How Thomas Edison invented himself out of a job

St Marys Junction Station

Thomas Edison was almost a Canadian.  The Edison family originally lived in New Jersey but came to Nova Scotia, Canada as United Empire Loyalists at the time of the American Revolution.  A later generation moved to Vienna, Ontario and were involved in the War of 1812 in defending Canada against attempted invasions from the USA.

Samuel Edison, Jr., Thomas Edison’s father, married Nancy Elliott.  The Elliot family were originally from New York, but had also moved to Vienna, Ontario.  In 1837, Sam Edison took part in William Lyon Mackenzie’s rebellion and fled with his wife and children to the USA when it failed.  Thomas Alva Edison, the couple’s youngest child was born at Milan, Ohio in 1847.

The Edison family later moved to Port Huron, Michigan, just across the river from Sarnia, Ontario.  In his teens, Thomas Edison became a telegraph operator and worked at various railway stations in the USA and Canada.

In 1863 he was hired to work the twelve hour night shift at the Grand Trunk Railway station in Stratford, Ontario.  He also did relief shifts at the St. Marys Junction station in nearby St. Marys.  His main responsibility was to send “all clear” messages at regular intervals during the night, unless he received a message of a train coming, in which case he was to send the warning down the line to alert trains coming from the other direction.

He was already doing much study and experimenting during the day and found it difficult to stay awake at night, so he rigged up a device to automatically send the “all clear” at the times specified.  One night a message came in of a train coming from the other direction and he slept through it.  The engineers each saw the other train in time to stop and avoid a major catastrophe.

Edison was called to report to the head office in Toronto, but realized that this was the end of his career as a telegraph operator, hopped a train to Sarnia instead and returned to the USA.

There is an Edison Museum in Vienna, Ontario.  The St. Marys Junction station, built in 1858 by renowned Canadian railway contractor Casimir Gzowski still stands.  We lived about a kilometre from this station in 1978 and 1979 and passed by it pretty well every day.  It is recognized as a National Historic Site for its significance as railway history and the connection with Mr. Gzowski, not for the Edison connection, though that is a favourite story in St. Marys.

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