Friday, April 13, 2018

Speech #16: Young Al

Umatilla, FL

[This speech is project 5 from The Entertaining Speaker, "Speaking After Dinner".  The goals are: 1) Prepare an entertaining after dinner speech on a specific theme.  2) Deliver the speech using all your skills.  They remind you that after dinner, the audience will not want to be intellectually challenged.   Time 8-10 minutes.  My actual time as 10:26, just 4 seconds short of being dinged for speaking too long.  Especially enjoyable was that we had two teen girls in the audience as guests, and both girls loved the topic.  Just like with Harry Potter books, young people like young hero models.]

Well, that was quite a meal. You all just sit back and enjoy your coffee and cognac while I stand here and ramble on a bit.

I’m going to talk about my hero, Thomas Alva Edison. You know Edison, the guy who invented the light bulb, right? He did a lot of other things that might surprise you, including email, phones, Hollywood, and the electric car.

But forget all that. I want to talk about young Al (that was his boyhood nickname) growing up in Port Huron Michigan between the ages of 10 and 15.

Al’s first interest was not electricity but chemistry. One day, he convinced another boy to swallow a large quantity of Seidlitz Powder. Today, we call that stuff Alka Seltzer. Al told the boy that the gas would allow him to float up in the air and fly like a bird. While the doctor did what he could for the boy’s pain, Al’s mother fetched the switch that she kept behind the Seth Thomas clock.

In the basement, Al stored his chemicals and built himself a laboratory. He put the same label on all the bottles --- poison, so that nobody would be tempted to mess with them. While other boys played sports, Al worked in his laboratory and did research at the public library. He bought every chemical available from the local drug store, and then began ordering chemicals by mail order. For that he needed money.

Al’s father had a 10-acre truck garden. So young Al began picking the vegetables and selling them in the town. He didn’t do the actual work himself. Instead, he hired other boys to do it for him. He made so much money doing that that he contributed $600 per year to the family. In today’s money that would be $17K.

Then he got another idea. The railroad ran between Port Huron and Detroit. Al convinced his parents to allow him to sell newspapers on the train. The train left Port Huron in the earl morning, and it didn’t return until 9:30 at night. That gave Al a lot of time to kill in Detroit. One thing he did was buy top quality produce in Detroit and sell it in Port Huron, thus boosting the profits of his vegetable business.

The train had three kinds of cars, smoking cars for men, baggage cars, and the ladies cars for everyone else. The baggage car was divided into three sections, one for baggage, one for mail, and one for a smoking room that nobody used. Al got permission to move his laboratory and chemicals to the smoking room of the baggage car. He even convinced Mr. Pullman, who was working on his revolutionary Pullman car to do the carpentry for his laboratory. Then, during the long daily layover in Detroit, Al could work in his mobile laboratory.

One day, someone abandoned a printing press on the train. Al kept it for himself, and he used it to create his own newspaper. At every RR stop on the route, he collected gossip and news to publish. Then he wrote, edited, printed and sold the newspapers all by himself. He also used the railroad’s telegraph to send notice of his newspaper headlines to towns further down the track to increase his sales.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, people became more interested in news. Al’s sales increased. When word of the battle of Shiloh came in, young Al ran to the offices of the Detroit Free Press. He said, “I don’t have any money now, but if you give me 1000 copies of the paper at one cent each, I’ll pay you tomorrow.” They said yes. Al put the papers on the train and telegraphed the headline down the route in advance. At the first stop, where he normally sold 5 papers, he sold 20 copies at two cents each. At the second stop, there was a big crowd of 50 people, so Al raised the price to five cents. By the time the train got to Port Huron, the whole town was at the train station waiting for the news. From the doorway of the train Al shouted, “I’m almost out of copies, the price is 25 cents per copy.” So, he sold his last 700 copies for 25 cents each.

Al also made friends on the railroad. He was careful to give free papers and magazines to all railroad employees he came in contact with. He especially liked riding in the steam engine. The engineer taught him how to drive the train, and the fireman taught him how to stoke the boiler. After that, the engineer and the fireman realized that they could get drunk and sleep the whole trip while Al did all the work. Al loved that.

Al was instructed that if he let the water in the boiler drum get too low, it could explode. He certainly didn’t want that, so he meticulously kept the drum full of water. One day in the station, he put too much water in. The water went up into the boiler tubes which were red hot. The water cleaned off the years of soot layered in those pipes and then boiled. That caused a geyser of hot black mud to shoot out of the stack of the steam engine. It came down on the heads of the fine gentlemen with their top hats, and the fine ladies with their parasols who were waiting in the station. Young Al pointed at the engineer, and said, “I’m just a kid. I didn’t do anything.”

One day, the train hit a patch of rough track. It rocked from side to side. A bottle of phosphorous fell off the shelf in Al’s laboratory and started a fire. Al tried to put out the fire and failed. The conductor came rushing in and put out the fire. That quick-tempered Scotchman was so enraged, that he threw Al and all his chemicals off the train. He also boxed young Al in the ears so severely that for the rest of his life Thomas Edison was nearly deaf.

But Edison accepted deafness in good spirits. Later in life, he said, “When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, it was a piece of junk. It was only capable of working within one city block. So, the first thing he did was to hire me to make a practical telephone. Because of my deafness, I had to make it loud enough for me to hear it.” Later, when I invented the phonograph there were many similar devices around that I couldn’t understand because their sound quality was so poor. I worked for a whole year, 20 hours per day including Sundays to get the word “specie” perfectly recorded and reproduced on the phonograph. When this was done, I knew that all other sounds could also be done, which proved to be the fact.”

Ladies and gentlemen. When you go home tonight after this splendid banquet, look into the eyes of your young children or grandchildren. Might you see a spark of young Al in those eyes?

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