Thomas Edison? Kate Sanborn? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Thomas Edison is credited with a famous adage about creativity and innovation:
Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.
I found another quotation that specified a slightly different ratio of 2 percent to 98 percent. What did Edison actually say?
Quote Investigator: Edison did discuss both of the ratios given above, and he also spoke of different ingredients such as “hard work”. His popular aphorism evolved over time. Also, before Edison’s pronouncements were published there were other precursor statements in circulation. For example, in 1892 a newspaper in Massachusetts reacted to a statement by a prominent lecturer named Kate Sanborn. The newspaper indicated that sayings about the composition of genius were already being disseminated: 1
Kate Sanborn is getting lots of credit for having said that “talent is perspiration.” That idea has been expressed very often; in fact, much in the same terms. A common way of saying it is that “genius is perspiration more than inspiration.”
In 1893 Sanborn delivered a lecture in California that was reported in a Riverside newspaper. Here she suggested that genius was composed of three ingredients, but she did not give a memorable fractional breakdown: 2
Her subject was “What is Genius?” She quoted copiously from ancient and modern writers, giving their definitions of the word genius, and wittily added that “genius is inspiration, talent and perspiration.”
In April 1898 “The Ladies’ Home Journal” printed a remark about genius credited to Thomas Edison. The main ingredient mentioned was “hard work” and the ratio was 98 to 2. Expert Ralph Keyes listed this citation in “The Quote Verifier” reference: 3 4
Once, when asked to give his definition of genius, Mr. Edison replied: “Two per cent. is genius and ninety-eight per cent. is hard work.” At another time, when the argument that genius was inspiration was brought before him, he said: “Bah! Genius is not inspired. Inspiration is perspiration.”
Also, in April 1898 “The Youth’s Companion” printed similar remarks from Edison that presented a ratio 98 to 2: 5
“Ninety-eight per cent. of genius is hard work,” says Thomas A. Edison, and he adds, “As for genius being inspired, inspiration is in most cases another word for perspiration.” As the foremost example in the world of one type of genius, Mr. Edison is an authority on the subject, and his aphorism corroborates Johnson’s often-quoted definition of genius, “the infinite capacity for taking pains.”
In May 1898 the president of a shoe company delivered a speech to high school students, and he incorporated an adage ascribed to Edison. But “hard work” was not listed as an ingredient. Instead, two constituents were given: inspiration and perspiration, and the ratio was 2 to 98: 6
Even Mr. Edison is quoted as having said that genius may be divided into two parts, of which inspiration is 2 per cent and perspiration 98.
In June 1898 a version of the aphorism was published in a Montana newspaper, and it was attributed to a person who was writing about Edison instead of Edison himself: 7
Speaking of the life and labors of Thomas A. Edison, a writer says that two per cent of his great discoveries and inventions can be credited to inspiration, while the other 98 per cent is due to perspiration.
Genius is another name for hard work, honest work. “Genius,” says Edison “is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.” People who take pains never to do any more than they get paid for, never get paid for anything more than they do.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Multiple versions of Edison’s maxim were in circulation at the same time. For example, in 1902 the magazine “Scientific American” presented the following instance with a ratio of 2 to 98: 9
To those who believe that Edison’s work is the product of an inspiration given by nature to but few, the story of the manner in which he achieves success will seem shockingly unromantic. In the genius who works by inspiration Edison has no great faith. “Genius is two per cent inspiration and ninety-eight per cent perspiration,” is the incisive, epigrammatic answer he once gave to a man who thought that a genius worked only when the spirit moved him.
In 1904 the Chicago Tribune published a profile of Edison that included a version of the saying: 10
… his fondness for epigrams led him away from the spirit of the true genius when he took occasion to say that “Genius is 2 per cent inspiration and 98 per cent perspiration.”
The saying inspired variations; for example, in 1907 a store selling shirts published an advertisement with the following formulation for success: 11
We carry the elements of success under our hats
1 per cent Luck.
2 per cent Inspiration.
97 per cent Perspiration.
Watch us perspire when we show you shirts, as we have so many to show you
In 1910 a biography “Edison: His Life and Inventions” ascribed the most common modern version of the maxim to Edison: 12
The idea of attributing great successes to “genius” has always been repudiated by Edison as evidenced by his historic remark that “Genius is 1 per cent. inspiration and 99 per cent. perspiration.” Again, in a conversation many years ago at the laboratory between Edison, Batchelor, and E.H. Johnson, the latter made allusion to Edison’s genius as evidenced by some of his achievements, when Edison replied: “Stuff! I tell you genius is hard work, stick-to-it-iveness, and common sense.”
In 1932 a man who worked in Edison’s laboratory named Martin André Rosanoff published an article in Harper’s Magazine that quoted Edison taking credit for the modern saying: 13
You may have heard people repeat what I have said, ‘Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration.’
In conclusion, the basic idea that genius is composed of inspiration and perspiration was in circulation before Edison’s adage was published. But Edison can be credited with presenting a clever fractional breakdown. Indeed, evidence suggests that he presented two different ratios: 2 to 98 and 1 to 99. QI thinks it is reasonable to credit him with the modern saying that uses a 1 to 99 ratio. It is also acceptable to ascribe to him the maxim specifying a 2 to 98 ratio.
(In Memoriam: Thanks to my brother Stephen who asked about Edison quotations.)
- 1892 December 4, Springfield Sunday Republican [Springfield Republican], Men Women and Affairs, Page 4, Column 4, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1893 April 21, Riverside Daily Press, Miss Sanborn’s Lecture, Page 4, Column 1, Riverside, California. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1898 April, The Ladies’ Home Journal, The Anecdotal Side of Edison, Subsection: His Estimate of Genius, Start Page 7, Quote Page 8, Column 2, Curtis Publishing Company, Philadelphia. (ProQuest American Periodicals) ↩
- 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 77 and 292, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1898 April 21, The Youth’s Companion, Volume 72, Issue 16, Current Topics, Quote Page 194, Column 1, Perry Mason & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest American Periodicals) ↩
- 1898 May 21, Savannah Tribune, Peace Has Its Victories: An Interesting Address to High School Boys, Delivered by Mr. J. K. Orr, Page 4, Column 2, Savannah, Georgia. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1898 June 19, The Helena Independent, Brevities, Page 2, Column 2, Helena, Montana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1901 May 6, Idaho Daily Statesman [Idaho Statesman], Doing One’s Best, Page 4, Column 3, Boise, Idaho. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1902 December 27, Scientific American, Thomas Alva Edison, Page 463, Column 1, Munn & Co., New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals) ↩
- 1904 November 6, Chicago Tribune, Thomas A. Edison as He Is Today by Jonas Howard, Start Page E1, Quote Page E2, Column 6, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1907 November 12, The Repository, [Advertisement for shirts, Harry Weiss, Quality Shop], Quote Page 2, Column 5, Canton, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1910, Edison: His Life and Inventions by Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford Martin, Volume 2 of 2, Quote Page 607, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1932 September, Harper’s Magazine, Volume 165, Edison in His Laboratory by M. A. Rosanoff, Start Page 402, Quote Page 406, Column 2, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on microfilm) ↩