Thomas Edison? Walter S. Mallory? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: There are many versions of a popular story about the inventor Thomas Edison. He was working on the creation of a practical light bulb or a new battery. He and his team of researchers conducted a series of unsuccessful experiments. The number of negative laboratory tests varies in different narratives; for example, 700, 999, 1,000, 10,000 and 50,000 have all been mentioned. A visitor to the lab, or a co-worker, or a reporter expressed sympathy to Edison regarding the failed experiments and the lack of results. Edison countered by saying one of the following:
- I have not failed, not once. I’ve discovered ten thousand ways that don’t work.
- I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work.
- I now know 999 different ways that won’t work.
In one variant of the tale Edison is asked if he is discouraged and replies cheerfully:
- Not at all, for I have learned fifty thousand ways it cannot be done and therefore I am fifty thousand times nearer the final successful experiment.
Strangely, the same colorful quotation is credited to Benjamin Franklin. I am trying to figure out if this story about Edison is true. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence QI has located for this tale was written in 1910 in a comprehensive two volume biography called “Edison: His Life and Inventions”. The anecdote was told by a long-time associate of Edison’s named Walter S. Mallory. Edison and his researchers had been working on the development of a nickel-iron battery for more than five months when Mallory visited Edison in his laboratory. The key dialog below has been highlighted with boldface [WMTE]:
I found him at a bench about three feet wide and twelve to fifteen feet long, on which there were hundreds of little test cells that had been made up by his corps of chemists and experimenters. He was seated at this bench testing, figuring, and planning. I then learned that he had thus made over nine thousand experiments in trying to devise this new type of storage battery, but had not produced a single thing that promised to solve the question. In view of this immense amount of thought and labor, my sympathy got the better of my judgment, and I said: ‘Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?’ Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: ‘Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.’
In 1921 Thomas Edison was interviewed by B. C. Forbes for American Magazine. Edison described an incident that matched the anecdote presented by Mallory although he did not provide a precise dialog [BFTE]:
I never allow myself to become discouraged under any circumstances. I recall that after we had conducted thousands of experiments on a certain project without solving the problem, one of my associates, after we had conducted the crowning experiment and it had proved a failure, expressed discouragement and disgust over our having failed ‘to find out anything.’ I cheerily assured him that we had learned something. For we had learned for a certainty that the thing couldn’t be done that way, and that we would have to try some other way. We sometimes learn a lot from our failures if we have put into the effort the best thought and work we are capable of.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1882 Edison authored an article titled “How to Succeed As An Inventor”, and he included a discussion of the value of experiments that show particular approaches will not work. These comments were a precursor to the remarks recorded in the 1910 biography [TCTE]:
But the student will find that experience is the best teacher. The reason why I get along with comparative ease now is because I know from experience the enormous number of things that won’t work. For instance, I start on a new invention to-morrow. From the great number of experiments I have made, and the vast amount of information I have stored up, I am saved a great deal of time and trouble in not having to travel over barren ground.
In 1910 the testimony of Walter S. Mallory was printed in the biography “Edison: His Life and Inventions” by Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford Martin. An excerpt from this book was presented earlier in this post.
In 1911 another biography was published called “The Boy’s Life of Edison” with the following prefatory note [BLTE]:
This book designed for boys and girls is published with my consent. Thomas A. Edison
The anecdote featuring Mallory and Edison was included in the volume. Edison’s reply was printed, but the phrasing used was slightly different than the 1910 version [BLTE]:
This attitude is illustrated by his reply to Mr. Mallory, who expressed regret that the first nine thousand and odd experiments on the storage battery had been without results. Edison replied, with a smile: “Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I have found several thousand things that won’t work.”
In 1915 another biography “Thomas Alva Edison” by Francis Rolt-Wheeler was released and the story was retold. In this version the words used by Mallory were somewhat altered [FWTE]:
One is inevitably reminded of his swift retort to a young assistant who had grown weary of perpetual experiments, thousands of them, which had all alike failed to reach the desired end.
“It’s a shame,” said this young fellow, petulantly, “that we should have worked all these weeks without getting any results!”
“Results!” cried Edison, in surprise, “No results? Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.”
In 1921 Thomas Edison spoke to an interviewer for American Magazine, and he recounted the incident. The details were presented previously in this post.
In 1946 the Christian Science Monitor printed another version of Edison’s statement that precisely specified 999 experiments [HNTE]:
On one occasion when a reporter asked Edison how he was progressing with experiments trying to find a way to store electricity in a battery-jar or container, he answered, “I now know 999 different ways that won’t work.” Eventually he found one that would.
In 1982 at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences the organic chemist and inventor Lewis H. Sarett spoke about Thomas Edison. Sarett specified an experimental count of 10,000 [LSTE]:
Thomas Edison, the American inventor par excellence, was particularly repelled by confusing serendipity with hard work. He said “Discovery is not invention-and I dislike to see the two words confounded. A discovery is more or less in the nature of an accident.” He, like other inventors did have faith, courage, and persistence. “I’ve tried everything. I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work!”
The tale is still popular, and a blogger at Forbes recently presented a version of Edison’s words [EATE]:
I’ve always liked this quote from Thomas Edison about failure, “I have not failed, not once. I’ve discovered ten thousand ways that don’t work.” The words of a man consumed with curiosity about what’s not working.
In conclusion, the 1910 biography and the 1921 magazine interview provide solid evidence that Edison did make a remark of this type. The 1910 book was published several years after the battery research was performed and the quote was based on Walter S. Mallory’s memory/testimony. Hence, the precise wording might be uncertain. Yet, the 1910 version of the dialog is the best currently known to QI.
(Thanks to Hannah Jansen whose inquiry led to the construction of this question by QI and the initiation of this trace.)
[WMTE] 1910, Edison: His Life and Inventions by Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford Martin, Volume 2 of 2, Chapter 24: Edison’s Method in Inventing, Quote Page 615 and 616, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[BFTE] 1921 January, American Magazine, Volume 91, “Why Do So Many Men Never Amount to Anything?” by B. C. Forbes, [Interview with Thomas Edison], Start Page 10, Quote Page 89, Column 2, Crowell Publishing Company, Springfield, Ohio. (Google Books full view) link
[TCTE] 1882 June 15, The Christian Union, How to Succeed As An Inventor by Thomas A. Edison, Quote Page 544, N.Y. and Brooklyn Publishing Co., New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals)
[BLTE] 1911, The Boy’s Life of Edison by William H. Meadowcroft, Unnumbered Page after Title Page, Page 301 and 302, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[FWTE] 1915, Thomas Alva Edison by Francis Rolt-Wheeler, [True Stories of Great Americans], Quote Page 177, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[HNTE] 1946 March 30, Christian Science Monitor, The Sky’s the Limit: For Tomorrow’s Big Discoveries the World Must Await Light From Tomorrow’s Sky by Herbert Nichols, Start Page WM1, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
[LSTE] 1983 July, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Volume 80, Number 14, [Part 2: Physical Sciences], “Research and Invention” by L. H. Sarett, Start Page 4572, Quote Page 4572, Column 2, [Presented at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences on April 26, 1982], Published by National Academy of Sciences, Washington D.C. (JSTOR) link
[EATE] 2012 July 16, Forbes website, Blog: Erika Andersen: How Work Works, 2 Ways Google, Facebook – And You – Can Keep From Becoming Obsolete by Erika Andersen. (Accessed forbes.com on July 31, 2012) link