Thomas Edison? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Using alcohol to provide solace when experiencing apprehension is often unwise. The famous inventor and businessman Thomas Edison preferred hard work and reportedly said:
As a cure for worrying, work is better than whisky
Oddly, the same saying has been attributed to the noteworthy thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson. Can you resolve this ambiguity?
Quote Investigator: The ascription to Thomas Edison is well-supported, but the linkage to Ralph Waldo Emerson is unsupported.
The March 1929 issue of “Hearst’s International Combined with Cosmopolitan” magazine published an interview with Thomas Edison that included his commentary about the difficulties and uncertainties he faced while building his business empire. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
“For a good many years I worried about my pay-roll; didn’t always know how I was going to meet it. My trouble has been that I have always had too much ambition and tried to do things that were sometimes financially too big for me. If I had not had so much ambition and had not tried to do so many things I probably would have been happier, but less useful.
“But I have always found, when I was worrying, that the best thing to do was to put my mind upon something, work hard and forget what was troubling me. As a cure for worrying, work is better than whisky. Much better.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The Edison interview attracted attention even before the cover date of the magazine. In February 1929 a columnist in “The Detroit Free Press” of Detroit, Michigan highlighted a slightly different version of the remark with the word “sure”: 2
Allan L. Benson, who has been interviewing Edison for 20 years, tells of his last and most interesting interview, in the March Cosmopolitan. The gods were with him he says for he caught the great inventor in a mood of relaxation. Edison talks on happiness, education and hobbies. As a sure cure for worry he says that work is much better than whisky.
Also, in February 1929 a miscellaneous collection of quotations under the title “Opinions” appeared in the “San Francisco Chronicle” of San Francisco, California: 3
“As a cure for worrying, work is better than whisky.”—Thomas A. Edison.
The saying with an ascription to Edison was published in a Canadian newspaper based in Ottawa, Ontario in March 1929. The words were printed under the title “What People Are Saying” with an acknowledgement to the “London Observer”. 4
The 1936 compilation “The New Dictionary of Thoughts: A Cyclopedia of Quotations” included the following two quotations under the category “Work”: 5
WORK.—Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.—Sir James M. Barrie.
As a cure for worrying, work is better than whiskey.—Thomas A. Edison.
The 1949 collection “The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern” assembled by Burton Stevenson included the remark and stated that it was spoken during an interview, but the discussion covered more topics than indicated: 6
As a cure for worrying, work is better than whiskey.
THOMAS A. EDISON, Interview on Prohibition.
In 1968 the widely-distributed UPI news service published an article that contained adjacent quotations from Edison and Emerson. A known mechanism for the production of misquotations occurs when nearby names cause confusion. Thus, QI offers as a conjecture that one or more readers reassigned the words of Edison to Emerson: 7
Thomas A. Edison, whose lightbulb eliminated the chore of cleaning glass chimneys from oil lamps, viewed work these ways:
—“As a cure for worrying, work is better than whiskey.”
—”Genius is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.”
BUT THOUGH some say work can’t kill you, Ralph Waldo Emerson had this to say about genius: “Great geniuses have the shortest biographies.”
In 1988 a columnist in Longview, Texas credited Emerson with the saying: 8
As a cure for worrying, work is better than whiskey.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
In conclusion, Thomas Edison may properly be credited with the words recorded in “Hearst’s International Combined with Cosmopolitan” magazine in 1929. The ascription to Emerson was spurious.
Image Notes: Dragon sculpture with whiskey bottle from tom_mathews at Pixabay. Portrait of Thomas Alva Edison circa 1890 by Abraham Archibald Anderson; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Maythinee Washington whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to a helpful librarian in St. Augustine, Florida and the Interlibrary Loan System. Thanks also to Sergio Barcellos Ximenes.)
- 1929 March, Hearst’s International Combined with Cosmopolitan, Edison: In an Unusual Talk with Allan L. Benson, Start Page 83, Quote Page 83, Column 2, International Magazine Company, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to the Interlibrary Loan system) ↩
- 1929 February 16, The Detroit Free Press, Magazines, Quote Page 11, Column 5, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1929 February 26, San Francisco Chronicle, Opinions, Quote Page 26, Column 2, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1929 March 11, The Ottawa Journal, Sidelights: What People Are Saying: London Observer, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1936, The New Dictionary of Thoughts: A Cyclopedia of Quotations, Originally compiled by Tryon Edwards, Revised and Enlarged by C. N. Catrevas and Jonathan Edwards, Topic: Work, Quote Page 734, Standard Book Company, New York. (Verified with scans) link ↩
- 1949, The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern, Selected by Burton Stevenson, Sixth Edition, Topic: Work, Quote Page 2233, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org) ↩
- 1968 September 2, The Arizona Republic, As You Ease Yourself Into the Hammock by Patricia McCormack, Quote Page 28, Column 6, Phoenix, Arizona. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1988 March 28, Longview News-Journal, Longview Today by Dolores Brown (Article epigraph), Quote Page 2A, Column 1, Longview, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩