Greatest Invention? I Like the Phonograph Best

Thomas Edison? Apocryphal?

phonograph07Dear Quote Investigator: Thomas Edison and his laboratory researchers helped to develop a wide range of important inventions. Apparently, he was once asked to name his favorite invention, and he replied with a statement similar to the following:

Of all my inventions, I liked the phonograph best.

I have not been able to find out where or when he said this. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1915 Thomas A. Edison visited the Panama–Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco. He joined botanist Luther Burbank and industrialist Henry Ford at the Exposition. A report in a Riverside, California newspaper included the following. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Chatting with newspaper men, Edison was asked what he regarded as his greatest work.

“Oh. I like the phonograph best.” he smiled, “but I suppose the beginning I made with the electric light and electric power transmission did most to help the world.”

Edison also expressed praise for the phonograph several years later as shown in the citation below.

In January 1921 “The American Magazine” published an article titled “Why Do So Many Men Never Amount to Anything?” based on an extensive interview with Edison. He was asked to name his greatest invention: 2

Which do I consider my greatest invention? Well, my reply to that would be that I like the phonograph best. Doubtless this is because I love music. And then it has brought so much joy into millions of homes all over this country, and, indeed, all over the world. Music is so helpful to the human mind that it is naturally a source of satisfaction to me that I have helped in some way to make the very finest music available to millions who could not afford to pay the price and take the time necessary to hear the greatest artists sing and play.

Edison’s remark was reprinted in several newspapers such as “The Springfield Sunday Journal” of Springfield, Illinois. The paper acknowledged “The American Magazine” as its source although the wording was slightly altered: 3

When asked which of his inventions he liked best, Mr. Edison replied: “I like the phonograph best. Doubtless that is because I love music.

In November 1931, one month after the death of Edison, an engineer who worked in his lab named by John F. O’Hagan shared the content of a notebook he had maintained for more than fifteen years. O’Hagan stated that he had written down quotations from Edison in the notebook during this long period. Here were three entries: 4

“Until man duplicates a blade of grass, nature can laugh at his so-called scientific knowledge.”

“Of all my inventions I like the phonograph best.”

“Our technical schools have contributed more to our material prosperity than any other institutions.”

In conclusion, the 1915 and 1921 citations provide good evidence that Edison stated “I like the phonograph best” in response to a question about his “greatest work” or “greatest invention”

Image Notes: Edison together with his early phonograph circa 1878. Picture from Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Cris Poe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1915 October 19, Riverside Daily Press, Will Greet Edison in Blaze of Lights Quote Page 1, Column 5, Riverside, California. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1921 January, The American Magazine, Volume 91, Why Do So Many Men Never Amount to Anything?, Reported by B. C. Forbes, (Interview with Thomas A. Edison), Start Page 10, Quote Page 86, Column 3, The Crowell Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1921 January 16, The Springfield Sunday Journal, Phonograph Is Edison’s Choice, Quote page 25, Column 6, Springfield, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1931 November 22, The Sunday Courier and Journal (Evansville Courier and Journal), Edison Quotations: My Edison Notebook (As recorded by John F. O’Hagan over a period of more than fifteen years in a personal notebook), Quote Page 6, Column 5, Evansville, Indiana. (GenealogyBank)