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Ask Gen. Palmer: Assistant helped light up the world

December 22, 2013 Updated: January 2, 2014 at 5:31 pm
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Happy Christmas, fellow residents of Colorado Springs. For the past several weeks, I have been telling you about my adventures surveying a rail line through the Wild West in 1867. There is much more to tell about my trek through the desert and arrival in California, but I want to pause, as Christmas is nearly upon us, to tell you about one of the young men who accompanied me on that trip and later made a significant contribution to how Christmas is celebrated around the world.

Edward Hibberd Johnson was my personal assistant on that journey. At just 21, he was a bright and eager young man from my home city of Philadelphia. He served as everything from my secretary to my valet. We became quite close.

After our journey was done, I eventually sent young Johnson back to Philadelphia to manage a little venture called the Automatic Telegraph Company, of which I was a primary investor. I know people in Colorado Springs these days think my life was focused on the city, but I had my hand in many things, especially in those early days, and I saw a great future in the concept of automatic telegraphs. Anyway, as I said, Johnson was quick as a whip and had the good sense to alert me to a clever young engineer named Thomas Alva Edison. We hired him straight away. I suppose few of you knew I was a one of the primary funders of the Wizard of Menlo Park!

Within a few months Edison had created a mechanical wonder that could send 3,500 words per minute between New York and Philadelphia, when only 50 words a minute could be sent by hand.

Naturally, this invention was eventually eclipsed by others, but at the time it caused quite a stir and Johnson and Edison became close friends and partners and Johnson became head of Edison's electric illumination company in New York City. It was there, in 1882, that he brought Christmas into the modern era. Johnson had strings of electric bulbs the size of walnuts made especially for him in festive colors. He arranged them on his Christmas tree and invited everyone to see the first electric tree in the world.

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As told by staff writer Dave Philipps in Gen. Palmer's voice.

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