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Edison and His Inventions – the Telephone, Motograph and Microphone


A VERY great invention has its own dramatic history. Episodes full of human interest attend its development. The periods of weary struggle, the daring adventure along unknown paths, the clash of rival claimants, are closely similar to those which mark the revelation and subjugation of a new continent. At the close of the epoch of discovery it is seen that mankind as a whole has made one more great advance; but in the earlier stages one watched chiefly the confused vicissitudes of fortune of the individual pioneers. The great modern art of telephony has had thus in its beginnings, its evolution, and its present status as a universal medium of intercourse, all the elements of surprise, mystery, swift creation of wealth, tragic interludes, and colossal battle that can appeal to the imagination and hold public attention. And in this new electrical industry, in laying its essential foundations, Edison has again been one of the dominant figures.

As far back as 1837, the American, Page, discovered the curious fact that an iron bar, when magnetized and demagnetized at short intervals of time, emitted sounds due to the molecular disturbances in the mass. Philipp Reis, a simple professor in Germany, utilized this principle in the construction of apparatus for the transmission of sound; but in the grasp of the idea he was preceded by Charles Bourseul, a young French soldier in Algeria, who in 1854, under the title of “Electrical Telephony,” in a Parisian illustrated paper, gave a brief and lucid description as follows:

“We know that sounds are made by vibrations, and are made sensible to the ear by the same vibrations, which are reproduced by the intervening medium. But the intensity of the vibrations diminishes very rapidly with the distance; so that even with the aid of speaking-tubes and trumpets it is impossible to exceed somewhat narrow limits. Suppose a man speaks near a movable disk sufficiently flexible to lose none of the vibrations of the voice; that this disk alternately makes and breaks the connection with a battery; you may have at a distance another disk which will simultaneously execute the same vibrations…. Any one who is not deaf and dumb may use this mode of transmission, which would require no apparatus except an electric battery, two vibrating disks, and a wire.”

This would serve admirably for a portrayal of the Bell telephone, except that it mentions distinctly the use of the make-and-break method (i. e., where the circuit is necessarily opened and closed as in telegraphy, although, of course, at an enormously higher rate), which has never proved practical.

So far as is known Bourseul was not practical enough to try his own suggestion, and never made a telephone. About 1860, Reis built several forms of electrical telephonic apparatus, all imitating in some degree the human ear, with its auditory tube, tympanum, etc., and examples of the apparatus were exhibited in public not only in Germany, but in England. There is a variety of testimony to the effect that not only musical sounds, but stray words and phrases, were actually transmitted with mediocre, casual success. It was impossible, however, to maintain the devices in adjustment for more than a few seconds, since the invention depended upon the make-and-break principle, the circuit being made and broken every time an impulse-creating sound went through it, causing the movement of the diaphragm on which the sound-waves impinged. Reis himself does not appear to have been sufficiently interested in the marvellous possibilities of the idea to follow it up—remarking to the man who bought his telephonic instruments and tools that he had shown the world the way. In reality it was not the way, although a monument erected to his memory at Frankfort styles him the inventor of the telephone. As one of the American judges said, in deciding an early litigation over the invention of the telephone, a hundred years of Reis would not have given the world the telephonic art for public use. Many others after Reis tried to devise practical make-and-break telephones, and all failed; although their success would have rendered them very valuable as a means of fighting the Bell patent. But the method was a good starting-point, even if it did not indicate the real path. If Reis had been willing to experiment with his apparatus so that it did not make-and-break, he would probably have been the true father of the telephone, besides giving it the name by which it is known. It was not necessary to slam the gate open and shut. All that was required was to keep the gate closed, and rattle the latch softly. Incidentally it may be noted that Edison in experimenting with the Reis transmitter recognized at once the defect caused by the make-and-break action, and sought to keep the gap closed by the use, first, of one drop of water, and later of several drops. But the water decomposed, and the incurable defect was still there.

The Reis telephone was brought to America by Dr. P. H. Van der Weyde, a well-known physicist in his day, and was exhibited by him before a technical audience at Cooper Union, New York, in 1868, and described shortly after in the technical press. The apparatus attracted attention, and a set was secured by Prof. Joseph Henry for the Smithsonian Institution. There the famous philosopher showed and explained it to Alexander Graham Bell, when that young and persevering Scotch genius went to get help and data as to harmonic telegraphy, upon which he was working, and as to transmitting vocal sounds. Bell took up immediately and energetically the idea that his two predecessors had dropped—and reached the goal. In 1875 Bell, who as a student and teacher of vocal physiology had unusual qualifications for determining feasible methods of speech transmission, constructed his first pair of magneto telephones for such a purpose. In February of 1876 his first telephone patent was applied for, and in March it was issued. The first published account of the modern speaking telephone was a paper read by Bell before the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston in May of that year; while at the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia the public first gained any familiarity with it. It was greeted at once with scientific acclaim and enthusiasm as a distinctly new and great invention, although at first it was regarded more as a scientific toy than as a commercially valuable device.

By an extraordinary coincidence, the very day that Bell’s application for a patent went into the United States Patent Office, a caveat was filed there by Elisha Gray, of Chicago, covering the specific idea of transmitting speech and reproducing it in a telegraphic circuit “through an instrument capable of vibrating responsively to all the tones of the human voice, and by which they are rendered audible.” Out of this incident arose a struggle and a controversy whose echoes are yet heard as to the legal and moral rights of the two inventors, the assertion even being made that one of the most important claims of Gray, that on a liquid battery transmitter, was surreptitiously “lifted” into the Bell application, then covering only the magneto telephone. It was also asserted that the filing of the Gray caveat antedated by a few hours the filing of the Bell application. All such issues when brought to the American courts were brushed aside, the Bell patent being broadly maintained in all its remarkable breadth and fullness, embracing an entire art; but Gray was embittered and chagrined, and to the last expressed his belief that the honor and glory should have been his. The path of Gray to the telephone was a natural one. A Quaker carpenter who studied five years at Oberlin College, he took up electrical invention, and brought out many ingenious devices in rapid succession in the telegraphic field, including the now universal needle annunciator for hotels, etc., the useful telautograph, automatic self-adjusting relays, private-line printers—leading up to his famous “harmonic” system. This was based upon the principle that a sound produced in the presence of a reed or tuning-fork responding to the sound, and acting as the armature of a magnet in a closed circuit, would, by induction, set up electric impulses in the circuit and cause a distant magnet having a similarly tuned armature to produce the same tone or note. He also found that over the same wire at the same time another series of impulses corresponding to another note could be sent through the agency of a second set of magnets without in any way interfering with the first series of impulses. Building the principle into apparatus, with a keyboard and vibrating “reeds” before his magnets, Doctor Gray was able not only to transmit music by his harmonic telegraph, but went so far as to send nine different telegraph messages at the same instant, each set of instruments depending on its selective note, while any intermediate office could pick up the message for itself by simply tuning its relays to the keynote required. Theoretically the system could be split up into any number of notes and semi-tones. Practically it served as the basis of some real telegraphic work, but is not now in use. Any one can realize, however, that it did not take so acute and ingenious a mind very long to push forward to the telephone, as a dangerous competitor with Bell, who had also, like Edison, been working assiduously in the field of acoustic and multiple telegraphs. Seen in the retrospect, the struggle for the goal at this moment was one of the memorable incidents in electrical history.

Among the interesting papers filed at the Orange Laboratory is a lithograph, the size of an ordinary patent drawing, headed “First Telephone on Record.” The claim thus made goes back to the period when all was war, and when dispute was hot and rife as to the actual invention of the telephone. The device shown, made by Edison in 1875, was actually included in a caveat filed January 14, 1876, a month before Bell or Gray. It shows a little solenoid arrangement, with one end of the plunger attached to the diaphragm of a speaking or resonating chamber. Edison states that while the device is crudely capable of use as a magneto telephone, he did not invent it for transmitting speech, but as an apparatus for analyzing the complex waves arising from various sounds. It was made in pursuance of his investigations into the subject of harmonic telegraphs. He did not try the effect of sound-waves produced by the human voice until Bell came forward a few months later; but he found then that this device, made in 1875, was capable of use as a telephone. In his testimony and public utterances Edison has always given Bell credit for the discovery of the transmission of articulate speech by talking against a diaphragm placed in front of an electromagnet; but it is only proper here to note, in passing, the curious fact that he had actually produced a device that COULD talk, prior to 1876, and was therefore very close to Bell, who took the one great step further. A strong characterization of the value and importance of the work done by Edison in the development of the carbon transmitter will be found in the decision of Judge Brown in the United States Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting in Boston, on February 27, 1901, declaring void the famous Berliner patent of the Bell telephone system.

Bell’s patent of 1876 was of an all-embracing character, which only the make-and-break principle, if practical, could have escaped. It was pointed out in the patent that Bell discovered the great principle that electrical undulations induced by the vibrations of a current produced by sound-waves can be represented graphically by the same sinusoidal curve that expresses the original sound vibrations themselves; or, in other words, that a curve representing sound vibrations will correspond precisely to a curve representing electric impulses produced or generated by those identical sound vibrations—as, for example, when the latter impinge upon a diaphragm acting as an armature of an electromagnet, and which by movement to and fro sets up the electric impulses by induction. To speak plainly, the electric impulses correspond in form and character to the sound vibration which they represent. This reduced to a patent “claim” governed the art as firmly as a papal bull for centuries enabled Spain to hold the Western world. The language of the claim is: “The method of and apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically as herein described, by causing electrical undulations similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sounds substantially as set forth.” It was a long time, however, before the inclusive nature of this grant over every possible telephone was understood or recognized, and litigation for and against the patent lasted during its entire life. At the outset, the commercial value of the telephone was little appreciated by the public, and Bell had the greatest difficulty in securing capital; but among far-sighted inventors there was an immediate “rush to the gold fields.” Bell’s first apparatus was poor, the results being described by himself as “unsatisfactory and discouraging,” which was almost as true of the devices he exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial. The new-comers, like Edison, Berliner, Blake, Hughes, Gray, Dolbear, and others, brought a wealth of ideas, a fund of mechanical ingenuity, and an inventive ability which soon made the telephone one of the most notable gains of the century, and one of the most valuable additions to human resources. The work that Edison did was, as usual, marked by infinite variety of method as well as by the power to seize on the one needed element of practical success. Every one of the six million telephones in use in the United States, and of the other millions in use through out the world, bears the imprint of his genius, as at one time the instruments bore his stamped name. For years his name was branded on every Bell telephone set, and his patents were a mainstay of what has been popularly called the “Bell monopoly.” Speaking of his own efforts in this field, Mr. Edison says:

“In 1876 I started again to experiment for the Western Union and Mr. Orton. This time it was the telephone. Bell invented the first telephone, which consisted of the present receiver, used both as a transmitter and a receiver (the magneto type). It was attempted to introduce it commercially, but it failed on account of its faintness and the extraneous sounds which came in on its wires from various causes. Mr. Orton wanted me to take hold of it and make it commercial. As I had also been working on a telegraph system employing tuning-forks, simultaneously with both Bell and Gray, I was pretty familiar with the subject. I started in, and soon produced the carbon transmitter, which is now universally used.

“Tests were made between New York and Philadelphia, also between New York and Washington, using regular Western Union wires. The noises were so great that not a word could be heard with the Bell receiver when used as a transmitter between New York and Newark, New Jersey. Mr. Orton and W. K. Vanderbilt and the board of directors witnessed and took part in the tests. The Western Union then put them on private lines. Mr. Theodore Puskas, of Budapest, Hungary, was the first man to suggest a telephone exchange, and soon after exchanges were established. The telephone department was put in the hands of Hamilton McK. Twombly, Vanderbilt’s ablest son-in-law, who made a success of it. The Bell company, of Boston, also started an exchange, and the fight was on, the Western Union pirating the Bell receiver, and the Boston company pirating the Western Union transmitter. About this time I wanted to be taken care of. I threw out hints of this desire. Then Mr. Orton sent for me. He had learned that inventors didn’t do business by the regular process, and concluded he would close it right up. He asked me how much I wanted. I had made up my mind it was certainly worth $25,000, if it ever amounted to anything for central-station work, so that was the sum I had in mind to stick to and get—obstinately. Still it had been an easy job, and only required a few months, and I felt a little shaky and uncertain. So I asked him to make me an offer. He promptly said he would give me $100,000. ‘All right,’ I said. ‘It is yours on one condition, and that is that you do not pay it all at once, but pay me at the rate of $6000 per year for seventeen years’—the life of the patent. He seemed only too pleased to do this, and it was closed. My ambition was about four times too large for my business capacity, and I knew that I would soon spend this money experimenting if I got it all at once, so I fixed it that I couldn’t. I saved seventeen years of worry by this stroke.”

Thus modestly is told the debut of Edison in the telephone art, to which with his carbon transmitter he gave the valuable principle of varying the resistance of the transmitting circuit with changes in the pressure, as well as the vital practice of using the induction coil as a means of increasing the effective length of the talking circuit. Without these, modern telephony would not and could not exist. [6] But Edison, in telephonic work, as in other directions, was remarkably fertile and prolific. His first inventions in the art, made in 1875-76, continue through many later years, including all kinds of carbon instruments —the water telephone, electrostatic telephone, condenser telephone, chemical telephone, various magneto telephones, inertia telephone, mercury telephone, voltaic pile telephone, musical transmitter, and the electromotograph. All were actually made and tested.

The principle of the electromotograph was utilized by Edison in more ways than one, first of all in telegraphy at this juncture. The well-known Page patent, which had lingered in the Patent Office for years, had just been issued, and was considered a formidable weapon. It related to the use of a retractile spring to withdraw the armature lever from the magnet of a telegraph or other relay or sounder, and thus controlled the art of telegraphy, except in simple circuits. “There was no known way,” remarks Edison, “whereby this patent could be evaded, and its possessor would eventually control the use of what is known as the relay and sounder, and this was vital to telegraphy. Gould was pounding the Western Union on the Stock Exchange, disturbing its railroad contracts, and, being advised by his lawyers that this patent was of great value, bought it. The moment Mr. Orton heard this he sent for me and explained the situation, and wanted me to go to work immediately and see if I couldn’t evade it or discover some other means that could be used in case Gould sustained the patent. It seemed a pretty hard job, because there was no known means of moving a lever at the other end of a telegraph wire except by the use of a magnet. I said I would go at it that night. In experimenting some years previously, I had discovered a very peculiar phenomenon, and that was that if a piece of metal connected to a battery was rubbed over a moistened piece of chalk resting on a metal connected to the other pole, when the current passed the friction was greatly diminished. When the current was reversed the friction was greatly increased over what it was when no current was passing. Remembering this, I substituted a piece of chalk rotated by a small electric motor for the magnet, and connecting a sounder to a metallic finger resting on the chalk, the combination claim of Page was made worthless. A hitherto unknown means was introduced in the electric art. Two or three of the devices were made and tested by the company’s expert. Mr. Orton, after he had me sign the patent application and got it in the Patent Office, wanted to settle for it at once. He asked my price. Again I said: ‘Make me an offer.’ Again he named $100,000. I accepted, providing he would pay it at the rate of $6000 a year for seventeen years. This was done, and thus, with the telephone money, I received $12,000 yearly for that period from the Western Union Telegraph Company.”

A year or two later the motograph cropped up again in Edison’s work in a curious manner. The telephone was being developed in England, and Edison had made arrangements with Colonel Gouraud, his old associate in the automatic telegraph, to represent his interests. A company was formed, a large number of instruments were made and sent to Gouraud in London, and prospects were bright. Then there came a threat of litigation from the owners of the Bell patent, and Gouraud found he could not push the enterprise unless he could avoid using what was asserted to be an infringement of the Bell receiver. He cabled for help to Edison, who sent back word telling him to hold the fort. “I had recourse again,” says Edison, “to the phenomenon discovered by me years previous, that the friction of a rubbing electrode passing over a moist chalk surface was varied by electricity. I devised a telephone receiver which was afterward known as the ‘loud-speaking telephone,’ or ‘chalk receiver.’ There was no magnet, simply a diaphragm and a cylinder of compressed chalk about the size of a thimble. A thin spring connected to the centre of the diaphragm extended outwardly and rested on the chalk cylinder, and was pressed against it with a pressure equal to that which would be due to a weight of about six pounds. The chalk was rotated by hand. The volume of sound was very great. A person talking into the carbon transmitter in New York had his voice so amplified that he could be heard one thousand feet away in an open field at Menlo Park. This great excess of power was due to the fact that the latter came from the person turning the handle. The voice, instead of furnishing all the power as with the present receiver, merely controlled the power, just as an engineer working a valve would control a powerful engine.

“I made six of these receivers and sent them in charge of an expert on the first steamer. They were welcomed and tested, and shortly afterward I shipped a hundred more. At the same time I was ordered to send twenty young men, after teaching them to become expert. I set up an exchange, around the laboratory, of ten instruments. I would then go out and get each one out of order in every conceivable way, cutting the wires of one, short-circuiting another, destroying the adjustment of a third, putting dirt between the electrodes of a fourth, and so on. A man would be sent to each to find out the trouble. When he could find the trouble ten consecutive times, using five minutes each, he was sent to London. About sixty men were sifted to get twenty. Before all had arrived, the Bell company there, seeing we could not be stopped, entered into negotiations for consolidation. One day I received a cable from Gouraud offering ‘30,000’ for my interest. I cabled back I would accept. When the draft came I was astonished to find it was for L30,000. I had thought it was dollars.”

In regard to this singular and happy conclusion, Edison makes some interesting comments as to the attitude of the courts toward inventors, and the difference between American and English courts. “The men I sent over were used to establish telephone exchanges all over the Continent, and some of them became wealthy. It was among this crowd in London that Bernard Shaw was employed before he became famous. The chalk telephone was finally discarded in favor of the Bell receiver—the latter being more simple and cheaper. Extensive litigation with new-comers followed. My carbon-transmitter patent was sustained, and preserved the monopoly of the telephone in England for many years. Bell’s patent was not sustained by the courts. Sir Richard Webster, now Chief-Justice of England, was my counsel, and sustained all of my patents in England for many years. Webster has a marvellous capacity for understanding things scientific; and his address before the courts was lucidity itself. His brain is highly organized. My experience with the legal fraternity is that scientific subjects are distasteful to them, and it is rare in this country, on account of the system of trying patent suits, for a judge really to reach the meat of the controversy, and inventors scarcely ever get a decision squarely and entirely in their favor. The fault rests, in my judgment, almost wholly with the system under which testimony to the extent of thousands of pages bearing on all conceivable subjects, many of them having no possible connection with the invention in dispute, is presented to an over-worked judge in an hour or two of argument supported by several hundred pages of briefs; and the judge is supposed to extract some essence of justice from this mass of conflicting, blind, and misleading statements. It is a human impossibility, no matter how able and fair-minded the judge may be. In England the case is different. There the judges are face to face with the experts and other witnesses. They get the testimony first-hand and only so much as they need, and there are no long-winded briefs and arguments, and the case is decided then and there, a few months perhaps after suit is brought, instead of many years afterward, as in this country. And in England, when a case is once finally decided it is settled for the whole country, while here it is not so. Here a patent having once been sustained, say, in Boston, may have to be litigated all over again in New York, and again in Philadelphia, and so on for all the Federal circuits. Furthermore, it seems to me that scientific disputes should be decided by some court containing at least one or two scientific men—men capable of comprehending the significance of an invention and the difficulties of its accomplishment—if justice is ever to be given to an inventor. And I think, also, that this court should have the power to summon before it and examine any recognized expert in the special art, who might be able to testify to FACTS for or against the patent, instead of trying to gather the truth from the tedious essays of hired experts, whose depositions are really nothing but sworn arguments. The real gist of patent suits is generally very simple, and I have no doubt that any judge of fair intelligence, assisted by one or more scientific advisers, could in a couple of days at the most examine all the necessary witnesses; hear all the necessary arguments, and actually decide an ordinary patent suit in a way that would more nearly be just, than can now be done at an expenditure of a hundred times as much money and months and years of preparation. And I have no doubt that the time taken by the court would be enormously less, because if a judge attempts to read the bulky records and briefs, that work alone would require several days.

“Acting as judges, inventors would not be very apt to correctly decide a complicated law point; and on the other hand, it is hard to see how a lawyer can decide a complicated scientific point rightly. Some inventors complain of our Patent Office, but my own experience with the Patent Office is that the examiners are fair-minded and intelligent, and when they refuse a patent they are generally right; but I think the whole trouble lies with the system in vogue in the Federal courts for trying patent suits, and in the fact, which cannot be disputed, that the Federal judges, with but few exceptions, do not comprehend complicated scientific questions. To secure uniformity in the several Federal circuits and correct errors, it has been proposed to establish a central court of patent appeals in Washington. This I believe in; but this court should also contain at least two scientific men, who would not be blind to the sophistry of paid experts. [7] Men whose inventions would have created wealth of millions have been ruined and prevented from making any money whereby they could continue their careers as creators of wealth for the general good, just because the experts befuddled the judge by their misleading statements.”

Mr. Bernard Shaw, the distinguished English author, has given a most vivid and amusing picture of this introduction of Edison’s telephone into England, describing the apparatus as “a much too ingenious invention, being nothing less than a telephone of such stentorian efficiency that it bellowed your most private communications all over the house, instead of whispering them with some sort of discretion.” Shaw, as a young man, was employed by the Edison Telephone Company, and was very much alive to his surroundings, often assisting in public demonstrations of the apparatus “in a manner which I am persuaded laid the foundation of Mr. Edison’s reputation.” The sketch of the men sent over from America is graphic: “Whilst the Edison Telephone Company lasted it crowded the basement of a high pile of offices in Queen Victoria Street with American artificers. These deluded and romantic men gave me a glimpse of the skilled proletariat of the United States. They sang obsolete sentimental songs with genuine emotion; and their language was frightful even to an Irishman. They worked with a ferocious energy which was out of all proportion to the actual result achieved. Indomitably resolved to assert their republican manhood by taking no orders from a tall-hatted Englishman whose stiff politeness covered his conviction that they were relatively to himself inferior and common persons, they insisted on being slave-driven with genuine American oaths by a genuine free and equal American foreman. They utterly despised the artfully slow British workman, who did as little for his wages as he possibly could; never hurried himself; and had a deep reverence for one whose pocket could be tapped by respectful behavior. Need I add that they were contemptuously wondered at by this same British workman as a parcel of outlandish adult boys who sweated themselves for their employer’s benefit instead of looking after their own interest? They adored Mr. Edison as the greatest man of all time in every possible department of science, art, and philosophy, and execrated Mr. Graham Bell, the inventor of the rival telephone, as his Satanic adversary; but each of them had (or intended to have) on the brink of completion an improvement on the telephone, usually a new transmitter. They were free-souled creatures, excellent company, sensitive, cheerful, and profane; liars, braggarts, and hustlers, with an air of making slow old England hum, which never left them even when, as often happened, they were wrestling with difficulties of their own making, or struggling in no-thoroughfares, from which they had to be retrieved like stray sheep by Englishmen without imagination enough to go wrong.”

Mr. Samuel Insull, who afterward became private secretary to Mr. Edison, and a leader in the development of American electrical manufacturing and the central-station art, was also in close touch with the London situation thus depicted, being at the time private secretary to Colonel Gouraud, and acting for the first half hour as the amateur telephone operator in the first experimental exchange erected in Europe. He took notes of an early meeting where the affairs of the company were discussed by leading men like Sir John Lubbock (Lord Avebury) and the Right Hon. E. P. Bouverie (then a cabinet minister), none of whom could see in the telephone much more than an auxiliary for getting out promptly in the next morning’s papers the midnight debates in Parliament. “I remember another incident,” says Mr. Insull. “It was at some celebration of one of the Royal Societies at the Burlington House, Piccadilly. We had a telephone line running across the roofs to the basement of the building. I think it was to Tyndall’s laboratory in Burlington Street. As the ladies and gentlemen came through, they naturally wanted to look at the great curiosity, the loud-speaking telephone: in fact, any telephone was a curiosity then. Mr. and Mrs. Gladstone came through. I was handling the telephone at the Burlington House end. Mrs. Gladstone asked the man over the telephone whether he knew if a man or woman was speaking; and the reply came in quite loud tones that it was a man!”

With Mr. E. H. Johnson, who represented Edison, there went to England for the furtherance of this telephone enterprise, Mr. Charles Edison, a nephew of the inventor. He died in Paris, October, 1879, not twenty years of age. Stimulated by the example of his uncle, this brilliant youth had already made a mark for himself as a student and inventor, and when only eighteen he secured in open competition the contract to install a complete fire-alarm telegraph system for Port Huron. A few months later he was eagerly welcomed by his uncle at Menlo Park, and after working on the telephone was sent to London to aid in its introduction. There he made the acquaintance of Professor Tyndall, exhibited the telephone to the late King of England; and also won the friendship of the late King of the Belgians, with whom he took up the project of establishing telephonic communication between Belgium and England. At the time of his premature death he was engaged in installing the Edison quadruplex between Brussels and Paris, being one of the very few persons then in Europe familiar with the working of that invention.

Meantime, the telephonic art in America was undergoing very rapid development. In March, 1878, addressing “the capitalists of the Electric Telephone Company” on the future of his invention, Bell outlined with prophetic foresight and remarkable clearness the coming of the modern telephone exchange. Comparing with gas and water distribution, he said: “In a similar manner, it is conceivable that cables of telephone wires could be laid underground or suspended overhead communicating by branch wires with private dwellings, country houses, shops, manufactories, etc., uniting them through the main cable with a central office, where the wire could be connected as desired, establishing direct communication between any two places in the city…. Not only so, but I believe, in the future, wires will unite the head offices of telephone companies in different cities; and a man in one part of the country may communicate by word of mouth with another in a distant place.”

All of which has come to pass. Professor Bell also suggested how this could be done by “the employ of a man in each central office for the purpose of connecting the wires as directed.” He also indicated the two methods of telephonic tariff—a fixed rental and a toll; and mentioned the practice, now in use on long-distance lines, of a time charge. As a matter of fact, this “centralizing” was attempted in May, 1877, in Boston, with the circuits of the Holmes burglar-alarm system, four banking-houses being thus interconnected; while in January of 1878 the Bell telephone central-office system at New Haven, Connecticut, was opened for business, “the first fully equipped commercial telephone exchange ever established for public or general service.”

All through this formative period Bell had adhered to and introduced the magneto form of telephone, now used only as a receiver, and very poorly adapted for the vital function of a speech-transmitter. From August, 1877, the Western Union Telegraph Company worked along the other line, and in 1878, with its allied Gold & Stock Telegraph Company, it brought into existence the American Speaking Telephone Company to introduce the Edison apparatus, and to create telephone exchanges all over the country. In this warfare, the possession of a good battery transmitter counted very heavily in favor of the Western Union, for upon that the real expansion of the whole industry depended; but in a few months the Bell system had its battery transmitter, too, tending to equalize matters. Late in the same year patent litigation was begun which brought out clearly the merits of Bell, through his patent, as the original and first inventor of the electric speaking telephone; and the Western Union Telegraph Company made terms with its rival. A famous contract bearing date of November 10, 1879, showed that under the Edison and other controlling patents the Western Union Company had already set going some eighty-five exchanges, and was making large quantities of telephonic apparatus. In return for its voluntary retirement from the telephonic field, the Western Union Telegraph Company, under this contract, received a royalty of 20 per cent. of all the telephone earnings of the Bell system while the Bell patents ran; and thus came to enjoy an annual income of several hundred thousand dollars for some years, based chiefly on its modest investment in Edison’s work. It was also paid several thousand dollars in cash for the Edison, Phelps, Gray, and other apparatus on hand. It secured further 40 per cent. of the stock of the local telephone systems of New York and Chicago; and last, but by no means least, it exacted from the Bell interests an agreement to stay out of the telegraph field.

By March, 1881, there were in the United States only nine cities of more than ten thousand inhabitants, and only one of more than fifteen thousand, without a telephone exchange. The industry thrived under competition, and the absence of it now had a decided effect in checking growth; for when the Bell patent expired in 1893, the total of telephone sets in operation in the United States was only 291,253. To quote from an official Bell statement:

“The brief but vigorous Western Union competition was a kind of blessing in disguise. The very fact that two distinct interests were actively engaged in the work of organizing and establishing competing telephone exchanges all over the country, greatly facilitated the spread of the idea and the growth of the business, and familiarized the people with the use of the telephone as a business agency; while the keenness of the competition, extending to the agents and employees of both companies, brought about a swift but quite unforeseen and unlooked-for expansion in the individual exchanges of the larger cities, and a corresponding advance in their importance, value, and usefulness.”

The truth of this was immediately shown in 1894, after the Bell patents had expired, by the tremendous outburst of new competitive activity, in “independent” country systems and toll lines through sparsely settled districts—work for which the Edison apparatus and methods were peculiarly adapted, yet against which the influence of the Edison patent was invoked. The data secured by the United States Census Office in 1902 showed that the whole industry had made gigantic leaps in eight years, and had 2,371,044 telephone stations in service, of which 1,053,866 were wholly or nominally independent of the Bell. By 1907 an even more notable increase was shown, and the Census figures for that year included no fewer than 6,118,578 stations, of which 1,986,575 were “independent.” These six million instruments every single set employing the principle of the carbon transmitter—were grouped into 15,527 public exchanges, in the very manner predicted by Bell thirty years before, and they gave service in the shape of over eleven billions of talks. The outstanding capitalized value of the plant was $814,616,004, the income for the year was nearly $185,000,000, and the people employed were 140,000. If Edison had done nothing else, his share in the creation of such an industry would have entitled him to a high place among inventors.

This chapter is of necessity brief in its reference to many extremely interesting points and details; and to some readers it may seem incomplete in its references to the work of other men than Edison, whose influence on telephony as an art has also been considerable. In reply to this pertinent criticism, it may be pointed out that this is a life of Edison, and not of any one else; and that even the discussion of his achievements alone in these various fields requires more space than the authors have at their disposal. The attempt has been made, however, to indicate the course of events and deal fairly with the facts. The controversy that once waged with great excitement over the invention of the microphone, but has long since died away, is suggestive of the difficulties involved in trying to do justice to everybody. A standard history describes the microphone thus:

“A form of apparatus produced during the early days of the telephone by Professor Hughes, of England, for the purpose of rendering faint, indistinct sounds distinctly audible, depended for its operation on the changes that result in the resistance of loose contacts. This apparatus was called the microphone, and was in reality but one of the many forms that it is possible to give to the telephone transmitter. For example, the Edison granular transmitter was a variety of microphone, as was also Edison’s transmitter, in which the solid button of carbon was employed. Indeed, even the platinum point, which in the early form of the Reis transmitter pressed against the platinum contact cemented to the centre of the diaphragm, was a microphone.”

At a time when most people were amazed at the idea of hearing, with the aid of a “microphone,” a fly walk at a distance of many miles, the priority of invention of such a device was hotly disputed. Yet without desiring to take anything from the credit of the brilliant American, Hughes, whose telegraphic apparatus is still in use all over Europe, it may be pointed out that this passage gives Edison the attribution of at least two original forms of which those suggested by Hughes were mere variations and modifications. With regard to this matter, Mr. Edison himself remarks: “After I sent one of my men over to London especially, to show Preece the carbon transmitter, and where Hughes first saw it, and heard it—then within a month he came out with the microphone, without any acknowledgment whatever. Published dates will show that Hughes came along after me.”

There have been other ways also in which Edison has utilized the peculiar property that carbon possesses of altering its resistance to the passage of current, according to the pressure to which it is subjected, whether at the surface, or through closer union of the mass. A loose road with a few inches of dust or pebbles on it offers appreciable resistance to the wheels of vehicles travelling over it; but if the surface is kept hard and smooth the effect is quite different. In the same way carbon, whether solid or in the shape of finely divided powder, offers a high resistance to the passage of electricity; but if the carbon is squeezed together the conditions change, with less resistance to electricity in the circuit. For his quadruplex system, Mr. Edison utilized this fact in the construction of a rheostat or resistance box. It consists of a series of silk disks saturated with a sizing of plumbago and well dried. The disks are compressed by means of an adjustable screw; and in this manner the resistance of a circuit can be varied over a wide range.

In like manner Edison developed a “pressure” or carbon relay, adapted to the transference of signals of variable strength from one circuit to another. An ordinary relay consists of an electromagnet inserted in the main line for telegraphing, which brings a local battery and sounder circuit into play, reproducing in the local circuit the signals sent over the main line. The relay is adjusted to the weaker currents likely to be received, but the signals reproduced on the sounder by the agency of the relay are, of course, all of equal strength, as they depend upon the local battery, which has only this steady work to perform. In cases where it is desirable to reproduce the signals in the local circuit with the same variations in strength as they are received by the relay, the Edison carbon pressure relay does the work. The poles of the electromagnet in the local circuit are hollowed out and filled up with carbon disks or powdered plumbago. The armature and the carbon-tipped poles of the electromagnet form part of the local circuit; and if the relay is actuated by a weak current the armature will be attracted but feebly. The carbon being only slightly compressed will offer considerable resistance to the flow of current from the local battery, and therefore the signal on the local sounder will be weak. If, on the contrary, the incoming current on the main line be strong, the armature will be strongly attracted, the carbon will be sharply compressed, the resistance in the local circuit will be proportionately lowered, and the signal heard on the local sounder will be a loud one. Thus it will be seen, by another clever juggle with the willing agent, carbon, for which he has found so many duties, Edison is able to transfer or transmit exactly, to the local circuit, the main-line current in all its minutest variations.

In his researches to determine the nature of the motograph phenomena, and to open up other sources of electrical current generation, Edison has worked out a very ingenious and somewhat perplexing piece of apparatus known as the “chalk battery.” It consists of a series of chalk cylinders mounted on a shaft revolved by hand. Resting against each of these cylinders is a palladium-faced spring, and similar springs make contact with the shaft between each cylinder. By connecting all these springs in circuit with a galvanometer and revolving the shaft rapidly, a notable deflection is obtained of the galvanometer needle, indicating the production of electrical energy. The reason for this does not appear to have been determined.

Last but not least, in this beautiful and ingenious series, comes the “tasimeter,” an instrument of most delicate sensibility in the presence of heat. The name is derived from the Greek, the use of the apparatus being primarily to measure extremely minute differences of pressure. A strip of hard rubber with pointed ends rests perpendicularly on a platinum plate, beneath which is a carbon button, under which again lies another platinum plate. The two plates and the carbon button form part of an electric circuit containing a battery and a galvanometer. The hard-rubber strip is exceedingly sensitive to heat. The slightest degree of heat imparted to it causes it to expand invisibly, thus increasing the pressure contact on the carbon button and producing a variation in the resistance of the circuit, registered immediately by the little swinging needle of the galvanometer. The instrument is so sensitive that with a delicate galvanometer it will show the impingement of the heat from a person’s hand thirty feet away. The suggestion to employ such an apparatus in astronomical observations occurs at once, and it may be noted that in one instance the heat of rays of light from the remote star Arcturus gave results.



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