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From Rags to RichesThe Story of Edwin C. Barnes

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Edwin C. Barnes as a young man.

When he was a young man, Edwin C. Barnes yearned to become a partner of the greatest inventor on Earth, Thomas A. Edison. Even though Barnes was broke, had no special technical skills, and owned only meager clothes to wear, he pledged to himself that he would make his dream come true.

On a fateful day in 1905, Barnes rolled into West Orange, New Jersey on a freight train. Despite being poorly dressed and looking more like an outcast than a man of achievement, the Midwesterner walked into the famous Edison Laboratory full of confidence. There, he told the famed inventor that he had come to form a partnership with him. Nearby members of Edison's staff were amused by Barnes' declaration, and they laughed at him hysterically. But, Edison did not laugh. For, what he saw was a determined young man who was prepared to do whatever it would take to help bring new growth to his company.

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Thomas Edison demonstrating the Ediphone to Edwin C. Barnes.
Edwin C. Barnes (left) and Thomas Edison look over an Ediphone outside Edison's West Orange laboratory complex in New Jersey.

Impressed with Barnes' ambition and internal drive, Edison decided to give the poor man an opportunity to work with him – not as his partner, but as a floor sweeper! Barnes accepted the inventor's offer without hesitation, and he was not dejected in the slightest knowing that he would start his new career with a broom in hand. The aspiring “partner” understood that he was given a chance of a lifetime to show Edison what he could do for him. He knew that accepting the legend's humbling offer would open the door for him to observe how the brilliant man thought. Barnes also understood that Edison was extending to him a tremendous opportunity to meet his friends and associates, some of the most influential and most powerful people in the world.

From the very beginning as a floor sweeper, Barnes did the best work he possibly could for Edison, and he never once backed down from his goal of establishing a partnership with the world's leader of practical technology. Months went by, and, to the unobserved, nothing special seemed to be happening. In the mind of Barnes, however, something very big was blossoming – he was learning what made Edison tick, and he was setting the stage to attract opportunities his way.

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Thomas Edison, Edwin C. Barnes, and Nelson Durand laughing together while standing at a doorstep outside of an office complex.
Thomas Edison sharing a funny story with Edwin C. Barnes (center) and Nelson Durand (right).

After working for Edison for nearly two years, Barnes “saw” a golden opportunity, and he seized it with full force. Following many years of preparation, the inventor was ready to commercialize his dictating machine, a recorder which could capture and play back the human voice. Edison's machine, later renamed the Ediphone, recorded “voice letters” on a wax cylinder, and its inventor thought very highly of it. However, when members of Edison's sales force looked over his new invention, most of them doubted that it would be a commercial success, and they expressed little interest in trying to sell it.

Barnes, in contrast, recognized that Edison's new machine could help thousands of executives across the country. He envisioned that it would allow them to dictate at any time, day or night, for later playback. He saw that an executive would no longer need to have a stenographer at his side to record his thoughts. Barnes also conceived that Edison's dictating machine could increase productivity, reduce costs, and improve profits for its users.

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Thomas Edison and Edwin C. Barnes sitting at a large wooden table and looking at a transophone atop of it.
Edwin C. Barnes listens intently as Thomas Edison explains the transophone, a new device from the master inventor that features a dictating machine that can be controlled electrically from a typewriter keyboard.

Realizing that an opportunity of a lifetime had landed at his feet, Barnes wasted no time working out a marketing plan for selling Edison's dictating machine. He took his plan straight to the inventor and sold him on his desire to market and distribute his recording devices across America. Edison was so impressed with Barnes's proposal, he readily agreed to give him exclusive rights to sell and distribute his new voice machine in Chicago and contiguous territories.

Within months of securing an agreement with Edison, Barnes had sold thousands of “talking” machines. Sales, in fact, had grown so rapidly he established his own firm, Edwin C. Barnes & Brothers, to keep up with and grow the sales of Edison's product. Barnes proved to be very adept at judging, selecting, and managing people, and the new boss quickly surrounded himself with “one of the most efficient and energetic staffs in the field of office appliances.”

Despite near overwhelming success selling Edison's Dictating Machine in the Chicago area, Barnes sought control of an even bigger market. This drive reflected the business man's insatiable appetite for taking on added responsibility and for rendering the best service he possibly could – both for his employer and for his customers. Barnes got his way, and in 1917 his firm gained control of the sales market in New York and in St. Louis, while retaining his agency in Chicago.

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An old magazine ad for the Ediphone.  The bottom of the ad reads, 'Built by Edison - Installed by Barnes.'
Edwin C. Barnes envisioned how thousands of business people could benefit from Edison's new dictating machine, a machine that few others thought could sell. The motto “Built by Edison—Installed by Barnes” reflected their dedication to top quality of products and service provided.

So successful was Barnes at selling Edison's dictating machine in each of his markets, he became a multimillionaire at a relatively young age. But, more importantly, Barnes became a man who helped thousands of people across the country benefit from Edison's device. And, it is probable that the true potential of Edison's machine would not have been realized had it not been for the uncanny insight that Barnes fostered during his working years at the famous laboratory complex in West Orange.

Pivotal to Barnes success as both a manager and a salesman is that he worked diligently to know what was happening in every area of Edison's dictating business. From the factory floor to marketing and sales, Barnes kept abreast of all significant developments and issues which influenced product production, quality, and service. He continually sought to identify problem areas, bring forth solutions to them, and create new opportunities. Thus, Barnes didn't wait for good things to happen – he made them happen.

There is no doubt that Edwin C. Barnes was an extraordinary thinker. However, what really separated him from the rest of the pack was his uncanny ability to select the right employees, establish organized and energetic teams, and keep the people around him highly motivated and focused. In business, his role as “coach” was just as important as his role as “boss”. Barnes made it a habit to talk personally and regularly with employees at all levels of his business. He listened to them with open ears, considered highly what he was told, and – when appropriate or necessary – offered them a bit of motivating guidance. These habits helped Edison's “top man” make the right business decisions, and they brought forth full support and organized effort from the people around him.

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Edison and Barnes shaking hands
The original “Dynamic Dual” — Thomas A. Edison and Edwin C. Barnes.

Barnes was a complex person, and it is difficult – perhaps impossible – to codify all of the success principles he followed into a compact formula. However, there were 15 actions and thought patterns which the salesman consistently adhered to and which were pivotal in his “rags-to-riches” transformation. They were:

  1. He knew what he wanted to accomplish;
  2. He concentrated his energy on his chosen goals and avoided “time wasters”;
  3. He used the power of imagination to circumvent difficulties;
  4. He was willing to start at the “bottom” in order to gain know how and exposure;
  5. He created and seized opportunities;
  6. He maintained a dogged determination to transform his goals into reality;
  7. He worked long hours with concentrated energy for many years to get what he wanted;
  8. He talked relatively little and produced big;
  9. He was not deterred by ridicule, criticism, setbacks, or obstacles;
  10. He made ideas happen;
  11. In alignment with his goals, he found a way to help other people become more successful;
  12. He made himself invaluable in his work – so much that Edison couldn't get along without him;
  13. He was committed to providing his customers with top service;
  14. He selected the right people and inspired his teams to greatness;
  15. He learned everything he could about his chosen line of work.

Barnes also saved much of his initial earnings as an employee of Edison's West Orange laboratory complex to buy new and quality clothes. And, eventually he built a rather impressive wardrobe. Referring to a time just before Barnes made it big within the Edison organization, Napoleon Hill wrote in the Law of Success:

“In those days he had the largest and most expensive collection of clothes I had ever seen or heard of one man owning. His wardrobe consisted of thirty-one suits; one for each day of the month. He never wore the same suit two days in succession.”

When Napoleon Hill asked the upcoming salesman why it was that he paid special attention to his attire, Barnes replied, “I do not wear thirty-one suits of clothes entirely for the impression they make on other people; I do it mostly for the impression they have on me.”

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Edwin C. Barnes dressed in a stylish business suit and with his hair neatly parted
Edwin C. Barnes dressed not only to look successful, but to feel successful.

Barnes did not judge his success by how much money he made or by how many sales he generated. He considered personal gain and sales numbers just a by-product of his true aim – to achieve 100% customer satisfaction! As such, Edison's “partner” did not resort to sales gimmicks or trickery. In fact, he never pushed to sell a dictating machine without first verifying that his potential customer would benefit from it. And, once Barnes did make a sale, this was just the beginning. He followed up with service and made sure that his buyer reaped full benefit from his purchase.

The Rotary Club, an international organization committed to bringing business and community leaders together to provide humanitarian services, got its start in 1905 when Paul P. Harris, an attorney, organized a meeting with three Chicago businesses as participants. Soon afterwards, Barnes became an active member of the Chicago Rotary Club, and he did much to make the organization popular with the public.

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Barnes posing with guest Evan Johnson and members of his Chicago and New York sales teams.
One of Barnes' greatest gifts was his ability to select the right people and bring them together in a spirt of harmony and synergy. Shown here is a photo of Mr. Barnes posing with members of his sales team from Chicago and New York, with special guest Evan Johnson. Johnson, 8th from left, was President, Treasurer, and Managing Editor of Office Appliances (then a leading publication in the office equipment field). Barnes is 9th from left.

The motto of the Rotary Club was, “He profits most who serves best.” The Rotarians also judged profit by how much happiness their work brought them and the public, not by earnings generated. As a devotee of Rotarian philosophy, Barnes often organized and promoted events to raise money for people in need. One such event he orchestrated was an industrial exhibit that was opened to the public with no admission charge at the Continental and Commercial National Bank building in Chicago on January 30, 1914. Referring to this event, Barnes told a reporter from the Chicago Daily News, “Each exhibitor pays $5 of which $1 goes to pay the expenses and the rest will be turned over to charity.”

Barnes managed the third annual Big Business Show put on by the Chicago Rotary Club. It was held on the second floor of the Sherman Hotel on December 9 and 10, 1915, and the exhibit drew an estimated 12,000 visitors. The show was a massive success, and for his stupendous efforts Barnes was given a medal of honor by the organization “for doing, not talking.”

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The cross of honor medal given to Edwin C. Barnes by The Chicago Rotary Club with engraved message, 'To Barnes For Doing (Not Talking)'
The medal awarded to Barnes “For Doing, Not Talking”

One of the highlights of the Big Business Show may have been “the largest single Good Fellow expedition ever undertaken in Chicago.” Barnes, working with other leaders of the show, set up a donation barrel in “the most conspicuous place in the exhibit.” People in attendance were urged to follow the salesman's lead and toss their pocket change into the barrel. A big sign was held prominently above the wooden container. It read:

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Sign above donation barrel read: Two dollars feeds a family of five; one dollar feeds a family of two; 25 cents, 50 cents, 10 cents, 5 cents helps, and you will never miss it!

While talking with a young reporter from the Chicago Tribune at the business show, Barnes declared:

“Just before Christmas our members will start out in automobiles – 300 of us – and scatter to every part of the city. Each member will have the names and addresses of one or more poor families, supplied by The Tribune's Good Fellow Department, and each man will do this visiting in person and deliver his share of the ‘eats’ and toys and candy and other Christmas things to be provided by the fund.”

Barnes enthusiastically continued on:

“We're going to make a real Christmas for these folks, and I tell you, young man, I'm about as proud of this tubby barrel here as I am of any part of this exhibit – and it's some exhibit too.”

All through the evening – up until the last minute the Big Business Show had open doors – patrons poured their coins and dollars through a narrow slit at the top-end of the collection barrel. By night's end, the barrel was completely filled with donations.

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Barnes and four other leaders of the Big Business Show standing behind the donation barrel
Coin donation barrel at the Chicago Rotary Club's Big Business, 1915. Left to right: H.C. Angster, Dr. Will R. Neff, James O. Craig, Edwin C. Barnes, and W.S. Miller

Perhaps nobody understood the power of persistence more so than Edwin C. Barnes. Not only was the salesman persistent in his own pursuits, he inspired others to keep pushing ahead as well. One such person was Napoleon Hill. In the Law of Success, the author gave Barnes credit for keeping him on track when temptations to give up on his chosen pursuit were abound. Hill related,

“Mr. Barnes became interested in my chosen work at its beginnings, and had it not been for his unwavering faith in the soundness of the philosophy behind the Law of Success, I would have yielded to the persuasion of others and sought the way of least resistance.”

In 1951, nearly 46 years after he rolled into Essex County in a freight train and informed Edison of his intent to be his business partner, Edwin C. Barnes retired from business life. Just months after his retirement, however, fate turned sour on the great salesman. Barnes became seriously ill, and he passed away in Bradenton, Florida on September 23, 1952.

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Barnes and Thomas Edison sitting in office chairs and discussing business together
Edwin C. Barnes was Edison's leading salesperson in large part because he loved his work and because he put his customers' needs and interests first.

Although Edwin C. Barnes took his last breath over 65 years ago, his legacy continues to shine light on the road to success and prosperity. Above all else, Mr. Barnes taught us that real success is a win-win process. He never sought to make a gain without his team and his customers profiting with him. Edison's “Proficiency Engineer” was a master at recognizing talent; he was a master at assembling a winning team; he was a master at energizing and directing his team; and he was a master at bringing top service to his customers. That was his winning formula – both for himself and for everybody he interacted with.

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