Thomas Edison? David Sarnoff? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: I saw the following quotation on the website of a medical school with a strong history of innovation:
There’s a way to do it better — find it.
The words were attributed to the inventor and research laboratory pioneer Thomas A. Edison. I also saw an advertisement by a power company claiming this was “Edison’s motto”. However, I have not found it in Edison’s writings. Is this quotation genuine?
Quote Investigator: Thomas Edison died in 1931, and currently the earliest evidence of this saying located by QI appeared in September 1957 when the New York Times reported on a newly launched advertising campaign using the expression: 1
The McGraw-Edison Company, Inc., electrical products’ manufacturer, has begun its first series of corporate ads as a national advertiser. Insertions will appear this month in Time, U. S. News and World Report, and Newsweek.
Advertisements are built around a statement by Thomas A. Edison, who challenged his staff: “There’s a way to do it better . . . find it.” The J. Walter Thompson Company is the agency.
A couple weeks later a newspaper in Greensboro, North Carolina reported on the adage and credited Edison; however, the journalist was probably simply repeating information derived from the advertising campaign: 2
Thomas A. Edison challenged his staff with this slogan: “There’s a way to do it better . . . find it.” With people earning more money than ever, there’s no reason for the lag in consumption. Manufacturers have only themselves to blame for not doing better selling.
In December 1957 a full-page advertisement in Newsweek for McGraw-Edison Company featured the saying together with the Edison ascription as a headline in bold letters: 3
“There’s a way to do it better . . . find it!”
Thomas A. Edison
In 1959 a professor giving a lecture sponsored by the collegiate honor society of Phi Kappa Phi mentioned the saying: 4
But even such a practical man as Thomas Edison once stated that, “There’s a way to do it better . . . find it.” Likewise, we should realize that even our practically minded men require a tremendous backlog of basic and fundamental data and information.
In June 1961 a bronze bust of Thomas Edison was installed in an open-air colonnade called the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at the Bronx campus of New York University. As reported in the New York Times, the chairman of the Radio Corporation of America, David Sarnoff, spoke at a ceremony and described where he encountered the motto: 5
Mr. Sarnoff said he had been impressed by a sign that Edison had hung on the wall of his laboratory. It said, “There’s a way to do it better—find it.”
Mr. Sarnoff is a trustee of the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation, which sponsored the ceremony.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The Chicago Tribune also reported on Sarnoff’s speech at the installation ceremony and printed part of the slogan: 6
It was Edison who first conceived the idea of assigning teams of gifted workers to find “a way to do it better,” thus systematizing the quest for new knowledge, Sarnoff declared.
The statement continued to appear in advertisements over the years. For example, in 1966 a newspaper in Victoria, Texas published a commercial message from Central Power and Light Company incorporating the saying: 7
“There’s a way to do it better-find it”.
That was Thomas A. Edison’s motto, and it’s still the idea behind all the electrical research going on today.
In 1985 an article in the Christian Science Monitor described the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey. An employee of the National Park Service used the expression: 8
Chief park ranger Jack Spinnler says his staff, always trying to improve exhibits and presentations, follows Edison’s motto: “There’s a way to do it better: Find it!”
In conclusion, there is some evidence that Thomas Edison employed this saying to encourage his laboratory researchers. By 1957 the slogan was ascribed to Edison in advertising. In 1961 David Sarnoff stated that he saw the message on a “sign that Edison had hung on the wall of his laboratory”.
This evidence is not ideal because Edison died many years earlier in 1931. Also, it is not clear how Sarnoff knew the provenance of the sign he observed. Perhaps stronger support for the quotation will emerge in the future.
(In Memoriam: Thanks to my brother Stephen who asked about this quotation when he saw it on a webpage titled “Algorithms for Innovation” at the website of University of Utah, Health Sciences.)
Update History: On August 2, 2014 the 1959 citation was added.
- 1957 September 4, New York Times, Advertising: Promoting a Negative Quality by Carl Spielvogel, Quote Page 46, Column 6,New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1957 September 24, Greensboro Record, Trade Winds: Better Selling Need Emphasized by Lou Schneider, Quote Page B3, Column 2, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1957 December 23, Newsweek, Volume 50, (Advertisement for McGraw-Edison Company), Quote Page 28, Newsweek, Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1959 Winter, Phi Kappa Phi Journal, “Research or ?” by Ralph E. Dunbar, Start Page 24, Quote Page 29, (The lecture presented at the Second Annual Faculty Lectureship of the North Dakota Agricultural College on February 26, 1958; Dr. Dunbar was Dean of the School of Chemical Technology, North Dakota Agricultural College), Published by Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi, Roanoke, Virginia. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1961 June 5, New York Times, Edison Bust Enters Hall of Fame As Sarnoff Delivers a Eulogy, Quote Page 34, Column 7 and 8, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1961 June 5, Chicago Tribune, RCA’s Sarnoff Sees Decade of Progress: Speaks at Edison Hall of Fame Ceremony by Joseph Eglelhof, Quote Page C10, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1966 September 11, The Victoria Advocate, “There’s A Way To Do It Better-find It”, (Advertisement for Central Power and Light Company), Quote Page 4A, Column 3, Victoria, Texas. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1985 April 29, Christian Science Monitor, Edison sites: inventive fare by Alyce Mitchem Jenkins, Quote Page B9, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩