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James Ricalton
Courageous Schoolmaster, Photographer, Explorer
THE SEARCH FOR FIBRE
by James Ricalton, c. 1879

A village schoolmaster is not unaccustomed to door-rappings; for the steps of belligerent mothers are often thitherward bent seeking redress for conjured wrongs to their darling boobies.

It was a bewildering moment, therefore, to the Maplewood teacher when, in answering a rap at the door one afternoon, he found, instead of an irate mother, a messenger from the laboratory of the world's greatest inventor bearing a letter requesting an audience a few hours later.

Being the teacher to whom reference is made, I am now quite willing to confess that for the remainder of that afternoon, less than a problem in Euclid would have been sufficient to disqualify me for the remaining scholastic duties of the hour. I felt it, of course, to be no small honor for a humble teacher to be called to the sanctum of Thomas A. Edison. The letter, however, gave no intimation of the nature of the object for which I had been invited to appear before Mr. Edison....

When I was presented to Mr. Edison his way of setting forth the mission he had designated for me was characteristic of how a great mind conceives vast undertakings and commands great things in few words. At this time Mr. Edison had discovered that the fibre of a certain bamboo afforded a very desirable carbon for the electric lamp, and the variety of bam- boo used was a product of Japan. It was his belief that in other parts of the world other and superior varieties might be found, and to that end he had dispatched explorers to bamboo regions in the valleys of the great South American rivers, where specimens were found of extraordinary quality; but the locality in which these specimens were found was lost in the limitless reaches of those great river-bottoms. The great necessity for more durable carbons became a desideratum so urgent that the tireless inventor decided to commission another explorer to search the tropical jungles of the Orient.

This brings me then to the first meeting of Edison, when he set forth substantially as follows, as I remember it twenty years ago, the purpose for which he had called me from my scholastic duties. With a quizzical gleam in his eye, he said: `I want a man to ransack all the tropical jungles of the East to find a better fibre for my lamp; I expect it to be found in the palm or bamboo family. How would you like that job?' Suiting my reply to his love of brevity and dispatch, I said, `That would suit me.' `Can you go to-morrow?' was his next question. `Well, Mr. Edison, I must first of all get a leave of absence from my Board of Education, and assist the board to secure a substitute for the time of my absence. How long will it take, Mr. Edison?' `How can I tell? Maybe six months, and maybe five years; no matter how long, find it.' He continued: `I sent a man to South America to find what I want; he found it; but lost the place where he found it, so he might as well never have found it at all.' Hereat I was enjoined to proceed forthwith to court the Board of Education for a leave of absence, which I did successfully, the board considering that a call so important and honorary was entitled to their unqualified favor, which they generously granted.

I reported to Mr. Edison on the following day, when he instructed me to come to the laboratory at once to learn all the details of drawing and carbonizing fibres, which it would be necessary to do in the Oriental jungles. This I did, and, in the mean time, a set of suitable tools for this purpose had been ordered to be made in the laboratory. As soon as I learned my new trade, which I accomplished in a few days, Mr. Edison directed me to the library of the laboratory to occupy a few days in studying the geography of the Orient and, particularly, in drawing maps of the tributaries of the Ganges, the Irrawaddy, and the Brahmaputra rivers, and other regions which I expected to explore.

It was while thus engaged that Mr. Edison came to me one day and said: `If you will go up to the house' (his palatial home not far away) `and look behind the sofa in the library you will find a joint of bamboo, a specimen of that found in South America; bring it down and make a study of it; if you find something equal to that I will be satisfied.' At the home I was guided to the library by an Irish servant- woman, to whom I communicated my knowledge of the definite locality of the sample joint. She plunged her arm, bare and herculean, behind the aforementioned sofa, and holding aloft a section of wood, called out in a mood of discovery: `Is that it?' Replying in the affirmative, she added, under an impulse of innocent divination that whatever her wizard master laid hands upon could result in nothing short of an invention, `Sure, sor, and what's he going to invint out o' that?'

My kit of tools made, my maps drawn, my Oriental geography reviewed, I come to the point when matters of immediate departure are discussed; and when I took occasion to mention to my chief that, on the subject of life insurance, underwriters refuse to take any risks on an enterprise so hazardous, Mr. Edison said that, if I did not place too high a valuation on my person, he would take the risk himself. I replied that I was born and bred in New York State, but now that I had become a Jersey man I did not value myself at above fifteen hundred dollars. Edison laughed and said that he would assume the risk, and another point was settled. The next matter was the financing of the trip, about which Mr. Edison asked in a tentative way about the rates to the East. I told him the expense of such a trip could not be determined beforehand in detail, but that I had established somewhat of a reputation for economic travel, and that I did not believe any traveller could surpass me in that respect. He desired no further assurance in that direction, and thereupon ordered a letter of credit made out with authorization to order a second when the first was exhausted. Herein then are set forth in briefest space the preliminaries of a circuit of the globe in quest of fibre.

It so happened that the day on which I set out fell on Washington's Birthday, and I suggested to my boys and girls at school that they make a line across the station platform near the school at Maplewood, and from this line I would start eastward around the world, and if good-fortune should bring me back I would meet them from the westward at the same line. As I had often made them `toe the scratch,' for once they were only too well pleased to have me toe the line for them.

This was done, and I sailed via England and the Suez Canal to Ceylon, that fair isle to which Sindbad the Sailor made his sixth voyage, picturesquely referred to in history as the `brightest gem in the British Colonial Crown.' I knew Ceylon to be eminently tropical; I knew it to be rich in many varieties of the bamboo family, which has been called the king of the grasses; and in this family had I most hope of finding the desired fibre. Weeks were spent in this paradisiacal isle. Every part was visited. Native wood craftsmen were offered a premium on every new species brought in, and in this way nearly a hundred species were tested, a greater number than was found in any other country. One of the best specimens tested during the entire trip around the world was found first in Ceylon, although later in Burmah, it being indigenous to the latter country. It is a gigantic tree-grass or reed growing in clumps of from one to two hundred, often twelve inches in diameter, and one hundred and fifty feet high, and known as the giant bamboo (Bambusa gigantia). This giant grass stood the highest test as a carbon, and on account of its extraordinary size and qualities I extend it this special mention. With others who have given much attention to this remarkable reed, I believe that in its manifold uses the bamboo is the world's greatest dendral benefactor.

From Ceylon I proceeded to India, touching the great peninsula first at Cape Comorin, and continuing northward by way of Pondicherry, Madura, and Madras; and thence to the tableland of Bangalore and the Western Ghauts, testing many kinds of wood at every point, but particularly the palm and bamboo families. From the range of the Western Ghauts I went to Bombay and then north by the way of Delhi to Simla, the summer capital of the Himalayas; thence again northward to the headwaters of the Sutlej River, testing everywhere on my way everything likely to afford the desired carbon.

On returning from the mountains I followed the valleys of the Jumna and the Ganges to Calcutta, whence I again ascended the Sub-Himalayas to Darjeeling, where the numerous river-bottoms were sprinkled plentifully with many varieties of bamboo, from the larger sizes to dwarfed species covering the mountain slopes, and not longer than the grass of meadows. Again descending to the plains I passed eastward to the Brahmaputra River, which I ascended to the foot-hills in Assam; but finding nothing of superior quality in all this northern region I returned to Calcutta and sailed thence to Rangoon, in Burmah; and there, finding no samples giving more excellent tests in the lower reaches of the Irrawaddy, I ascended that river to Mandalay, where, through Burmese bamboo wiseacres, I gathered in from round about and tested all that the unusually rich Burmese flora could furnish. In Burmah the giant bamboo, as already mentioned, is found indigenous; but beside it no superior varieties were found. Samples tested at several points on the Malay Peninsula showed no new species, except at a point north of Singapore, where I found a species large and heavy which gave a test nearly equal to that of the giant bamboo in Ceylon.

After completing the Malay Peninsula I had planned to visit Java and Borneo; but having found in the Malay Peninsula and in Ceylon a bamboo fibre which averaged a test from one to two hundred per cent. better than that in use at the lamp factory, I decided it was unnecessary to visit these countries or New Guinea, as my `Eureka' had already been established, and that I would therefore set forth over the return hemisphere, searching China and Japan on the way. The rivers in Southern China brought down to Canton bamboos of many species, where this wondrously utilitarian reed enters very largely into the industrial life of that people, and not merely into the industrial life, but even into the culinary arts, for bamboo sprouts are a universal vegetable in China; but among all the bamboos of China I found none of superexcellence in carbonizing qualities. Japan came next in the succession of countries to be explored, but there the work was much simplified, from the fact that the Tokio Museum contains a complete classified collection of all the different species in the empire, and there samples could be obtained and tested.

Now the last of the important bamboo-producing countries in the globe circuit had been done, and the `home-lap' was in order; the broad Pacific was spanned in fourteen days; my natal continent in six; and on the 22d of February, on the same day, at the same hour, at the same minute, one year to a second, `little Maude,' a sweet maid of the school, led me across the line which completed the circuit of the globe, and where I was greeted by the cheers of my boys and girls. I at once reported to Mr. Edison, whose manner of greeting my return was as characteristic of the man as his summary and matter-of- fact manner of my dispatch. His little catechism of curious inquiry was embraced in four small and intensely Anglo-Saxon words--with his usual pleasant smile he extended his hand and said: `Did you get it?' This was surely a summing of a year's exploration not less laconic than Caesar's review of his Gallic campaign. When I replied that I had, but that he must be the final judge of what I had found, he said that during my absence he had succeeded in making an artificial carbon which was meeting the requirements satisfactorily; so well, indeed, that I believe no practical use was ever made of the bamboo fibres thereafter.

I have herein given a very brief resume of my search for fibre through the Orient; and during my connection with that mission I was at all times not less astonished at Mr. Edison's quick perception of conditions and his instant decision and his bigness of conceptions, than I had always been with his prodigious industry and his inventive genius.

Thinking persons know that blatant men never accomplish much, and Edison's marvellous brevity of speech along with his miraculous achievements should do much to put bores and garrulity out of fashion.

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