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Cornell, Alonzo Barton (22 January 1832–15 October 1904), businessman and governor of New York, was born in Ithaca, New York, the son of Ezra Cornell, the capitalist and founder of Cornell University, and Mary Ann Wood. At the age of fifteen Cornell withdrew from the Ithaca Academy, left home, and moved to Troy, New York, where he worked as a telegrapher. From there he moved to Montreal, Quebec, then to Buffalo, New York, and Cleveland, Ohio, to take various managerial jobs with telegraph companies. In 1851 Cornell returned to Ithaca, where he worked as an officer of the Tompkins County Bank. The following year he married Elen Augusta Covert. In 1855 he moved to New York City to take a job as a telegraph manager on Wall Street....

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Creighton, Edward (31 August 1820–05 November 1874), pioneer telegraph builder, banker, and philanthropist, was born in Belmont County, Ohio (near the present town of Barnesville), the son of James Creighton and Bridget Hughes, farmers. Creighton’s father had emigrated in 1805 from County Dungannon, Ireland, to the United States. In 1830 the Creighton family moved to a farm in Licking County, Ohio. Edward Creighton began full-time employment on the family farm and as a wagoner at the age of fourteen. In these early years he worked on the pike roads of Ohio with the young ...

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Thomas Eckert. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-B8172-2057).

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Eckert, Thomas Thompson (23 April 1825–20 October 1910), telegrapher and business and military manager, was born at St. Clairsville, Belmont County, Ohio, where his father was a farmer. His parents’ names are unknown. Eckert married Emma D. Whitney (date unknown), with whom he had two children. After a common school education, Eckert went to New York, building on a youthful interest in telegraphy as an operator with the Morse Telegraph Company. Eckert’s early initiatives as a telegrapher and organizer caught the attention of his second employer, J. H. Wade, owner of the Wade Telegraph Company. While working as one of Wade’s operators in Wooster, Ohio, Eckert managed to get appointed local postmaster and connected the telegraph wire with his post office, combining the two jobs. Wade in 1852 made Eckert superintendent of the newly completed Pittsburgh and Chicago branch line of the Union Telegraph Company, of which Wade, residing in Chicago, was president. Eckert held this position, which was expanded when the line was taken over by Western Union, until 1859, when he resigned to manage a gold mining company in North Carolina until the outbreak of the Civil War. Early in the Civil War the assistant secretary of war, made aware of Eckert’s talents, placed him in charge of General in Chief ...

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Thomas Alva Edison Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-98066).

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Edison, Thomas Alva (11 February 1847–18 October 1931), inventor and business entrepreneur, was born in Milan, Ohio, the son of Samuel Edison, a shingle maker, land speculator, and shopkeeper, and Nancy Elliott, a schoolteacher. Of Dutch and American heritage, his father escaped from Canada during the rebellion of 1837–1838 and, with his wife and children, settled in Milan, a burgeoning wheat port on a canal near Lake Erie, midway between Cleveland and Detroit. “Al,” as his family called him, received devoted attention from his oldest sister Marion and his mother. The arrival of the railroad in a nearby town sharply diminished the canal business in Milan and prompted the family to move to Port Huron, Michigan, in 1854. Al attended both public and private schools for short periods but studied extensively with his mother at home, where he also read books from the library of his politically radical father....

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Fessenden, Reginald Aubrey (06 October 1866–22 July 1932), inventor, was born in East Bolton, Quebec, Canada, the son of Elisha Joseph Fessenden, an Anglican clergyman, and Clementina Trenholme. Fessenden spent his earliest years at Bolton Centre, Quebec, and Fergus, Ontario. From a young age he showed a keen interest in invention and science and filled every free moment with the reading of scientific texts, being encouraged in this pursuit by his uncle, Cortez Fessenden, a teacher of science and mathematics. At the age of seven Fessenden read Gibbon’s ...

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Cyrus W. Field. Daguerreotype from the studio of Mathew B. Brady. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-110001).

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Field, Cyrus West (30 November 1819–12 July 1892), financier and promoter of the transatlantic cable, was born in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the son of David Dudley Field, a Congregationalist minister, and Submit Dickinson. Field’s abiding interest in grand projects such as the Atlantic telegraph owed much to his upbringing. Reared in a strict yet emotionally supportive household, he acquired from his parents a taste for hard work, a zeal for organization, and a restless curiosity. He “never saw Cyrus so uneasy,” one of his brothers once aptly remarked, “as when he was trying to keep still” (Judson, p. 58). It was also an upbringing conducive to high achievement as three of Field’s brothers also rose to national prominence: ...

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Green, Norvin (17 April 1818–12 February 1893), business leader, was born in New Albany, Indiana, the son of Joseph Green and Susan Ball, farmers. Green grew up in Breckenridge County, Kentucky, to which his parents moved soon after his birth. As a boy, he worked on his father’s farm and attended the local schools. When his father’s farm failed, he left home to make a living. At age sixteen, Green ran a grocery store from a flatboat that he floated down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, selling supplies to the lumbermen on the banks. Green also worked briefly as a lumberman himself....

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Amos Kendall. Daguerreotype from the studio of Mathew B. Brady. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-109899).

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Kendall, Amos (16 August 1789–12 November 1869), journalist, postmaster general, and business agent, was born in Dunstable, Massachusetts, the son of Zebedee Kendall and Molly Dakin, farmers. Kendall spent his early years working on the family farm under the supervision of his father, a deacon in the Congregational church. After attending academies in New Ipswich, New Hampshire, and Groton, Massachusetts, he enrolled in 1807 at Dartmouth College. Frail and unaccustomed to independence, Kendall had difficulty adjusting to college life, especially because many of his classmates had moral standards much less strict than his own and because he had to drop out each winter to earn money by teaching school. But he adapted, made friends, and was so intelligent and hardworking that when he graduated in 1811 he ranked first in his class. Uncertain about his future, he spent the next few years in Groton studying law under Republican congressman William M. Richardson, who later became chief justice of the New Hampshire Superior Court....

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Samuel F. B. Morse. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-92300).

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Morse, Samuel Finley Breese (27 April 1791–02 April 1872), artist and telegraph inventor, was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the eldest child of Rev. Jedidiah Morse and Elizabeth Ann Breese. Some biographers have emphasized the influence of his father’s evangelical Calvinism on Morse, but much of his early life was spent away from home; he was enrolled as a boarder at Phillips Academy in Andover at age eight. He entered Yale in 1805 and graduated in 1810, obtaining some knowledge of electricity (but not of electromagnetism, which had yet to be discovered) from courses with ...

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Orton, William (14 June 1826–22 April 1878), president of Western Union Telegraph Company, was born in Cuba, Allegany County, New York, the son of Horatio Orton, a teacher, and Sarah Carson. William attended district schools before attempting to follow in his father’s footsteps. It is unclear whether William actually attended the State Normal School in Oswego, New York, or merely passed an examination before the Regents of Education, but he obtained a teaching degree in 1846. During the period before this examination he supported himself by working in a printing establishment. Orton’s initial introduction to telegraph technology came during the preparation of his thesis on the new electromagnetic telegraph of ...

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Pitman, Benn (24 July 1822–28 December 1910), phonographer and teacher of decorative arts, was born in Trowbridge, near Bath, England, the son of Samuel Pitman, a manager of a cloth factory, and Mariah Davis. Home life was strict for Benn and his six brothers and four sisters. Trivial conversation was discouraged, and younger children were required to stand silently while eating at the dinner table. His parents, however, supported education, subscribed to a local lending library, and encouraged a liberal view toward religious and intellectual issues. His early schooling, gained from the parish rector, from the poet George Crabbe, and through instruction at home, provided Pitman with a solid middle-class education. At the age of fifteen he learned a system of phonography, or shorthand, just developed by his older brother Isaac, and he assisted in the publication of Isaac’s first manual. For a brief time Benn Pitman trained with the city architect of Bath, a situation that provided his first exposure to functional design. In 1842 he returned to the promotion of phonography, and for several years he lectured and taught, often with his brothers and other young enthusiasts, in the principal cities and towns of Great Britain....

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David Sarnoff. Photograph by Louis Fabian Bachrach, c. 1939–1941. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-92231).

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Sarnoff, David (27 February 1891–12 December 1971), media executive, was born in Uzlian in the Russian province of Minsk, the son of Abraham Sarnoff, a trader and house painter, and Leah Privin, a seamstress. When David was five, his father left for the United States and he was sent to live with an uncle. When his father sent money for his passage five years later, David rejoined the family and traveled to Canada in steerage, landing in Montreal and entering the United States by train in 1900. The Sarnoffs settled in the Lower East Side of New York City, and David entered school but also helped support the family by running errands for a local butcher, delivering newspapers, and singing soprano in a synagogue. He also studied at the Educational Alliance, quickly learning English. When he was fifteen his father died, and David left school for good; while he later received many honorary degrees, his formal education ended with eighth grade....

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Hiram Sibley. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-92361).

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Sibley, Hiram (06 February 1807–12 July 1888), business leader, was born in North Adams, Massachusetts, the son of Benjamin Sibley and Zilpha Davis, farmers. Sibley attended village schools in North Adams, where he worked as a sawyer and shoemaker while also honing his skills as a practical mechanic. At age sixteen he left home for the Genesee Valley of New York, where he worked briefly as a wool carder. In 1830 he set up a successful machine shop in Lima, New York, and the following year he and a partner purchased a machine shop in nearby Mendon from Giles Tinker, a fellow North Adams native. Sibley remembered Tinker’s daughter, Elizabeth, from his youth, and married her in 1833. The couple had five children. Between 1831 and 1837 Sibley supervised a team of eighty artisans who manufactured wool carding machinery and agricultural implements. In 1838 Sibley moved to Rochester, New York, where he expanded the range of his activities still further by engaging in banking and real estate. Between 1843 and 1847, he also served as sheriff of Monroe County....