Everybody Steals in Commerce and Industry. I’ve Stolen A Lot Myself

Thomas Edison? Martin André Rosanoff? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: While reading a novel about the remarkable inventor Nikola Tesla I came across a statement credited to Thomas Edison that I find very hard to believe [TLDS]:

Everyone steals in commerce and industry. I’ve stolen a lot, myself. But I know how to steal! They don’t know how to steal!

Did Edison really say something like this? I know that Tesla and Edison were rivals, and perhaps the author of this Tesla book is biased against Edison. I hesitate to believe that this quotation is accurate.

Quote Investigator: A remark that was nearly identical to the one above was attributed to Edison in an article published in Harper’s magazine in September 1932 titled “Edison in His Laboratory”. The statement began with “everybody” instead of “everyone”. Note that Edison died in 1931, the year before the Harper’s article was printed. The author of the article was Martin André Rosanoff who performed chemical investigations for Edison.

Rosanoff stated that Edison asked him to test the composition of a wax that was used by a rival company because Edison suspected that the other company had stolen a secret formula for the wax. In the following excerpt Rosanoff referred to Edison as “the Old Man” [MRTE]:

The first I knew of this was when the Old Man asked me to investigate it and ascertain whether the rival’s wax was really new. He said I might be called upon to testify in court and urged me to make my experimental study thorough.

Rosanoff performed an exhaustive analysis of the wax and concluded that the rival’s wax was identical in composition to that used by Edison’s company. Rosanoff was angered by this apparent commercial theft, and described the data to Edison [MRTE]:

When I reported my results to the Old Man with spirited indignation at the unsavory ways of his rival, he asked with a merry twinkle of amusement, “What are you so excited about? Everybody steals in commerce and industry. I’ve stolen a lot myself. But I knew how to steal. They don’t know how to steal—that’s all that’s the matter with them” I said nothing; my breath was taken away.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1979 the Los Angeles Times published a book review of an Edison biography called “A Streak of Luck” that included part of the quotation [LTRK]:

“Everybody steals in commerce and industry,” he said. “I’ve stolen a lot myself.”

The review also claimed that the author of the article in Harper’s had been fired by Edison:

A short time later, he fired Rosanoff as a “foreigner.”

In 1990 the Sacramento Bee published a review of a 90-minute film titled “The Missing Reel” broadcast on the Bravo cable channel. The film explored the disappearance of Louis Le Prince who was a rival inventor of the motion picture camera. The reviewer attributed a variant of the quotation to Edison [SBWG]:

He also said once: Everybody steals in commerce and industry. I’ve stolen a lot myself. The thing is to know how to steal.

The film mentioned above also had a companion book. In 1994 a newspaper in Tennessee stated that the book contained a variant of the Edison statement [CADB]:

In 1990 Rawlence published the book, The Missing Reel: the Untold Story of the Lost Inventor of Moving Pictures. On a preface page, he quotes Edison as follows: “Everyone steals in industry and commerce. I’ve stolen a lot myself. The thing is to know how to steal.”

In conclusion, this quotation was printed in a magazine article shortly after the death of Edison in 1932. The accuracy of the words is dependent on the reliability of the memory of the article author, Martin André Rosanoff.

[TLDS] 1999, Tesla: The Modern Sorcerer by Daniel Blair Stewart, Chapter: 61, Page 411, Frog, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California. (Amazon Look Inside, Google Books Preview)

[MRTE] 1932 September, Harper’s Magazine, Volume 165, Edison in His Laboratory by M. A. Rosanoff, Start Page 402, Quote Page 406, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on microfilm)

[LTRK] 1979 April 15, Los Angeles Times, Illuminating a hard-driving American hero Robert Kirsch, [Book Review of “A Streak of Luck” by Robert Conot], Start Page J1, Quote Page J8, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

[SBWG] 1990 July 7, Sacramento Bee, Plenty of Intrigue in “Reel” – Disappearance of an Edison Rival Explored by William Glackin, Page: SC7, Sacramento, California. (NewsBank Access World News)

[CADB] 1994 June 25, The Commercial Appeal, Section: Appeal, Author: Donald La Badie, Page: C3, Memphis, Tennessee. (NewsBank Access World News)