It was 4 am. Smoke billowed from the spout of the engine as the first train of the day chugged sleepily into the station. The station master rushed towards it for his routine survey.
“All fine there, Bob?” he called out to the driver, as his words disappeared in little clouds of vapour in the early morning cold.
The driver gave him the thumbs-up and rubbed his palms together to keep them warm. As the engine whistled signalling its departure, a figure shot out of the dark and ran towards the train.
“Ah, here he comes,” said the station master. “Go on lad, be quick,” he said to the boy, who jumped onto the train at the last moment. He lowered the heavy sack from his shoulder, turned back and waved goodbye to the station master.
He dragged his sack to the front of the train, to the engine room. The driver, Bob, saw him and said, “Ya there, boy, give me a quick hand.”
Tom went ahead and helped Bob unload a sack of coal into the pit. Dusting his hands, Bob sat down on another sack of coal, as the train moved out of the station.
“I’ll take a sweet bun, if ya got any,” said Bob.
“Sure,” said Tom, taking out a steel box from his sack. He opened it, and picked out a bun with raisins in it, and handed it to Bob. He pocketed the coin given by Bob and turned to leave.
“It’s a cold morning. Ya can sit here by the fire for some time if ya like” said Bob, munching on the bun.
“Thank you, but I have work to do.”
“We don’t get no passengers ‘til the next fifteen min’s.”
“Yes, but I still have work to do,” said Tom, and walked out of the engine room. He crossed the passenger seating and went to the far end of the train to the luggage cars. He took out his wares from his sack and arranged them on a trolley. He steadied himself in the moving train and brought out a small wooden box from behind one of the luggage trollies. He opened it and looked at the dozens of small paper packets inside. He reached into his pocket and pulled out another paper packet. With a small pencil, he wrote the word “sulphur” on the packet. Then he smiled and placed it in the wooden box. He shut the lid of the box and put it back behind the luggage trolley. He had his own little treasure hidden there. A copper vessel and a spoon from his mother’s kitchen, a small glass plate and a broken piece of magnet sat there in a small cloth bag. As he was admiring his treasure, he was startled by the whistle of the engine. He got up hurriedly and wheeled his trolley out into the passenger car.
A stream of people entered the train through all the doors as the train stopped at the station. The cold wagon was filled with the warmth of all the people and their dogs, and they’re endless
chatter. People were sitting everywhere in the brightly lit carriage with gilded red curtains. Tom wheeled his trolley carefully to avoid stepping on anyone’s feet. He shouted out his wares, “Buns and cakes, everyone, buns and cakes.”
An elderly gentleman, who was fidgeting with his thick overcoat, stopped him and asked, “What have you got there, my boy?”
“I have some fresh buns and cakes and coffee. I also have newspapers if you would like to read.”
“I’ll take a cup of coffee if it’s warm enough,” said the man, reaching into his wallet.
Tom handed him the coffee and pocketed the coin he got.
“Thank you, my boy,” he said stroking his big white moustache.
“And good day to you, sir.”
Tom went all the way down the length of the train, selling his wares, and talking to people. He reached the engine room and peeped inside. Bob was busy loading piles of coal into the fire, sweating.
“Do you need another bun?” Tom asked him.
“Nah,” said Bob, and waved him away with his hand. Tom looked at the coal burning bright orange in the furnace. The light coming from it gave Bob a frightening orange colour. Tom turned to go and his eyes fell on the piles upon piles of coal sacks stacked near the door.
“Can I have two pieces of coal, please?” he asked Bob.
Bob turned back and eyed Tom with a confused look on his face.
“Don’t ya bother me, lad. Go your own way, go on” said Bob, shooing him away.
Tom turned to go. He wheeled his trolley back into the passenger area. Almost all his wares were sold. He had only a few pieces of cake and a couple of newspapers left. Happily, he rushed towards the luggage car. The old man with the big white moustache stopped him.
“Boy” he called out to him. “Are you not selling anything anymore?”
“Of course, sir,” said Tom, turning towards him. “What would you like to buy?”
“A newspaper, please.”
Tom quickly handed him a newspaper and turned to go.
“Boy, you forgot your money,” said the old man, and laughed. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
“I am sorry, sir,” said Tom, taking a coin from the old man. “I was hurrying to the luggage car. I have some work to do.”
“And what work is it, may I ask, my boy?”
“I have to finish some experiments before the end of the journey.”
“Experiments?” asked the man, astounded. “What experiments?”
Tom pulled out a book from the bottom of his trolley and handed it to the old man.
“Well, these are science experiments,” said the man, going through the book. “May I ask, why are you going about with them on a train?”
“This is where I have some time on my hands, sir. Otherwise, I don’t get to read science.”
“What is your name, my boy?”
“My name is Thomas, sir. People call me Tom.”
“Well, Thomas, you seem to be quite fond of science. Tell me what you find funny about sodium?”
“It catches fire when it touches water, sir.”
“Very good. You must be quite a bright lad at school.”
“I don’t go to school, sir.”
“They say I’m not good enough.”
“Well, I would say the school is not good enough for you,” he said, returning the book to Tom. “Which experiment are you planning to do today?”
“I want to try distillation. I have a glass plate, a bowl and some water down in the luggage car. But I can’t find a way to heat water.”
“Why don’t you get a lamp?”
“I don’t have money for the oil, and my mother won’t let me use the lamp at home. It’s the only one we’ve got.”
“That’s no reason to stop. Think of other ways to generate heat.”
“I thought about coal, but the engine driver won’t give me any.”
The old man smiled. “No one gives you anything just like that. You have to work hard for everything you want. If you want coal from the driver, you need to strike a deal with him. That is the way the world works, son.”
Tom nodded. “Thank you, sir,” he said and wheeled his trolley away. He went back to the engine room, where Bob was busy steering.
“Can I have some coal, please?” asked Tom.
Bob looked at him, irritated. “I told ya not to bug me, boy. Ya ain’t getting no coal.”
“I can buy it from you,” said Tom.
Bob laughed. “What ya got to offer?”
“I can give you a piece of cake for five pieces of coal.”
“Three pieces of coal.”
“Fine, but I need them heated, and in some container.”
“Ya got yerself a deal.”
“Deal,” said Tom, grinning.
Tom handed him a piece of fruit cake and took from him an iron bucket with three glowing orange pieces of coal. Happily, Tom headed back to the luggage car. On the way, he spotted the old man. He showed him the bucket and said happily, “Look, sir. I got the coal. I struck a deal.”
“Good for you, my boy,” said the old man, smiling. “Now go on and finish your experiment before the heat dies out.”
Tom went to the luggage car and dragged a cardboard box to the middle of the car. He placed the bucket on the box, covered it with a copper plate, and put a bowl of water on the plate. Then he set about looking for something to cover the bowl to collect the steam. He found a metal helmet lying in a corner, and tried to break the straps to create a hole in it. There was a sudden jerk to the train, and the cardboard box went sliding to the edge of the car, toppling the bucket. The burning coals flew out of the bucket like marbles and hit the other cardboard boxes in the car. The cardboard singed and burned, as Tom tried in vain to collect the coals back in the bucket. One of the boxes started blazing. As Tom saw the orange tongues of fire leap out at him, he ran out screaming, “FIRE!!”
Hell broke loose in the passenger compartment. Everyone started running at the same time. People were falling over each other, grabbing their bags, and calling out to their loved ones. Tom reached the engine room, panting.
“Fire” he cried. “Fire in the luggage car. Help, Bob!”
Bob turned back, and the orange glow of the furnace drained out of his face. He immediately pulled a lever and brought the roaring vehicle to a stop. He then rushed out of the engine room and grabbed the hose hanging on the wall.
“Where is the fire?” he screamed, running towards the passengers. He saw the passengers coughing out the smoke, trying to open the heavy doors of the compartments. He saw the orange glow coming out of the entrance to the luggage car.
“Stay still, everyone, stay still” he shouted out.
He pointed the hose at the fire, and let out a jet of water. A hiss rose from the fire as its force was weakened. He advanced towards the fire as it retreated. Finally, after a struggle of exactly 3 minutes, the fire was contained, and the compartment was filled with warm steam and water from the hose. Bob went inside the luggage compartment to take a look around.
Thankfully, the damage was not much. Only two boxes of goods were burnt. Moving ahead, Bob also found the burnt remains of what used to be a small wooden box.
He came back to the passengers and said “I’ll get the train going. Ya all make yerselves seated.”
He turned around and found Tom sitting behind a seat with his head between his knees.
“Ya there, boy,” he said to Tom. “Don’t hide. ‘Twas ya who started the fire, wasn’t it?”
“I am sorry. I did not mean to. It was not my fault” said Tom, on the verge of tears.
“Your fault, it was,” said Bob, raging. “I knew ya was up to mischief.”
“I am sorry to interrupt you, kind sir,” said the old man with the big white moustache. “He is but a mere boy, and as he said, it was not his fault.”
“Ya please sit down, sir,” said Bob to the old man. “That lad there coulda burned the train down.”
The old man sat down, looking helpless. Bob went to Tom and pulled him up by his ears.
“I am sorry” sobbed Tom. “Please let me go.”
“Aye, I will let ya go,” said Bob. He boxed him full in his ears.
“Please, sir,” said the old man. “I beg you to stop.”
“Get out” screamed Bob. “At once, or I’ll throw ya out.”
When Tom continued to cry, Bob picked him up and threw him out of the train. He landed on the soft grass and started crying. He looked up at the train as the wheels creaked, and it started moving. He cried even harder when he realised his wooden box of chemical supplies was not with him. The train went away, leaving him sprawled on the grass. When everything fell silent, he realised there was a weird ringing sound in his ears. He put his fingers in his ears and tried to rub it out. But the sound still persisted. After a few minutes, Tom gave up. He trudged his way home slowly, tired and famished. It was evening, and his mother was waiting at the door for him.
“Tom!” she said when she spotted him. “Tom, my dear, where have you been?”
The neighbour’s son, who was passing by, grinned and said, “Your son started a fire today, Mrs Edison.”
She looked at Tom. “Tom, what is he talking about?” she asked him. Tom could hear nothing. He walked past her and went inside.
“Tom, don’t you go away when I am talking to you. Tom. Tom!” she called after him.
When she reached inside, Tom was lying on the bed, fast asleep.
Twenty-two years later, a conference was held in one of the topmost universities of America. A lot of people and press were present. It was a very special conference, because a very important invention had been unveiled in front of the world, and people wanted to take a look at the man who had done that. A long table was set up on the stage and professors from different departments had taken their seats behind it. Tom was there, sitting in the audience, watching the proceedings. One of the professors, Dr Benson, got up and walked to the dais.
“Good morning to all assembled here,” he said to the audience. “Once in a century, comes such a moment which has the capability to change the face of the entire world. And we consider ourselves fortunate enough to have witnessed such a moment. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, the very esteemed inventor of the electric bulb, Thomas Edison.”
The crowd cheered as Tom got up from his seat and walked to the stage. He was presented with a memento and a bouquet of flowers. He thanked the audience and all the professors and took his seat at the table.
Dr. Benson addressed the audience, “Now Mr. Edison would like to share a few words.”
Tom got up and walked to the dais. He said, “Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for having me here. I have nothing much to say. However, if you have any questions, I would be happy to answer them.”
Several hands shot upwards. Tom gestured towards a young man sitting in the third row.
“Mr. Edison” he asked. “How did you have the idea of inventing the electric bulb?”
“I am sorry, young man,” said Tom. “I am a little hard of hearing. Could you please speak a little louder?”
“My apologies, sir,” said the man, a little loudly. “I was not aware of that. As I was saying, how did you have the idea of inventing the electric bulb?”
“I never had the idea of inventing the electric bulb,” said Tom. “I was just doing my work, conducting my experiments, as I always do, and I hit upon a discovery. I just developed it into something people could use.”
Another man in the very first row raised his hand and was granted a question.
“If I may not sound too prodding, sir,” he asked. “How do you have a hearing problem at such young an age?”
“Oh,” Tom sighed. “I have had this problem since I was a young boy. I fell out of a train once and hurt my head. My ears have troubled me ever since.”
“Do you see that as a disadvantage?”
“Not at all” laughed Tom. “It is rather an advantage to me. Necessity is the mother of invention. I cannot hear properly, so it was absolutely necessary that I could see properly, and hence the bulb.”
The crowd laughed with him. Another person got up and asked, “What is it that keeps you going, sir?”
“The need of man,” said Tom “I have always felt that my life would be worthwhile if I could change the life of at least one human being for the better. God has given me strength, and I use it to its fullest. I do what His word tells me to do. ‘Let there be light’ he had said long ago, and I just made sure it held true.”
“What do you plan to do now, sir?”
Tom smiled. “I plan to go on working, young man, for only work is what stays back after men no longer do. I have got the filament glowing for now, and I intend to make sure that the illumination lasts forever.”
The crowd erupted in applause as Thomas Edison got down from the dais.