I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
People hoping to get a job working for Thomas Alva Edison faced a bewildering quiz with around 150 questions mostly about general knowledge. Applicants who answered more than 90 percent of the questions correctly were hired. So, would you qualify as an Edison employee? Take the modified test at the end of this article to find out.
The Self-Taught Genius
America’s greatest inventor had little formal education himself. His first teacher despaired of him and told Edison’s mother her boy was “addled.” Mrs. Edison did not take kindly to that, pulled her son out of school, and taught him herself.
After learning the basics from his mother Edison was mostly self-taught. As a result, he had a low opinion of educational institutions. He said “I wouldn’t give a penny for the ordinary college graduate, except those from institutes of technology. They aren’t filled with Latin, philosophy, and all that ninny stuff. American needs practical skilled engineers, business managers, and industrial men.”
Thomas Edison had no time for the usual approach to things. His unconventional quiz told him what he wanted to know about job applicants. He had two requirements: did the person have curiosity and did they have a good memory? He called his test the Ignoramometer
Some Edison Questions
There’s little agreement on how big the quiz was, but it probably contained around 150 questions. It was an eclectic mix:
- Is Australia bigger than Greenland?
- What is felt?
- Who wrote Les Misérables?
- What insect carries malaria?
- What causes the tides?
- Of what state is Helena the capital?
- Which countries border France?
- Who wrote Il Trovatore?
Hint: It was Giuseppe Verdi.
The pass mark was a challenging 90 percent. Those who hit the magic number got a job offer.
Edison explained that “Of course, I don’t care directly whether a man knows the capital of Nevada, or the source of mahogany, or the location of Timbuktu. But if he ever knew any of these things, and doesn’t know them now, I do very much care about that in connection with giving him a job. For the assumption is that if he has forgotten these things he will forget something else that has direct bearing on his job.”
The failure rate was high. Only 4.5% of the 718 men (foolishly, Edison did not seek out female applicants) who took the test scored higher than 90 percent. The majority, among which were those who thought the capital of Maine was Bengal, had to seek employment elsewhere.
Edison’s own son, Theodore, was tracked down at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and presented with the test. He failed and remarked “Dad would find me amazingly ignorant.” However, the lad was apparently guaranteed a job in his father’s company after finishing his studies.
Proving the wisdom of the adage, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know that matters.”
The Test Controversy
During the winter of 1921 a mysterious advertisement appeared in The New York Times. It was seeking job applicants but didn’t say for what or for whom. Those who answered the ad received some cryptic instructions to show up at an address in Newark, New Jersey.
Those who arrived were asked to take Edison’s quixotic quiz, under the watchful eye of the man himself.
The story of this rather unusual recruitment procedure reached the newspapers and became an issue of great public interest, most of it negative.
The inventor made his own employees take the test and gave those who failed to meet his exacting standards a week’s pay and a pink slip.
Professors got their cloaks in a knot when Edison told The New York Times “Men who have been to college I find to be amazingly ignorant … They don’t seem to know anything.” The profs. objected to the implication that they should be stuffing the heads of students with trivia in order to pass what one of them called Tom Edison’s “Tom Foolery test.”
Journalists had great fun popping some of the test questions to public figures. It was embarrassing to discover that New York’s superintendent of schools couldn’t hit the pass mark.
The Chicago Tribune quizzed students at the University of Chicago. They failed dismally, prompting lamentations that the young people were getting dumber. Doesn’t that have a familiar ring to it?
Edison test Question: Where was Napoleon born?
Another hint: Napoleon was born in Corsica.
The Intelligence Test Industry
Not everybody scoffed at Edison’s quiz. Eastman Kodak created a similar test as a way of selecting job applicants. Other companies took up the notion.
Top civil service jobs in New Jersey went to people who aced a three-hour long quiz. Psychologist Carl C. Brigham drew up that test and he went on to create College Board’s Scholastic Aptitude Test (muted cheers from all Americans who sat the SAT).
So-called “intelligence” tests are used today to weed out inappropriate applicants who may also be asked to answer truly daft questions, such as:
- What is the colour of success?
- If you were an animal which one would you be?
- What three things would you want on a desert island?
Take the Test
Here is a much pared down version of Edison’s quiz, just 10 questions that appeared in the 1921 original. (That way it’s easier for the math challenged to work out percentages. Edison would not approve). Answers are below under “Sources.” No peeking.
1. How did America get Louisiana?
2. Name three powerful poisons.
3. Where is the River Volga?
4. In what country other than Australia are kangaroos found?
5. Who was Pizarro?
6. What is the highest rise of tide on the North American Coast?
7. Name three principal acids.
8. Who discovered how to vulcanize rubber?
9. Who carved “The Thinker?”
10. Who first reached the South Pole?
In 1881, U.S. President James Garfield was assassinated by an angry, failed job seeker. The murder prompted the passage of the Civil Service Reform Act, which introduced examinations for a lot of jobs with the federal government.
Albert Einstein arrived at Boston’s railway station in May 1921 to visit the city of learning. With Edison’s quiz all the rage, rude reporters lobbed questions at the physicist. He was unable to give a correct answer when asked what the speed of sound was. The next day the newspaper headline appeared “Einstein Sees Boston: Fails Edison Test.”
In 1929, at the age of 83 Thomas Edison embarked on a search for his intellectual successor. Try-outs were held around the country and 49 young finalists were invited to an examination gala, attended by luminaries such as Henry Ford, George Eastman, Charles Lindbergh, and Edison. The winner of an MIT scholarship was 16-year-old Wilbur Huston, who became known as America’s Brightest Boy. Huston didn’t disappoint; he went on to become a NASA mission director.
- “AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War.” Tom McNichol, John Wiley & Sons, January 6, 2011.
- “More Thomas Edison Weirdness: His Test for Employees.” Wtf-history.livejournal.com, September 10, 2008.
- “Take the Intelligence Test that Edison Gave to Job Seekers.” New Scientist, August 6, 2008.
- “Would You Pass Thomas Edison’s Employment Test?” Erin Blakemore, Smithsonian Magazine, March 13, 2015.
- “Can You Pass the Test Thomas Edison Gave to His Potential Employees?” Interesting Engineering, April 12, 2017.
1. Purchased from France.
2. Strychnine, Arsenic, Cyanide.
4. New Guinea.
5. The Spanish conqueror of Peru.
6. Seventy feet in the Bay of Fundy, between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
7. Hydrochloric, sulphuric and nitric.
8. Charles Goodyear.
9. Auguste Rodin.
10. Roald Amundsen.
The writer reserves the right to remain silent about his own score.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor