Posted by Rob Montgomery on February 12, 2005
In Reply to: Jerk lightning posted by ESC on February 07, 2005
: : I am trying to find the meaning of the phrase "jerking lightning". In doing genealogical research, I have come across two newpaper archives (one from 1879 and one from 1880) that use the phrase, but there is not enough context to even guess at the meaning.
: : In one of the newspapers, the following was written on June 24, 1880 in an Indiana newspaper about a young 18 year man named Morgan Jolly (a relative of mine a few generations back)...
: : "Morgan Jolly is jerking lightning at Nebraska."
: : While sarching for a meaning, I also found another reference to the phrase in a newspaper on Jan 22, 1879.
: : "Young fellow who has been jerking lightning here..."
: : Morgan Jolly worked for the railroad, so it is possible that "Jerking Lightning" was a phrase related to railroad work. The way it was used in the newspapers leads me to believe that it was a widely understood phrase in 1880. If anyone can tell me what it means, I would appreciate it.
: I couldn't find anything in my references, including a book of railroad slang. But I did find this under by googling "jerk lightning":
: What a Train-Despatcher Does
: by Charles De Lano Hine
: with drawings by E.L. Blumenschein, ca. 1898
: ".The despatcher, always clear-headed but coatless, takes a pull at the ever-present, nerve-soothing cigar, and bitching up his shirt-sleeves, grabs the telegraph-key to 'jerk lightning,' no less valiantly but much more discreetly than did Ajax of old..."
: http://www.catskillarchive.com/rrextra/wkdesp.Html%20Accessed%20February%206, 2005.
Thanks a bunch. I don't know how I missed that when I did a Google search but it makes perfect sense. I have a census record for Morgan Jolly that lists the industry he works in as "Railroad" and his occupation as "Telegraph Operator". Now that I know the meaning of "Jerk Lightning", it seems obvious.
The newspaper that used the term "Jerk Lightning" was in a town that had basically grown up as the crossroads for two of the B&O (Baltimore and Ohio) train lines. Whithin that community, the term "Jerk Lightning" was evidently widely understood.