Even in 1847 few of these things had lost their novelty, most of them were in the earlier stages of development. But it is when we turn to electricity that the rich virgin condition of an illimitable new kingdom of discovery is seen. Perhaps the word "utilization" or "application" is better than discovery, for then, as now, an endless wealth of phenomena noted by experimenters from Gilbert to Franklin and Faraday awaited the invention that could alone render them useful to mankind. The eighteenth century, keenly curious and ceaselessly active in this fascinating field of investigation, had not, after all, left much of a legacy in either principles or appliances. The lodestone and the compass; the frictional machine; the Leyden jar; the nature of conductors and insulators; the identity of electricity and the thunder-storm flash; the use of lightning-rods; the physiological effects of an electrical shock--these constituted the bulk of the bequest to which philosophers were the only heirs. Pregnant with possibilities were many of the observations that had been recorded. But these few appliances made up the meagre kit of tools with which the nineteenth century entered upon its task of acquiring the arts and conveniences now such an intimate part of "human nature's daily food" that the average American to-day pays more for his electrical service than he does for bread.
With the first year of the new century came Volta's invention of the chemical battery as a means of producing electricity. A well-known Italian picture represents Volta exhibiting his apparatus before the young conqueror Napoleon, then ravishing from the Peninsula its treasure of ancient art and founding an ephemeral empire. At such a moment this gift of de- spoiled Italy to the world was a noble revenge, setting in motion incalculable beneficent forces and agencies. For the first time man had command of a steady supply of electricity without toil or effort. The useful results obtainable previously from the current of a frictional machine were not much greater than those to be derived from the flight of a rocket. While the frictional appliance is still employed in medicine, it ranks with the flint axe and the tinder-box in industrial obsolescence. No art or trade could be founded on it; no diminution of daily work or increase of daily comfort could be secured with it. But the little battery with its metal plates in a weak solution proved a perennial reservoir of electrical energy, safe and controllable, from which supplies could be drawn at will. That which was wild had become domesticated; regular crops took the place of haphazard gleanings from brake or prairie; the possibility of electrical starvation was forever left behind.
Immediately new processes of inestimable value revealed themselves; new methods were suggested. Almost all the electrical arts now employed made their beginnings in the next twenty-five years, and while the more extensive of them depend to-day on the dynamo for electrical energy, some of the most important still remain in loyal allegiance to the older source. The battery itself soon underwent modifications, and new types were evolved--the storage, the double-fluid, and the dry. Various analogies next pointed to the use of heat, and the thermoelectric cell emerged, embodying the application of flame to the junction of two different metals. Davy, of the safety-lamp, threw a volume of current across the gap between two sticks of charcoal, and the voltaic arc, forerunner of electric lighting, shed its bright beams upon a dazzled world. The decomposition of water by electrolytic action was recognized and made the basis of communicating at a distance even before the days of the electromagnet. The ties that bind electricity and magnetism in twinship of relation and interaction were detected, and Faraday's work in induction gave the world at once the dynamo and the motor. "Hitch your wagon to a star," said Emerson. To all the coal-fields and all the waterfalls Faraday had directly hitched the wheels of industry. Not only was it now possible to convert mechanical energy into electricity cheaply and in illimitable quantities, but electricity at once showed its ubiquitous availability as a motive power. Boats were propelled by it, cars were hauled, and even papers printed. Electroplating became an art, and telegraphy sprang into active being on both sides of the Atlantic.
At the time Edison was born, in 1847, telegraphy, upon which he was to leave so indelible an imprint, had barely struggled into acceptance by the public. In England, Wheatstone and Cooke had introduced a ponderous magnetic needle telegraph. In America, in 1840, Morse had taken out his first patent on an electromagnetic telegraph, the principle of which is dominating in the art to this day. Four years later the memorable message "What hath God wrought!" was sent by young Miss Ellsworth over his circuits, and incredulous Washington was advised by wire of the action of the Democratic Convention in Baltimore in nominating Polk. By 1847 circuits had been strung between Washington and New York, under private enterprise, the Government having declined to buy the Morse system for $100,000. Everything was crude and primitive. The poles were two hundred feet apart and could barely hold up a wash-line. The slim, bare, copper wire snapped on the least provocation, and the circuit was "down" for thirty-six days in the first six months. The little glass-knob insulators made seductive targets for ignorant sportsmen. Attempts to insulate the line wire were limited to coating it with tar or smearing it with wax for the benefit of all the bees in the neighborhood. The farthest western reach of the telegraph lines in 1847 was Pittsburg, with three- ply iron wire mounted on square glass insulators with a little wooden pentroof for protection. In that office, where Andrew Carnegie was a messenger boy, the magnets in use to receive the signals sent with the aid of powerful nitric-acid batteries weighed as much as seventy-five pounds apiece. But the business was fortunately small at the outset, until the new device, patronized chiefly by lottery-men, had proved its utility. Then came the great outburst of activity. Within a score of years telegraph wires covered the whole occupied country with a network, and the first great electrical industry was a pronounced success, yielding to its pioneers the first great harvest of electrical fortunes. It had been a sharp struggle for bare existence, during which such a man as the founder of Cornell University had been glad to get breakfast in New York with a quarter-dollar picked up on Broadway.
Edison, His Life and Inventions -by- F. L. Dyer and T. C. Martin