June 1, 1869: Tom Swift and His Electric Thingumajig

With over a thousand inventions, many of which have touched the lives of nearly everyone in the world, Thomas Alva Edison is considered by many to be the greatest inventor of the modern era. But it wasn’t always thus. Al, as he was known, was a lousy student whoserube mother finally decided to home-school him. Edison’s first job was operating a newsstand on a train that ran from Port Huron to Detroit. To make the trips more interesting, he put together a chemistry lab in a boxcar (On the Atchison, Topeka and the Kaboom!). Then working as a telegraph operator, he continued to do scientific experiments in his free time. In 1869, he decided to devote himself full time to inventing.

     His first invention was patented that same year on June 1, a voting machine for use by legislative bodies such as Congress. Having heard that both the Washington, D.C., City Council and the New York State legislature were planning to install electric vote recorders, he stepped up to the plate. Edison’s somewhat Rube-Golbergish system, started with a switch that each legislator could move to either a yes or a no position. The vote would then be transmitted by a signal to a central recorder that listed the names of the legislators in two columns of metal type headed “Yes” and “No.” A recording clerk would then place a sheet of magic paper over the columns of type and move a metallic roller over the paper and type. As an electric current passed through the paper, chemicals in the paper decomposed, leaving the imprint of the name in a manner similar to that of chemical recording automatic telegraphs. Dials on the machine recorded the total number of yeas and nays.

     A fellow telegrapher bought a stake in the invention for $100 and took it to Washington, D.C. to demonstrate it before a Congressional committee. The chairman of the committee, less than enthusiastically, told him that “if there is any invention on earth that we don’t want down here, that is it.” It seemed legislators liked the slow pace of voting which allowed them to lobby or trade votes or do those other fun legislative things. Edison’s vote recorder was never used.

     Edison persevered, resolving never again to invent something that would not sell. His next invention, an improved stock market tickertape machine, earned him a tidy $40,000. And he went on to invent such other clever devices as the electric light bulb.

And today in 1880, another inventor’s bright idea gone awry, the first pay telephone was made available to the public in the New Haven office of the Connecticut Telephone Company. No “deposit ten cents for another ten minutes” here. A proud attendant stood next to the phone collecting those dimes.