Edison's Inn hosted Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison in Stratford

by Bruce Whitaker, Owner of Edison’s Inn

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in 2017, it was pretty easy to choose a name after the eight month hotel renovation project was completed. Thomas Alva Edison, the great inventor, lived in the building. Originally part of the Albion Hotel, which included the neighbouring building on the corner of Erie and Ontario Streets, the cafe section of the hotel has changed hands over the years from Glen’s Gothic store to Sputnik Cafe and eventually to Slave to the Grind. The upstairs remained relatively unchanged from Edison’s days here in 1863.

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Thomas Edison’s family hailed from Holland, sailing to the new World in the 1700's. His great-grandfather, also Thomas sided against the British in the American Revolutionary War. The war, 1775-1783, was fought between Great Britain and its Thirteen Colonies which declared independence as the United States of America. Ironically, Thomas' grandfather, John, sided with the British and fled to Canada where he was granted land as a United Empire Loyalist in Nova Scotia. This is where Thomas' father Samuel was born. 

John and his children moved to Vienna, Ontario on the North shore of Lake Erie. In fact, the local Edison’s museum recently moved into the restaurant there. Samuel became a Captain in William Lyon Mackenzie's insurgents, leading the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837. The rebellion itself failed, yet its very failure helped pave the way for more moderate and careful political change in British North America, including the union of Upper and Lower Canada, and the eventual arrival of responsible government. On the losing side, Samuel and his wife fled across Lake Erie, settling in Milan, Ohio. It was there that Thomas Alva Edison was born ten years later. Thomas would often visit his grandparents in Vienna, Ontario.

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At a young age, Thomas Edison worked as a newspaper and books salesmen on the trains going from Port Huron to Detroit. While working, he gained a fascination for learning and read many of the books that he sold. With the money he made from working Edison bought scientific equipment, and turned one of the baggage cars into his own laboratory. Perhaps, his first promotion came as a result of him pulling a young boy off a track in Port Huron. That boy happened to be the son of the station master. It is said that the train master was so impressed with Edison’s actions that he was promoted to night shift operator with the local Grand Truck Railway telegraph operations at the Stratford and St Marys Junction Stations for the sum of $25 per month, working from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. The railway was fairly new to Stratford, considered a very ‘wild country side’ at the time, welcoming the Grand Trunk Railway and the Buffalo and Lake Huron Line in 1856, beginning Stratford's long history as a major rail centre.

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At the age of 16, in 1863, Edison lived in the top second floor room of Edison’s Inn, then called the Albion Hotel, overlooking Ontario Street. He became friends with Thomas Winter, a neighbour and owner of a telegraph store, who related to a local newspaper, Edison’s interest in inventions and his concern that Edison would eventually blow up the hotel. The City of Stratford itself, began 31 years earlier when settlers arrived primarly from Great Britain. It is said that Edison created the mouse trap at the Edison’s Inn to address the many mice keeping him up at night. Unfortunately, Edison did not patent the mouse trap. Instead, the "Little Nipper," a prototype for the standard spring-loaded snapping device was invented and patented by James Henry Atkinson thirty four years later. 

Note: not to worry, the mouse problem has been addressed at Edison’s.

As any inventor knows, the job comes with lots of failures. Edison faced a number of challenges early in his life. As a child, Edison’s teachers said he was "too stupid to learn anything." As a result, his mother home schooled Thomas during his school years. He was fired from his first two jobs for being "non-productive." As an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at perfecting the light bulb. When a reporter asked, "How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?" Edison replied, "I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps. Here are a few more quotes attributed to Thomas Edison.

Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.
When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: you haven’t.
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Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.
Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.

In Stratford, Edison experienced one of his first inventions and one of his first failures. As a telegrapher, he was to send a special signal on the hour to ensure he was alert. Testing a new invention, Edison constructed a small wheel with notches in the rim attached to the clock in such a manner that it would automatically send the “6” to the night watchman, proving his attention to his duties. Edison rigged his "6 call" to run like clockwork signalling every hour allowing him to read or catch a few winks. But it was soon noticed that in spite of the regularity of the report, and he slept through an incoming message to warn the engineers of two trains that they were on a collision course, narrowly averting disaster. 

Direct from Thomas Edison:

This night job just suited me, as I could have the whole day to myself. I had the faculty of sleeping in a chair anytime for a few minutes at a time. I taught the night yardman my call, so I could get half an hour’s sleep now and then between trains, and in case the station was called the watchman would awaken me. One night I got an order to hold a freight train, and I replied that I would. I rushed out to find the signalman, but before I could find him and get the signal set, the train ran past. I ran to the telegraph office and reported that I could not hold her. The reply was “HELL!” The train dispatcher, on the strength of my message that I would hold the train, had permitted another to leave the last station in the opposite direction. There was a lower station near the junction where the day operator slept. I started for it on foot. The night was dark, and I fell into a culvert and was knocked senseless.
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He was immediately summoned to Toronto to meet with his boss. On reaching the manager’s office, his trial for neglect of duty was fortunately interrupted by two Englishman. While their conversation proceeded, Edison slipped out of the room realizing that his failed experiment was likely a career ending move. He hurried to the Grand Trunk freight depot, found a conductor he knew taking out a freight train for Sarnia, and then transferred to a ferry-boat from Sarnia for the Michigan shore. Thus ended Thomas Edison’s short but memorable career as a telegraph operator and citizen of Stratford. The Grand Truck owed Edison final pay for services rendered before his hasty departure from Canada. Many years later the GTR presented $28 to his father at a ceremony in Port Huron.

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Edison remains a part of the building today. Though we want our guests to be the focus of the rooms, we honour Edison’s zeal with subtle touches in each room. In the cafe room, there is a timeline of Thomas Edison initially intended to cover the power panel, by local artist Collin Gibson, a newbie from Scotland. In the chill-out room, where he lived, is a comic pictorial of Edison’s inventions and ones we’d still like to see, by Mexican illustrator Ani Castillo. The music room has 12 famous quotes from Thomas Edison positioned throughout the room. The question is whether you can find them.

We like to think that a bit of Edison’s ingenuity rubs off on our most fabulous guests during their stay.