After several early failures left him deeply in debt, Stearns found a job in a telegraph office in Newburyport in 1850. Four years later he became the superintendent of the Boston Fire Alarm Telegraph office, a post he held for 12 years.
According to one account, while in Charleston, South Carolina for the alarm company, he gathered “information on his way home, which he gave to President Lincoln, thereby preventing the rebel army from occupying Arlington Heights and saving Washington from falling into their hands.”*
In 1867 he was elected president of the Franklin Telegraph Company, operating between Boston and Washington, serving for 2 ½ years. It was during this period that Stearns invented the duplex system of telegraphy, by which two messages could be sent over the same wire at the same time.
Although working to accomplish the same result, Thomas Edison “was temporarily crushed when Joseph B. Stearns finished his improvement first and beat him to the Patent Office.”** The invention revolutionized the telegraph industry and eventually made Mr. Stearns a millionaire.
Between 1869 and 1885, he introduced his invention to Europe, Canada and South America, receiving royalties from England, France and Italy.
According to a report attributed to the Lewiston Journal (undated), ”
“Since then he has lived much in London and has been engaged in many important works. He is a connoisseur in art, and has a library of ten thousand volumes, and his farm of five hundred acres in Camden claims much of his attention. He is but one of many instances where industry and perseverance have won success in this country.”***
In 1885 Stearns retired and returned to Maine to build the great stone estate Norumbega in Camden. He stocked his land with valuable herds of cattle built an astronomical observatory near Norumbega.
At his death, a Florida newspaper noted that he “had the largest largest collection of ivory carvings in the the world.”****
** “Beehives of Invention: Edison and His Laboratories.” http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/hh/edis/edisb.htm (accessed January 15, 2015)
*** “Humble Beginning. Oregon News. October 6, 1888. http://oregonnews.uoregon.edu/lccn/sn84022653/1888-10-06/ed-1/seq-8/ocr.txt (accessed January 15, 2015)
* “John B. Stearns of Camden.” The Maine History News. https://touringmaineshistory.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/joseph-b-stearns-of-camden/ (accessed January 15, 2015)
“Norumbega.” National Park Service. National Register of Historic Places. http://pdfhost.focus.nps.gov/docs/nrhp/text/74000174.PDF (accessed January 15, 2015)
****Bradford County Telegraph. Starke, Florida, 11 Oct. 1895. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn95047406/1895-10-11/ed-1/seq-3/ (accessed January 15, 2015)