Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Thomas A. Edison

On February 11th, 1845, was born at Milan, Ohio, Thomas A. Edison, now a little over 42 years of age, and to-day enjoying a reputation as an inventor that is without a parallel in history.

Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Thomas A. Edison

At eight or nine years of age he began to earn his own living, selling papers. When twelve years old his enterprise, pushed by ambition, secured him a position as newsboy on the Grand Trunk Railroad. Here his inventive genius manifested itself. Arranging with station agents along the line, he caused the headings of news to be telegraphed ahead, the agents posting the same in some conspicuous place. By this means the profits of his business were greatly augmented. He next fitted up a small printing press in one corner of a car, and when not busy in his regular work as newsboy, successfully published a small paper. The subject-matter was contributed by employes on the road, and young Edison was the proprietor, editor, publisher and selling agent. He also carried on electrical experiments in one corner of the car.

Finally, he entered one of the offices on the road, and here he learned the art of telegraphy. The next few years he was engaged as an operator in several of the largest cities throughout the Union, such as Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville, Boston, New York, Memphis, and Port Huron. He not only became one of the most expert operators in the country, but his office was a labratory for electrical experiment. All day long he attended to the duties of his office, and at night one would find him busy at experiments tending toward the development of the use of the telegraph.

Hard work and frequent wanderings at last found him developing his ideas in Boston. He brought out duplex telegraphy and suggested a printing telegraph for the use of gold and stock quotations. His ability becoming so apparent he was retained by wealthy men in New York at a high salary. In 1876 he removed to Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he fitted up an extensive labratory for the prosecution and development of his enterprise.

Here he has won his world-wide fame, keeping two continents in a fevered state of expectancy. Indeed, some of his inventions have been so wonderful that he might be accredited with supernatural powers. By improvement he brought the telephone of Gray, Bell, etc., from a mere toy to an instrument of great commercial worth. Ten years ago hardly a telephone was in use; now the business of our country would hardly know how to do without it. Of all modern inventions connected with the transmission of electrical sound the telephone has excited, perhaps, the most interest. An instrument which not only transmits intelligible signals great distances, but also the tones of the voice, so that the voice shall be as certainly recognized when heard hundreds of miles away as if the owner was speaking in the same room. No great skill is required of the operator, and if a business man desires to speak with another person he has but to step to an instrument in his own office, ring a bell, and thus, through a central office, connect himself with the instrument of the desired party, when a conversation can take place.

In its mechanism the telephone consists of a steel cylindrical magnet, perhaps five inches long and one-half of an inch thick, encircled at one end by a short bobbin of ebonite, on which is wound a quantity of fine insulated copper wire. The two ends of the coil are soldered to thicker pieces of copper wire which traverse the wooden envelop from end to end, and terminate in the screws of its extremity. Immediately in front is a thin circular plate of iron; this is kept in place by being jammed between the main portion of the wooden case and the cap, which carries the mouth or ear trumpet, which are screwed together. Such is the instrument invented by Bell and Edison.

The means to produce light by electricity next occupied his attention, and the Edison-Electric Light was the result. The electric current for this light is generated by means of large magneto-electric machines, which are driven by some motive power. It is the only light known to science which can be compared to the rays of the sun. Especially is this light useful in lighthouses, on board ships and for lighting streets in cities. It is, however, used in factories, work-shops, large halls, etc., and in the very near future will doubtless become a light in private dwellings.

But, possibly, the most wonderful invention which has been the result of the inventive conception of Mr. Edison is the phonograph, a simple apparatus consisting in its original mechanism of a simple cylinder of hollow brass, mounted upon a shaft, at one end of which is a crank for turning it, and at the other a balance-wheel, the whole being supported by two iron uprights. There is a mouth-piece, as in the telephone, which has a vibrating membrane similar to the drum of a person’s ear. To the other side of this membrane there is a light metal point or stylus, which touches the tin-foil which is placed around the cylinder. The operator turns the crank, at the same time talking into the mouth-piece; the membrane vibrates under the impulses of the voice, and the stylus marks the tin-foil in a manner to correspond with the vibrations of the membrane. When the speaking is finished the machine is set back to where it started on the tin-foil, and by once more turning the crank precisely the same vibrations are repeated by the machines. These vibrations effect the air, and this again the ear, and the listener hears the same words come forth that were talked into the instrument. The tin-foil can be removed, and, if uninjured, the sounds can be reproduced at any future date.

Different languages can be reproduced at once, and the instrument can be made to talk and sing at once without confusion. Indeed, so wonderful is this piece of mechanism, that one must see it to be convinced. Even the tone of voice is retained; and it will sneeze, whistle, echo, cough, sing, etc., etc.

Improvements are in progress, notably among which is an apparatus to impel it by clock work instead of a crank. The phonograph as yet has never come into extended use, but its utility is obvious when its mechanism is complete; business men can use it for dictating purposes, as it is possible to put forty thousand words on a tin-foil sheet ten inches square.

The invention of any one of the foregoing must have made for Mr. Edison a world-wide fame, but when it is remembered that he has already taken out over two hundred patents, one realizes something of the fertility of his imagination. Many other inventions are worthy of note, which have originated at the Menlo Park labratory, but space forbids, although it is safe to predict that more startling inventions may yet be in store for an expectant world.

Young man, two ways are open before you in life. One points to degradation and want, the other, to usefulness and wealth. In the old Grecian races one only, by any possible means, could gain the prize, but in the momentous race of human life there is no limiting of the prize to one. No one is debarred from competing; all may succeed, provided the right methods are followed. Life is not a lottery. Its prizes are not distributed by chance.

There can hardly be a greater folly, not to say presumption, than that of so many young men and women who, on setting out in life, conclude that it is no use to mark out for themselves a course, and then set themselves with strenuous effort to attain some worthy end; who conclude, therefore, to commit themselves blindly to the current of circumstances. Is it anything surprising that those who aim at nothing, accomplish nothing in life? No better result could reasonably be expected. Twenty clerks in a store; twenty apprentices in a ship-yard; twenty young men in a city or village—all want to get on in the world; most of them expect to succeed. One of the clerks will become a partner, and make a fortune; one of the young men will find his calling and succeed. But what of the other nineteen? They will fail; and miserably fail, some of them. They expect to succeed, but they aim at nothing; content to live for the day only, consequently, little effort is put forth, and they reap a reward accordingly.

Luck! There is no luck about it. The thing is almost as certain as the “rule of three.” The young man who will distance his competitors is he who will master his business; who lives within his income, saving his spare money; who preserves his reputation; who devotes his leisure hours to the acquisition of knowledge; and who cultivates a pleasing manner, thus gaining friends. We hear a great deal about luck. If a man succeeds finely in business, he is said to have “good luck.” He may have labored for years with this one object in view, bending every energy to attain it. He may have denied himself many things, and his seemingly sudden success may be the result of years of hard work, but the world looks in and says: “He is lucky.” Another man plunges into some hot-house scheme and loses: “He is unlucky.” Another man’s nose is perpetually on the grind-stone; he also has “bad luck.” No matter if he follows inclination rather than judgment, if he fails, as he might know he would did he but exercise one-half the judgment he does possess, yet he is never willing to ascribe the failure to himself—he invariably ascribes it to bad luck, or blames some one else.

Luck! There is no such factor in the race for success. Rufus Choate once said, “There is little in the theory of luck which will bring man success; but work, guided by thought, will remove mountains or tunnel them.” Carlyle said, “Man know thy work, then do it.” How often do we see the sign: “Gentlemen will not; others must not loaf in this room.” True, gentlemen never loaf, but labor. Fire-flies shine only in motion. It is only the active who will be singled out to hold responsible positions. The fact that their ability is manifest is no sign that they are lucky.

Thiers, of France, was once complimented thus: “It is marvelous, Mr. President, how you deliver long improvised speeches about which you have not had time to reflect.” His reply was: “You are not paying me a compliment; it is criminal in a statesman to improvise speeches on public affairs. Those speeches I have been fifty years preparing.” Daniel Webster’s notable reply to Hayne was the result of years of study on the problem of State Rights. Professor Mowry once told the following story: “A few years ago a young man went into a cotton factory and spent a year in the card room. He then devoted another year to learning how to spin; still another how to weave. He boarded with a weaver, and was often asking questions. Of course he picked up all kinds of knowledge. He was educating himself in a good school, and was destined to graduate high in his class. He became superintendent of a small mill at $1,500 a year. One of the large mills in Fall River was running behind hand. Instead of making money the corporation was losing. They needed a first-class man to manage the mill, and applied to a gentleman in Boston well acquainted with the leading men engaged in the manufacture of cotton. He told them he knew of a young man who would suit them, but they would have to pay him a large salary.

“What salary will he require?” “I cannot tell, but I think you will have to pay him $6,000 a year.” “That is a large sum; we have never paid so much.” “No, probably not, and you have never had a competent man. The condition of your mill and the story you have told me to-day show the result. I do not think he would go for less, but I will advise him to accept if you offer him that salary.” The salary was offered, the man accepted, and he saved nearly forty per cent. of the cost of making the goods the first year. Soon he had a call from one of the largest corporations in New England, at a salary of $10,000 per year. He had been with this company but one year when he was offered another place at $15,000 per year. Now some will say: “Well, he was lucky, this gentleman was a friend who helped him to a fat place.”

My dear reader, with such we have little patience. It is evident that this young man was determined to succeed from the first. He mastered his business, taking time and going thorough. When once the business was mastered his light began to shine. Possibly the gentleman helped him to a higher salary than he might have accepted, but it is also evident that his ability was manifest. The gentleman knew whereof he spoke. The old proverb that “Circumstances make men” is simply a wolf in wool. Whether a man is conditioned high or low; in the city or on the farm: “If he will; he will.” “They can who think they can.” “Wishes fail but wills prevail.” “Labor is luck.” It is better to make our descendants proud of us than to be proud of our ancestry. There is hardly a conceivable obstacle to success that some of our successful men have not overcome: “What man has done, man can do.” “Strong men have wills; weak ones, wishes.”

In the contest, wills prevail. Some writers would make men sticks carried whither the tide takes them. We have seen that biography vetoes this theory. Will makes circumstances instead of being ruled by them. Alexander Stephens, with a dwarf’s body, did a giant’s work. With a broken scythe in the race he over-matched those with fine mowing-machines. Will-power, directed by a mind that was often replenished, accomplished the desired result.

Any one can drift. It takes pluck to stem an unfavorable current. A man fails and lays it to circumstances. The fact too frequently is that he swallowed luxuries beyond his means. A gentleman asked a child who made him. The answer was: “God made me so long—measuring the length of a baby—and I growed the rest.” The mistake of the little deist in leaving out the God of his growth illustrates a conviction: We are what we make ourselves.

Garfield once said: “If the power to do hard work is not talent it is the best possible substitute for it.” Things don’t turn up in this world until some one turns them up. A pound of pluck is worth a ton of luck. Luck is a false light; you may follow it to ruin, but never to success. If a man has ability which is reinforced by energy, the fact is manifest, and he will not lack opportunities. The fortunes of mankind depend so much upon themselves, that it is entirely legitimate to enquire by what means each may make or mar his own happiness; may achieve success or bring upon himself the sufferings of failure.