in use.

They aren‘t in use actually.  The better it worked, the more impossible it became, you see it interrupted the normal flow of the legislative session because the minority party couldn’t filibuster bills as effectively, so they didn‘t use it.


Yes, it was an ingenious thing.  The votes were clearly shown on a roll of paper by a small machine attached to the desk of each member.  They told me they would never use the innovation, so the experience taught me something.

And that was?

To be sure of the practical need of, and demand for, a machine, before expending time and energy on it.

Is that one of your maxims of success?

It is.  It is a good rule to give people something they want and will pay money to get.

His Arrival at the Metropolis

In this same year, Edison moved from Boston to New York.  At the time he was friendless and in debt due to the expense of his experiments.  For several weeks he wandered around New York with hunger staring him in the face.  But with that strange quality of Good Fortune which seemed to accompany him, he entered a financial company on Wall Street whose operation had shut down because of a machine problem that could not be traced.

The owners of the firm were very anxious, but when the shabbily dressed stranger appeared, he put his finger on the problem at once, and was thus given a lucrative job.  In the rush of the metropolis, a man finds his true level without delay especially when his talents are of so practical and brilliant a nature as were this young telegrapher’s.  It would be absurd to imagine an Edison hidden in New York.  Within a short time, he was presented with a check for $40,000, as his share of a single invention, an improved stock market printer.  It was at this time that his future national fame was assured.  He was also now designing duplex and quadruplex methods for sending two and four telegraphic messages at the same time over a single wire.  This would inaugurate a new era in telegraphy.

Mental Concentration

Recalling his work at the Wall Street firm, I inquired:

Do you believe want urges a man to greater efforts, and so to greater success?

It certainly makes him keep a sharp lookout.  I think it does push a man along.

Do you believe that invention is a gift, or an acquired ability?

I think it’s born in a man.

And don‘t you believe that familiarity with certain mechanical conditions and defects naturally suggests improvements to any one?

No.  Some people may be perfectly familiar with a machine all their days, knowing it inefficient, and never see a way to improve it.

What do you think is the first requisite for success in your field, or any other?

The ability to apply your physical and mental energies to one problem incessantly without growing weary.

Twenty Hours a Day

Do you have regular hours, Mr.  Edison?

Oh, I do not work hard now.  I come to the laboratory about eight o‘clock every day and go home to tea at six, and then I study or work on some problem until eleven, which is my hour for bed.

Fourteen or fifteen hours a day can scarcely be called loafing

Well, for fifteen years I have worked an average of twenty hours a day.

When he was forty-seven years old, he estimated his true age to be eighty-two, since working only eight hours a day would have taken till that time.

Mr.  Edison has sometimes worked sixty consecutive hours upon one problem.  Then after a long sleep, he was perfectly refreshed and ready for another.

A Run for Breakfast

Mr.  Dickson, a neighbor, gives an anecdote told by Edison which well illustrates his phenomenal endurance.  In describing his days in Boston, Edison said he bought Faraday’s works on electricity, and started reading them at three o‘clock in the morning and continued until his roommate arose, when they started on their long walk to get breakfast.  Going to breakfast was entirely subordinated in Edison’s mind to Faraday, and he suddenly remarked to his friend: “Adams, I have got so much to do, and life is so short, that I have got to hustle.”  And with that, he started running — actually sprinting -- for his breakfast.

“I’ve known Edison since he was a boy of fourteen,” said another friend; “and of my own knowledge I can say he never spent an idle day in his life.  Often, when he should have been asleep, he would sit up half the night reading.  He did not take to reading novels or wild Western adventures, but read works on mechanics, chemistry, and electricity; and he mastered them too.  In addition to his reading, which he could only indulge in at odd hours, he carefully cultivated his wonderful powers of observation, so it can be said that, when he was not actually asleep, he was learning all the time.”

Not by Accident and Not for Fun

Are your discoveries often brilliant intuitions?  Do they come to you while you are lying awake nights?

No, when I have fully decided that a result is worth getting, I go about it, and make trial after trial, until it comes.  I never did anything worth doing by accident, nor did any of my inventions come indirectly through accident — except  the phonograph.

The inspiration for the phonograph came as I was singing into the mouthpiece of a telephone.  The vibrations of my voice caused a fine steel point to pierce one of my fingers held just behind it.  That set me to thinking.  If I could record the motions of the point and send it over the same surface afterward, I saw no reason why the thing would not talk.  I determined to make a machine that would work accurately, and gave my assistants the necessary instructions, telling them what I had discovered.  That’s the whole story.  The phonograph is the result of the pricking of a finger.

I have always kept strictly within the lines of commercially useful inventions.  I have never devoted any time to electrical wonders, valuable only as novelties to amuse the public.

“I Like It, I Hate It”

What makes you work?  What impels you to this constant, tireless struggle?  You care comparatively nothing for the money it makes you, and you have no particular enthusiasm for fame either.  What is it?  And a moment of puzzled expression, he answered:

I like it.  I don‘t know any other reason.  Anything I have begun is always on my mind, and I am uneasy until it is finished; and then I hate it.

Hate it?

Yes, when it is all done and is a success, I can‘t bear the sight of it.  I haven’t used a telephone in ten years, and I would go out of my way any day to miss an incandescent light.

Doing One Thing Eighteen Hours is the Secret

You lay down rather severe rules for one who wishes to succeed in life,“ I ventured, ”working eighteen hours a day.

Not at all.  You do something all day long, don‘t you?  If you get up at seven o’clock and go to bed at eleven, you have put in sixteen good hours, and everyone is doing something all the time -- walking, reading, writing, or thinking.  The only trouble is that they are doing a great many things and I do only one thing.  If they took their time and applied it in one direction, to one object, success is sure to follow.

One might think that the money value of an invention is the reward to the man who loves his work.  But, speaking for myself, I can honestly say that’s not so.  Life was never more full of joy to me, than when, a poor boy, I began to think out improvements in telegraphy, and to experiment with the cheapest and crudest appliances.

But now that I have all the appliances I need, and am my own master, I continue to find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success — the application.  The trouble is that people do not have one object to fix their attention and let everything else go.  Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.

Possibilities in the Electrical Field

You believe, of course, that much remains to be discovered in the realm of electricity?

It is the field of fields.  We can‘t talk of that, but it holds the secrets which will reorganize the life of the world.

You have discovered much about it.

Yes, and yet very little in comparison with the possibilities that appear.

Only Six Hundred Inventions

How many inventions have you patented?

Only six hundred, but I have made application for some three hundred more.

And do you expect to retire soon, after all this?

I hope not.  I hope I will be able to work right on to the close.  I shouldn‘t care to loaf.

His Courtship and His Home

The idea of the great electrician’s marrying was first suggested by an intimate friend, who told him that his large house and numerous servants ought to have a mistress.  Although a very shy man, he seemed pleased with the idea and timidly inquired whom he should marry.  The friend, annoyed at his apparent lack of emotion, somewhat testily replied, “Anyone.”  But Edison was not without feeling when the time came.

One day, as he stood behind the chair of a Miss Stillwell, a telegraph operator in his employ, he was not a little surprised when she suddenly turned round and said:

“Mr.  Edison, I can always tell when you are behind me or near me.”

It was now Miss Stillwell’s turn to be surprised, for, with characteristic bluntness and ardor, Edison stood in front of the young lady, and, looking her full in the face, said:

I’ve been thinking considerably about you of late, and, if you are willing to marry me, I would like to marry you.

The young lady said she would consider the matter, and talk it over with her mother.  A month later they were married and the union proved to be a very happy one.

It was in fact no more an accident than other experiments in the Edison laboratory  Having long been the subject of Edison’s observation, his bride’s mental capacity, temperament, and aptitude for home-making were duly tested and noted.

Copyright 2012 Black Swan Telecom Journal

Orison Swett Marden

Orison Swett Marden

Orison Swett Marden (1850 — 1924) was an American writer associated with the New Thought Movement.  He also held a degree in medicine, and was a successful hotel owner.

Marden’s first book, Pushing to the Front, was published in 1894.  He followed this with several more volumes on the subjects of success, the cultivation of will-power, and positive thinking.  He founded Success Magazine in 1897 and many of his interviews in Success magazine were compiled into the book, How They Succeeded.

Marden believed that our thoughts influence our lives and our life circumstances.  He said, “The golden opportunity you are seeking is in yourself.  It is not in your environment; it is not in luck or chance, or the help of others; it is in yourself alone.”

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

Thomas Alva Edison (1847 — 1931) was an American inventor and businessman.  He developed many devices that greatly influenced life around the world, including the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and a long-lasting, practical electric light bulb.

He was one of the first inventors to apply the principles of mass production and large-scale teamwork to the process of invention, and because of that, he is often credited with the creation of the first industrial research laboratory.  He is credited with numerous telecommunications inventions.

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