The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution - Henry Schlesinger (2010)

Chapter 7. Finally, Something Useful

“Electricity is but a new agent for the arts and manufactures, and, doubtless, generations unborn will regard with interest this century, in which it has been first applied to the wants of mankind.”

—Alfred Smee,
Elements of Electro-Metallurgy, 1852

It didn’t take long for clever inventors to start scaling down the general principles of the telegraph for consumer products. Electric doorbells became the rage among those who could afford them, while burglar alarms and police call boxes also began to emerge. The first electronic call boxes for fires were installed in Boston in 1852, replacing a system that depended on ringing church bells. Mechanical bell pulls and speaker tubes used to summon staff in some luxury hotels were replaced with simple telegraphic systems comprised of little more than a button and a bell. These “annunciators” often had their central control board set up in a prominent position in the lobby near the main desk, putting it on display as a working symbol of modernity and efficiency.

One Victorian era inventor of a morbid disposition capitalized on the then common fear of being buried alive. Devices that could be activated from inside a buried coffin, such as a line to pull and ring a bell, breathing tubes, and other crude methods of communication from the grave already existed on the market, but this wily inventor brought out a state-of-the-art device that is best described as the first electric doorbell for a coffin. The prematurely interred simply pressed a conveniently located button to ring an electric bell on the surface. In another version of the device, movement inside the coffin would activate the alarm. And one inventor in Topeka, Kansas, took out a patent as late as 1891 for an electrical device that attached to the deceased hand, making signaling convenient and easy.

The clicking and printed binary code of dots and dashes in the nineteenth century held as much appeal as the hidden binary code of computers’ machine language of 1’s and 0’s in the late twentieth century. In the rapidly expanding newspaper trade, periodicals quite literally adopted the name “telegraph” to denote speed and breadth of coverage. News from foreign countries that had once taken weeks and even months to reach New York, London, or Paris was now transmitted within days or even hours. Early on, Paul Julius Reuter, the German journalist and friend of the scientist Carl Friedrich Gauss who would go on to establish the global news agency, traded in his carrier pigeons for a telegraph system to transmit reports from the London Stock Exchange.

Dubbed “the highway of thought,” the emergent telegraph industry attracted the most ambitious and brightest of young men to its ranks. Thomas Edison was a telegraph operator in his early years. The filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock worked for a company that supplied equipment called the Henley Telegraph Company.

Well, little boys are always asked what they want to be when they grow up, and it must be said to my credit that I never wanted to be a policeman. When I said I’d like to become an engineer, my parents took me seriously and they sent me to a specialized school, the School of Engineering and Navigation, where I studied mechanics, electricity, acoustics, and navigation…

Working for the telegraph company while still a teen, Hitchcock started out as a “technical estimator” for cables before transferring to the advertising department as an illustrator. Alfred Vail’s younger first cousin, Theodore, started his career as a telegraph operator and later proved instrumental in the formation of AT&T as a monopoly.

Telegraphy was seen as a solid career with a bright future for a bright young man. Far from the Industrial Revolution’s mills and mines with their dirt and danger, telegraph operators were in the vanguard of a growing middle class. In his later years, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie fondly recalled his early days as a telegraph messenger, writing in his autobiography, “I do not know a situation in which a boy is more apt to attract attention, which is all a really clever boy requires in order to rise.”

The impact of the new technology on metropolitan centers was very rapid indeed. In London, telegraph lines multiplied exponentially until the traffic at the headquarters became so heavy operators couldn’t keep up with transmissions to the stock exchange. Timely information provided by the telegraph, over even relatively short distances, evolved quickly from a novelty to convenience and, finally, into a competitive necessity in the financial capital.

At least part of the London problem of overloaded lines and operator backlogs was solved by Josiah Latimer Clark, one of those scientific and engineering polymaths the nineteenth-century British Empire seemed to manufacture in surprising quantity, almost as if turning them out on an assembly line. Trained in chemistry, Clark switched to civil engineering on the railroads, then electricity. Later, he would develop his standard cell, which produced a little over one volt, to calibrate instruments. He had also taken an active interest in astronomy. Whatever field he touched, no matter how briefly, he seemed to invent new devices for it, and he even sat on the board of inquiry of the first Atlantic cable.

To solve the problem of overloaded short-distance lines, Clark came up with a system of pneumatic tubes. Just as the telegraph was being scaled down to power doorbells, Clark scaled down a failed concept for a pneumatic tube rail line that dated back to 1810 and had originally been intended as a type of high-speed people mover. In 1853, he installed the first line of tubes measuring an inch and a half and spanning some 200 yards from the central telegraph office to the stock exchange.

Telegraphers would transcribe the messages coming through the wire and then shunt them off in felt bags in the tubes to the stock exchange. A six-horsepower steam engine powered the whole operation. The tubes proved so efficient that they were soon adopted for use in ever-expanding office buildings and the relatively new concept of department stores, where they would remain a staple of efficient short-range communication well into the twentieth century. From the inadequacy of one technology arose another less sophisticated technology to take up the slack.

VERY EARLY ON IT BECAME apparent that the speed information traveled was particularly essential to the financial industries. Speed provided not only a competitive advantage, but also new opportunities. News from far-flung corners of the United States began flowing into New York, and with the opening of the transatlantic cable, a lucrative business in arbitrage sprang up with stocks traded on both the London and New York exchanges. To almost nobody’s surprise, unscrupulous speculators soon saw potential in the rapidity of the telegraph to spread rumors that started runs on commodities and stocks they could then quickly sell at a profit. As much as we often like to believe the past was somehow more genteel than our current age, chicanery in the financial markets did not arrive with the twentieth century.

Despite the long-distance advancements, a small army of messengers was still employed at every major stock exchange to carry messages of price changes from the trading floors to the brokerage houses. Called “pad shovers,” these messengers gathered on the floor of the exchanges and wrote down the quotations of a single stock or small group of stocks, which they would then deliver to the brokers. By any measure, it was a hugely inefficient method, with each brokerage house employing a dozen or more young messengers prized for their speed and accuracy. Time really was money, and a quick pad shover could boost profits in the hurly-burly of Wall Street. The old saying that “Wall Street starts in a graveyard and ends in a river” was never more true than in the 1860s. Fortunes could be made or lost overnight in that bare-knuckled world of brokers, financiers, speculators, and investors.

TO FINANCE THE WAR EFFORT, President Lincoln suspended the gold standard and issued some $450 million in paper money, which were soon dubbed “greenbacks.” However, gold was still used for international trade and tariffs, among other things, and with the war’s outcome far from certain, was more trusted than Lincoln’s paper money. Without the backing of gold, the value of the new currency fluctuated wildly, falling against gold with every Confederate victory and rising with each Union success on the battlefield. Anyone with insider knowledge of the conflict could make a fortune speculating in gold, no matter which side seemed to be winning the war.

At one point, the banker Jay Cooke, showing patriotic outrage, called the gold speculators “General Lee’s left flank.” To speculate in gold was widely viewed as unpatriotic, and eventually the New York Stock Exchange banned gold trading altogether. The gold traders, apparently unfazed by the banishment, simply packed up and moved around the corner to William Street, where they opened the Gold Exchange and went on about their business.

Shut down briefly in 1864 after gold peaked at $300 in greenbacks per $100 in gold, the exchange was reopened a short time later. With the end of the war, prices calmed down quite a bit, while the exchange remained a hectic financial bazaar of speculators, investors, and a swarm of pad shovers dispatched to write down the latest gold prices and hurry them back to merchants and brokers.

Samuel Spahr Laws arrived at the Gold Exchange straight from Paris. Born and raised in West Virginia, he had graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he studied under Joseph Henry, and had presided over a Presbyterian congregation in Missouri. Then in 1861, refused to sign an oath of allegiance to the federal government, an act that earned him a year in prison, which he spent reading philosophy. After his release, he headed off to Europe, returning to the United States in 1863 and settling in New York. Despite his somewhat eccentric résumé, Laws seemed to impress his bosses, rose quickly, and within a year was vice president of the Gold Exchange.

An amateur electrician and tinkerer, no doubt inspired by Henry from his days in Princeton, he came up with a device to ease the crush of messengers on the exchange floor. Called the Gold Indicator, the device displayed current gold prices on a two-faced mechanism of rotating drums. Like a double-sided clock face, one side offered the latest prices to traders on the exchange’s floor, while the other side faced out on the street for the messengers. Patented in 1867, the battery-powered display was simply a short-range telegraphic network, with its line extending no farther than the trading floor of the exchange.

It was not long afterward that Laws hit on the kind of idea that makes men rich. Why stop at just a single indicator? Again, Metcalfe’s Law kicked in: if one Gold Indicator was good, then hundreds were even better, and potentially profitable. Laws quit his position on the exchange and formed the Gold Indicator Company to provide the devices on a subscription basis, linked by telegraph wires from a central exchange to any business that needed or wanted one. The invention, combined with a printing function, was a small success.

By 1870, Laws sold the company and became modestly wealthy. Possessing a restless mind, he received a law degree from Columbia University and was admitted to the New York bar, then quickly earned his medical degree at Bellevue Hospital by 1875. Still restless, he eventually left New York to become president of Missouri State University (now the University of Missouri).

However, Laws’s greatest contribution might have been to help a young man in need. Down on his luck, the young itinerant telegrapher Thomas Alva Edison arrived in New York in 1869 nearly broke after a failed series of business ventures. Although a skilled telegraph operator, Edison was having some difficulty finding work, and a friend let him sleep in the battery room of the Gold Indicator Company.

It was at this low point in his career that luck seemed to find Edison. When the Gold Indicator system broke down, the company’s office was quickly mobbed with messengers seeking answers. With the price of gold fluctuating rapidly and the traders now dependent on the indicators, a delay of even an hour or two could mean a lost fortune. “Within two minutes over three hundred boys crowded the office, that hardly had room for one hundred,” Edison later recalled, “all yelling that such and such broker’s wire was out of order and to fix it at once. It was pandemonium.”

The problem, as Edison quickly saw it, was that a spring had become disengaged and fallen between gears to jam a critical mechanism. “Fix it! Fix it! Be quick!” Laws demanded. Edison fixed it and was soon rewarded with a job at $300 a month, more than enough to get the young inventor back on his feet and into a position that would provide access to some of New York’s richest moneymen.

Although the technology was not overly complex, Laws’s device was revolutionary for a few reasons. The central station and its employees did all of the technical work, essentially laboring in an early version of the data processing center. Here was a complex electrical communications device that didn’t need a full-time operator at the customer’s terminal. Brokers could place the oblong indicator box in their office and follow the price of gold as it clickety-clacked happily away without a technician to maintain the machinery or understand the messages. The imperfect analogy would be the introduction of graphical interface on desktop computers that eliminated the need for expertise of typing in code. Laws’s Gold Indicator also provided a steady flow of information in near real time at a distance.

Edward A. Calahan took up the concept in 1867 and ran with it. A telegraph operator by profession, he had worked as a Wall Street pad shover as a boy and he came up with the idea of the stock indicator. It was essentially a telegraph system comprised of a clockwork-type mechanism with two synchronized printing wheels—one for the price and another for the company name—under a bell jar.

Others had designed similar systems, but Calahan was the first to bring a fully functional model to marketing in a big way. Shortly before Christmas in 1867, Calahan installed the first ticker in the brokerage house of David Groesbeck and Company. Brokers gathered around the machine in the early morning, then cheered as the first prices came through, transmitted by Calahan’s agents on the floor of the exchange. Because of the clattering sound its printing components made, the system was very quickly dubbed the “ticker.”

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© Chris Costello

Calahan quickly signed up hundreds of subscribers for the fee of $6.00 a week. Still, his first model wasn’t perfect. The wheels frequently fell out of alignment, causing the stock price on the bottom and the name of the company on the top to blur together on the narrow strip of paper. The batteries also proved an unexpected problem. Each ticker included its own zinc and copper battery, usually placed on the floor beneath the unit with a pair of uninsulated wires running up to the little electric motor. Messenger boys who previously delivered quotes were now pressed into servicing the batteries, making twice-weekly deliveries of acid before the exchange opened. The sloshing sulfuric acid soon became notorious for ruining the fine carpeting of many of the leading brokerage offices, along with the pricey clothing of brokers. Calahan quickly solved the problem by providing power from a central station.

Not everyone was so enamored with the ticker. A few “old timers” set in their ways insisted on keeping the messenger boys on the payroll, just in case, and at least one broker, by the name of Bill Heath, nicknamed “The American Deer,” continued to make his rounds, running from the exchange back to the brokerage house to shout out the latest quotes above the clatter of the tickers.

TO POWER THE GROWING NUMBER of devices, battery technology was now emerging as an industry rather than just a tool for the lab. The old-style batteries, such as Grove’s, Wollaston’s, and even Cruickshank’s, were better suited for lab experiments or telegraph offices than for use in the field. Relatively expensive to build, they also required near-constant attention. In telegraph offices, for instance, the batteries used were necessarily large and required regular care by an employee known as the battery man who would tend to their maintenance in much the same way a train’s firemen tended to the steam engine’s boilers. This was painstaking work performed on strict schedules.

Handbooks of the era are filled with pages of detailed instructions for the general care of the battery. In one of the most popular, Modern Practice of the Electric Telegraph by Frank L. Pope, published in the 1880s, the author sets out specific, often exhaustive, guidelines for battery maintenance. For the “renewal” of a common Daniell cell, he offers the following instructions:

In renewing this battery the zincs should be scraped and well cleaned with a stiff brush, the porous cups thoroughly washed, and the old solution contained in them thrown out, with the exception of about one third of the clear portion, which should be returned, otherwise the battery will require some hours to recover its full strength. The copper deposit upon the zincs is valuable, and should be preserved.

Every two or three months the coppers ought to be taken out and the deposit upon their surface removed, which may be done two or three times. When they become too much encrusted to afford room for the porous cups they must be replaced by new ones.

Porous cups ought to be renewed whenever they become too much encrusted with copper. If cracked they should be changed at once, otherwise a great waste of material will ensue.

The crystals which form around the edge of the outer jar require to be occasionally wiped off with a damp cloth, or they will eventually run down the outside and form a connection between the jars, giving rise to a great consumption of material without corresponding benefit.

The nineteenth century saw the battery as a specialized industrial tool—not all that different from the way 1960s computer professionals saw the unwieldy room-sized systems that noisily sorted punchcards and held data on magnetic tape.