We Will Make Electricity So Cheap That Only the Rich Will Burn Candles

Thomas Edison? Samuel Insull? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am curious about a quote attributed to the remarkable inventor Thomas Edison:

We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.

What proof exists that Edison actually said this? It’s such a visionary prediction that I’d love for it to be true.

Quote Investigator: There is strong evidence that Edison expressed this idea in 1880 though he used a different phrasing. A journalist for the New York Herald visited Edison’s laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey and observed the newly created electric lights. A report was sent via telegraph to the Herald office and published the next day on January 4, 1880 [EDNY]:

The little globes of fire still continue burning in all their beauty, notwithstanding the predictions of the sceptics. The three hours test which a rival electrician loudly dared Mr. Edison to make, proclaiming that only that length of time was necessary to prove the utter failure of his invention, has now grown  into a test of 240 hours and still the lamps are burning.

The last section of the article was titled “The Question of Cost”, and a remark of Edison’s on this topic was printed. Instead of using the word “rich” Edison used the term “extravagant” [EDNY]:

The exact cost of the new light the inventor has not made public; but it is characteristically summed up in an answer which he was overheard to give an inquirer:—

“After the electric light goes into general use,” said he, “none but the extravagant will burn tallow candles.”

Edison’s comment above was reprinted in multiple newspapers in 1880. By 1914 another version of the saying that was closer to the modern statement was credited to Edison. In 2004 an article in the USA Today newspaper attributed a version of the remark to a competitor of Edison’s named Samuel Insull.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Excerpts from the New York Herald article appeared in other newspapers in the days after publication in January 1880 [EDNJ]. In fact, the comment by Edison about candles was deemed noteworthy enough, by itself, that it was printed without any additional context. For example, a newspaper in Chester, Pennsylvania ran this stand-alone quote [EDCH]:

Edison says: After the electric light goes into general use none but the extravagant will burn tallow candles

Also in 1880, a newspaper in New Orleans, Louisiana printed a modified version of the saying with the supplementary adjective “wasteful” [EDNO]:

Edison says that only the extravagant and wasteful will burn tallow candles once his electric light has come into general use. Its superior cheapness will bring it into general use sooner than may be generally supposed.

In 1914 a quotation attributed to Edison was printed in several newspaper advertisements that suggested readers should wire their houses for electric light. The advertisements were sponsored by different power companies around the United States. For example, the Red River Power Company ran an ad in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and Commonwealth Edison Company ran an ad in Chicago, Illinois. The word “wealthy was used instead of “rich” [EDGF] [EDCH]:

Thos. A. Edison Said: “We will make Electric Light so cheap that only the wealthy can afford to burn candles.”

Edison lived until 1931, so he may have directly made the statement above, or the words may be a reformulated version of the 1880 quotation. In 1916 the same quote appeared in another power company advertisement, but the statement was called a “prophecy”.  Hence, the ad implied that the words were spoken many years before 1916 [EDBW]:

Thomas A. Edison Said: “We will make Electric Light so cheap that only the wealthy can afford to burn candles.”

Between that morning in October, 1879, when Edison rested with his face turned toward the dull but steady glow of the first practical incandescent lamp, after having spent all night on the final experiments, and October 1916, the great inventor has seen his prophecy and his dream fulfilled.

Even during the past ten years the cost of a candle power of electric light has dropped 75 per cent.

In 1954 the General Electric Company published an ad containing another slight variant of the saying and used the verb “prophesied” [EDOK]:

“Just wait a little while,” prophesied Edison, “and we’ll make electric light so cheap that only the wealthy can afford to burn candles.” Edison lived to see lamps that gave four times as much light and cost one-fifth as much to buy. And electric lighting has progressed far beyond that.

In 1956 the Cleveland Plain Dealer printed a comment made by the President of the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company that credited Edison with a version that harkened back to 1880.  The word “extravagant” was once again incorporated into the quote, but the word “tallow” was omitted [EDCP]:

Elmer L. Lindseth, president of CEI, recalls that Thomas A. Edison boasted that he was going to “make electricity so cheap that only the extravagant will burn candles.” Lindseth is proud of the fact, and rightly so, that in northeastern Ohio today electric light is 1,300 times cheaper than the equivalent amount of candle light.

In 2004 the USA Today newspaper published an article based on a PBS television series and book called “They Made America” by Harold Evans. The article discussed the career of Samuel Insull who was important in developing the market for electricity [USSI]:

It took a onetime Edison assistant — Samuel Insull — to turn electricity into a mass-market product. He is largely forgotten because his career ended in financial failure.

The article credited a version of the saying to Insull [USSI]:

“We will make electric light so cheap that only the rich will burn candles,” Insull said.

In 2008 a syndicated opinion columnist attributed a version of the saying to Edison that is identical to the one in the query at the beginning of this post [EDJA]:

… Edison is reported to have actually said: “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.”

In conclusion, QI believes that the quotation in the New York Herald in 1880 is probably the most accurate and can be properly ascribed to Edison. The evidence supporting later versions of the saying is weaker, although the idea being communicated is similar.

(Many thanks to Steve Chien whose inquiry on this topic via email inspired the construction of this question and the initiation of this exploration.)

[EDNY] 1880 January 4, New York Herald, The Electric Light, Page 6, Column 2, New York. (Old Fulton)

[EDNJ] 1880 January 8, Paterson Weekly Press, “At Edison’s laboratory, says the Herald correspondent”, Page 2, Column 6, Paterson, New Jersey. (Google News Archive)

[EDCH] 1880 January 8, Chester Daily Times, Local Intelligence, Page 3, Column 1, Chester, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)

[EDNO] 1880 January 12, The Daily City Item [New Orleans Item], [No title], Page 2, Column 2, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)

[EDGF] 1914 April 9, Grand Forks Herald, Advertisement by: Red River Poser Co., Title: “Do It Electrically”, Page 5, Column 3, Grand Forks, North Dakota. (GenealogyBank)

[EDCH] 1914 June 24, Chicago Tribune, Advertisement by: Commonwealth Edison Company, Title: “Do It Electrically”, Page 5, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)

[EDBW] 1916 October 21, Bellingham Herald, Page title: Edison Day October 21st, Advertisement by: Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power Co., Title: “Thomas A. Edison Said”, Page 5, Bellingham, Washington. (GenealogyBank)

[EDOK] 1954 February 4, Stilwell Democrat Journal, Advertisement by: General Electric, Page 3, Column 1, Stilwell, Oklahoma. (NewspaperArchive)

[EDCP] 1956 March 14, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 75 Years of Light, Page 18, Column 2, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)

[USSI] 2004 November 4, USA Today, Innovators helped shape America by Kevin Maney, Arlington, Virginia, Gannett Co., Inc. (NewsBank Access World News)

[EDJA] 2008 January 7, Indiana Gazette, “Let’s consider ‘The Candle Mandate'” by Jay Ambrose, Page 6, Column 6, Indiana, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)

2 thoughts on “We Will Make Electricity So Cheap That Only the Rich Will Burn Candles

  1. Steve C.

    Dr. O’Toole: Thank you for your thorough answer to my question! I’m glad to hear that Edison did express the sentiment, even if the actual quote was cleaned up for posterity. Once again, I appreciate your work in trying to preserve the accuracy of our collective memory.

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