February 11

Thomas Edison: Pretty good inventor; could have been a great printer.

The first person ever to print on a train was born on February 11, 1847. As he was to become the greatest inventive genius of his time, it is unfortunate that his interest in printing was of short duration. The present electronic upheaval in the craft might have come a half century earlier had Thomas A. Edison actively continued his printing career.

As a boy, Thomas Edison received virtually no formal schooling. He was sent to a one-room school at the age of eight, but owing to his years of running free, he could not mold himself to the classroom. After three months the schoolmaster told the boy’s parents that he was “addled,” and his mother forthwith removed him from the school, undertaking on the strength of her one year of teaching in a small country school the task of educating her son. The limitations of such education plagued Edison for a good part of his life, as he never learned to spell and his grammar was below even the limited standards of the day. However, his mother was intelligent enough to realize that the boy needed guidance rather than the restrictions of disciplined study. In later years the inventor stated that she allowed him to follow his own bent and was thus responsible for the “making of me.”

In 1859 when the railroad was extended from Detroit to Edison’s home town of Port Huron, he applied for the non-paying job of “candy butcher” on the cars. His job involved the concession of selling sweets and newspapers to the passengers, Although only twelve years of age, Edison had to be on the train prior to its 7:00 a.m. departure for the three hour trip to Detroit, and then had to wait until it left that city for the return trip, which was completed at 9:30 p.m. The boy developed considerable ingenuity in this job, taking aboard such items as fruit, vegetables, and butter which he sold at retail along the way.

During the long layover in Detroit, Edison at first wandered about the city, but when the Detroit Free Library was opened in 1862 he became one of its earliest card-owners. He later wrote, “I started with the first book on the bottom shelf and went through the lot, one by one. I didn’t read a few books. I read the library.” At this time he also developed a strong interest in the craft of printing. He had made some extra money selling at a premium price the newspapers which carried the account of the battle of Shiloh. This sum he invested in a small hand-press with some three hundred pounds of type which he purchased in Detroit. He then taught himself how to set type and operate the press, editing a small local newspaper which he produced in its entirety in the baggage car of the train. This sheet, The Weekly Herald, was sold for eight cents a copy and reached a circulation of four hundred copies.

Edison’s atrocious spelling didn’t seem to faze his readers, as the paper was lively and informative. The boy editor, with a friend, enlarged the scope of the weekly and renamed it the Paul Pry. One of the items in the new paper, however, discussed the vicissitudes of a local personage and so enraged that individual that he sought out the editor. Although not equipped with the traditional horsewhip, he satisfied his ire by throwing Edison into the St. Clair River. From that point the boy’s interest in a career in journalism abruptly declined, and the paper went out of business.

Shortly after this incident, a railroad telegrapher excited Edison by offering to teach him the skills of that trade. Thus the printing craft lost an outstanding recruit.

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