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Who Am I?

From 1863 to 1867 this tall and gaunt young man drifted around the Midwest as a “tramp telegrapher.” He bounced along, moving through larger and larger cities, using telegraphy jobs as a means of support — and also as laboratories for his experiments.

In the fall of 1864, he arrived in Indianapolis and approached John F. Wallick, superintendent of the Western Union Telegraph Company, for a job. Wallick hired him for the night shift operator position at Union Depot. His wages were to be $75 a month and the young man who was perceived as “just an ordinary operator,” kept mostly to himself.

He had developed an unusually small, vertical handwriting style for the rapid copying of telegraph messages — but since reports often came in at up to 40 words per minute, he still found it difficult to keep up. Necessity being, as always, the mother of invention, our hero came up with an idea; by adjusting two embossing Morse registers, one to repeat the press matter, the other to repeat the dots and dashes upon a revolving disc of paper, telegraphic reports could be slowed to a pace that allowed for easier and more legible copying.

The local newspapers were impressed with his neat work and even requested that he be given both the day AND the night shifts. However, this led to an investigation by his Western Union superior and, for some unknown reason, the device was prohibited. Though often as not in his past, this young man left jobs when he was fired for misbehaving or for sloppy work, this time he left in a cloud of frustration and disgust — never to return to Indianapolis again.

Therefore, it is our city’s dubious claim to fame that our mystery man produced what he called “his first invention” (the Morse Repeater) right here — only to have it banned from use.

Have you figured out who he is yet?

13 responses to “Friday Favorite: Bright Idea, Snuffed!”

  1. Kevin J. Brewer says:

    Of course, it’s Thomas Alva Edison (February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931). But I never knew that he worked here in Indianapolis and especially that he invented the the Morse Repeater here. Why in the world was it banned? It so increased productivity.

  2. Ted Meek says:

    I was going to say Thomas Edison, but the tab kind of gave it away.

  3. dmikelsshea says:

    How about T A E ?

  4. Tim Jensen says:

    His mind never seemed to stop working….

  5. Scott Goodwine says:

    It’s too bad whatever location he worked isn’t still there for a nice little memorial.

  6. basil berchekas jr says:

    Thomas Edison

  7. Marilyn Jacobs says:

    I wonder where he lived while here. He was between census so could not check those.

  8. Tiffany Benedict Berkson says:

    I tried to find this info going through microfilm, but came up empty-handed.

  9. Kevin J. Brewer says:

    That would be something very nice to know of such an iconic person living in Indianapolis.

  10. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

    T. A. Edison appeared on page 46 of the 1865 edition of the Indianapolis City Directory, published by Hawes and Company. Here’s a link to the IU Library website, where you can view the listing: http://archive.org/stream/directoryforcity00unse#page/n67/mode/2up. FYI, the place where Edison lived, Macy House, was on the southeast corner of W. Market N. llinois Streets. Today, that is the site of the Illinois Building.

  11. mike says:

    Don’t surprise me none. Indy would have run Bill Gates out of town if he had showed up in the 1970’s.

  12. rick says:

    Was this invention a forerunner to the phonograph? The description sounds like similar technology.

  13. Lisa Lorentz says:

    Good eye, Rick! Several sources name the “Repeater” as Edison’s first invention and it appears that he reused that idea, elsewhere.

    On quick inspection, my historical resources identify the return mechanism on an “Edison Triumph” phonograph as being based on the Repeater.

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