Hell! there ain’t no rules around here! We are tryin’ to accomplish somep’n!

Thomas Edison? Martin André Rosanoff? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote investigator: All the rules and regulations of the modern world can be quite aggravating. That is why I greatly enjoy the following quotation proclaimed by Thomas Edison to the employees in his Menlo Park laboratory:

Hell, there are no rules here. We’re trying to accomplish something.

I read this statement in a book published in 2000, but an exact reference was not given. Did Edison really say this?

Quote Investigator: Yes, he probably did make a comment like this to one of his researchers. The evidence was published in the September 1932 issue of Harper’s Magazine which contained an article titled “Edison in His Laboratory” by Martin André Rosanoff who performed chemical investigations for Edison. Rosanoff described an exchange he had with Edison shortly after he had joined the staff around 1903 [HMLR]:

I approached him in a humble spirit: “Mr. Edison, please tell me what laboratory rules you want me to observe.” And right then and there I got my first surprise. He spat in the middle of the floor and yelled out,

“Hell! there ain’t no rules around here! We are tryin’ to accomplish somep’n!”

And he walked off, leaving me flabbergasted.

Note that the original printed quotation used the informal contraction “ain’t” instead of “are no”. Also, dialect spellings were employed for “tryin'” and “somep’n”.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Edison died in 1931 about a year before the Harper’s article excerpted above was published.

In 1947 the New York Times printed a profile of Edison titled “Scientist-Magician Who Reshaped a World” and part of the quotation was presented [NYLR]:

When he asked what were the laboratory rules the answer was: “Hell, there ain’t no rules around here.” But there were rules just the same, or rather unwritten principles to which all submitted. If Edison worked, so did everybody, regardless of the time of day or night.

In 1959 the periodical Popular Science presented the anecdote, and the quotation credited to Edison was nearly identical to the 1932 version [PSLR]:

A Russian-born, Paris-trained chemist named Martin André Rosanoff, whom Edison engaged on the spur of the moment, reported for work early one morning in 1903.

Respectfully, Rosanoff asked to be informed about the laboratory rules and regulations. Edison spat on the floor (he was chewing tobacco) and said, “Hell, there ain’t no rules around here! We’re tryin’ to accomplish somep’n.”

In 1996 the public relations director of the Reader’s Digest Association used the following regularized version of the saying [ESLR]:

But, I must confess, I prefer what that great innovator Thomas Edison said about the matter: “Hell, there are no rules here. We’re trying to accomplish something.”

In conclusion, the correctness of this quotation rests on the accuracy of the memory of Martin André Rosanoff. QI thinks that if the incident occurred then it was probably quite memorable for Rosanoff.

[HMLR] 1932 September, Harper’s Magazine, Volume 165, Edison in His Laboratory by M. A. Rosanoff, Start Page 402, Quote Page 403, Column 2, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on microfilm)

[NYLR] 1947 February 9, New York Times, Scientist-Magician Who Reshaped a World by Waldemar Kaempffert, Start Page SM12, Quote Page SM47, New York. (ProQuest)

[PSLR] 1959 December, Popular Science, Volume 175, Number 6, Struggle to Build a Better Battery, Page 134, Published by Bonnier Corporation, New York. (Google Books full view) link

[ESLR] 1996 October-November, Executive Speeches,Volume 11, Issue 2, Customer communications: Building lasting customer loyalty, [Remarks by Craig Lowder: public relations director of the Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Presented at the Corporate Communications Conference sponsored by the Conference Board in New York City on April 25, 1996], The Executive Speaker. (ProQuest ABI/INFORM Complete)