Elisha Gray: The Early Years
Part 1 of 4
Elisha Gray was a dairy farmer who at one time considered entering the seminary. He was a “sleepy” procrastinator who turned out to be a brilliant scientist, an inventor who fought a bruising battle with Alexander Graham Bell.
Gray was the creative spirit behind Gray & Barton.
Elisha Gray was born August 2, 1835, at Barnesville in northeastern Ohio. His parents, David and Christiana (Edgerton) Gray, were Quaker farmers who had moved to Ohio from Pennsylvania. Life on the farm was a struggle for the family, and when his father died suddenly, Elisha was forced at age 12 to leave public school and go to work to support his mother.
Elisha apprenticed himself to a blacksmith, but found he was too frail for that trade. His mother returned to her original home in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, and Elisha joined her there, spending the next three years working as a carpenter and boat builder. He then returned to northeastern Ohio, where he tried to find success as a dairy worker. He worked hard at it but succeeded only in keeping himself barely out of poverty.
During this period, the young man also briefly contemplated entering the ministry.
At the age of 22, Elisha decided that in order to improve himself, he would need more formal education. Accordingly, he enrolled in the preparatory school in Oberlin, Ohio. He was not a prize pupil – his classmates universally tagged him a sleepy student. He stayed there three years and then attended Oberlin College for one year.
While he was in school, Elisha also worked at odd jobs to support himself. He found that the schedule of studying, serving as school janitor and building wooden models for use in science classrooms was too much for his frail health. He left school again and returned to the dairy farm.
However, there was a bright spot in Elisha’s life. He met and fell in love with a young lady from Oberlin named Delia M. Shepard. In 1862, he and Delia were married.
To judge only from his academic career, few would have suspected that Elisha Gray would one day make his mark as an inventor involved in the most advanced technology of his day.
But beneath his nondescript exterior, Gray was a gifted scientist. At Oberlin, he had acquired a basic knowledge of electricity, and he read voraciously everything he could find on the subject. After he left Oberlin, the college allowed him use of its electrical apparatus for his experiments.
During this period, Gray – still a struggling dairy farmer – conceived and patented his first electrical invention. In those days, electrical storms and bad weather often interrupted the transmission of telegraph messages.
Gray invented a “self-adjusting telegraphy relay” that automatically counteracted this electrical interference.
Gray’s relay attracted the attention of General Anson Stager, who had headed the Union Army Signal Corps during the Civil War and was now Superintendent of the Western Union telegraph office at Cleveland. Stager recognized the talent of the young farmer, and he invited Gray to come to Cleveland to use the company’s laboratory for his experiments. This relationship led to other patents covering several communications devices.
This article was republished from the Spring 1994 Graybar Outlook magazine.