Thomas Edison's Original Application to the Old Time Telegraphers Stratford-Perth Archives

On his membership application for the Old Timer Telegraphers’ and Historical Association inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931) tells us that he was a telegraph operator in Stratford while working on the Grand Trunk Rail Road in 1863. In 1940, to mark the premier of the movie Young Thomas Edison, starring Mickey Rooney, a plaque was placed at the Stratford train station commemorating his brief time working here. When celebrations took place for what would have been Edison’s 100th birthday in 1947, the Mayor of Stratford was presented with the original membership document as a keepsake. Like many other local history treasures it was put into the hands of R. Thomas Orr (1870-1957) for safekeeping. The document arrived at Stratford-Perth Archives in 1972 as part of the Orr family collection. But how did the famous American inventor end up in Canada, and in Stratford of all places

Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan, Ohio on the 11th of February 1847, but his parents had Canadian ties and even lived in Ontario for a short time. His father, Samuel Edison Jr., was born in Nova Scotia but his mother was born in New Jersey. After their marriage, they moved from New Jersey, USA to Vienna, Ontario in Elgin County. Samuel joined the Mackenzie Rebellion in Southern Ontario and when it failed he fled back to the United States. Nancy and their children soon followed him and they ended up in Milan, Ohio. The couple had three more children; Thomas being the youngest of the seven.

Around 1854, Thomas and his family moved to Port Huron, Michigan. He had little formal education as he only attended school for a few months. He was taught mostly by his mother, and did some learning on his own. By thirteen, he took a job as a newsboy selling newspapers and candy on the rail line that ran through Port Huron to Detroit. It was reported that he set up a laboratory in the baggage car for his chemistry experiments and even smuggled a printing press onboard. Using the press, he started his own newspaper the Grand Trunk Herald, this was said to be the first newspaper published on a train. An accidental fire in the lab forced him to stop his experiments onboard.

Frequent trips along the Grand Trunk Rail Way allowed Edison to become friendly with station master and telegraph operator James Mackenzie at the Mount Clemens station. In August 1862, Edison was standing outside the Mount Clemens station and saw Mackenzie’s young son Jimmie playing on the tracks. He then noticed a boxcar coming into the station at high speed so he jumped into action and grabbed Jimmie before the car struck either of them. As a thank you, James offered to teach Edison Morse code and how to use the telegraph.

Edison picked both up quickly and by 1863 he began working as a full-time telegraph operator on the railway. His first job as an operator was said to have been with the Grand Trunk Rail Way at the Stratford Station. It was also reported that he worked at the Junction Station in St. Marys, and the Camlachie (in Lambton County) to Stratford Line. While working at the Stratford Station, and according to his membership application, he was a night operator. This job was short lived as his innovation lead to his termination. Edison had reportedly invented a repeater telegraph that automatically sent an all clear signal down the single line of track to St Marys every 20 minutes. He would leave this on and usually doze off. One night in 1864, two trains nearly collided. Thankfully the two engineers saw each other and tragedy was avoided.

The story goes that, due to his negligent actions, Edison was asked to the office of the general manager of the Grand Trunk Rail Way in Toronto. He expected to be jailed or fired on the spot, so during the meeting he slipped out a side door and caught a train back to Stratford. He quickly packed his things and took off for the United States.

Jumping forward to 1904, Edison was living in Orange, New Jersey and was working as a full-time inventor. On his membership application for the Old Timer Telegraphers’ and Historical Association, he credits the city of Stratford as the place where he formally started his telegraphing career. Even after fleeing Canada, he continued telegraphing, citing his answer to question nine on his application “Has service been continuous” he wrote, “wandered over the map of the US for 5 year, working for the US [Western Union]”. It appears that he migrated from city to city taking any available telegraph job before devoting himself as a full time inventor.