Illustrating the wild speculative spirit of one financial period, and the eagerness with which speculators grasped at what they thought points, the following is one of my many experiences.
Running down Wall Street one day because I was late for an important meeting, a well-known speculator stopped me and shouted: "What about Erie?" I threw him off impatiently, saying, "Damn Erie!" and rushed on. I knew nothing about Erie speculatively and was irritated at being still further delayed for my meeting.
Sometime afterwards I received a note from him in which he said: "I never can be grateful enough for the point you gave me on Erie. I made on it the biggest kill of my life."
I have often had quoted to me that sentence about "fortune comes to one but once, and if rejected never returns." When I declined President Harrison's offer of the position of secretary of state in his Cabinet, I had on my desk a large number of telegrams signed by distinguished names and having only that quotation. There are many instances in the lives of successful men where they have repeatedly declined Dame Fortune's gift, and yet she has finally rewarded them according to their desires. I am inclined to think that the fickle lady is not always mortally offended by a refusal. I believe that there come in the life of almost everybody several opportunities, and few have the judgment to wisely decide what to decline and what to accept.
In 1876 Gardner Hubbard was an officer in the United States railway mail service. As this connection with the government was one of my duties in the New York Central, we met frequently. One day he said to me: "My son-in-law, Professor Bell, has made what I think a wonderful invention. It is a talking telegraph. We need ten thousand dollars, and I will give you one-sixth interest for that amount of money."
I was very much impressed with Mr. Hubbard's description of the possibilities of Professor Bell's invention. Before accepting, however, I called upon my friend, Mr. William Orton, president of the Western Union Telegraph Company. Orton had the reputation of being the best-informed and most accomplished electrical expert in the country. He said to me: "There is nothing in this patent whatever, nor is there anything in the scheme itself, except as a toy. If the device has any value, the Western Union owns a prior patent called the Gray's patent, which makes the Bell device worthless."
When I returned to Mr. Hubbard he again convinced me, and I would have made the investment, except that Mr. Orton called at my house that night and said to me: "I know you cannot afford to lose ten thousand dollars, which you certainly will if you put it in the Bell patent. I have been so worried about it that contrary to my usual custom I have come, if possible, to make you promise to drop it." This I did.
The Bell patent was sustained in the courts against the Gray, and the telephone system became immediately popular and profitable. It spread rapidly all over the country, and innumerable local companies were organized, and with large interests for the privilege to the parent company.