Thomas Edison? Elbert Hubbard? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The famous inventor Thomas Edison supposedly foresaw the potential of solar energy more than one hundred years ago. He wanted to replace the burning of fuels with the collection of natural energy from the sun, wind, and tides.
Did Edison really express this viewpoint? Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: In 1910 influential publisher Elbert Hubbard printed an interview with Thomas Edison in his journal “The Fra”. Edison believed that burning wood and coal was shortsighted, and he was excited by a vision of collecting and storing what is now called renewable energy. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
This scheme of combustion in order to get power makes me sick to think of—it is so wasteful. It is just the old, foolish Prometheus idea, and the father of Prometheus was a baboon.
“When we learn how to store electricity, we will cease being apes ourselves; until then we are tailless orang-outangs. You see, we should utilize natural forces and thus get all of our power. Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and the tides are manifestations of energy. Do we use them?
“Oh, no; we burn up wood and coal, as renters burn up the front fence for fuel. We live like squatters, not as if we owned the property.
“There must surely come a time when heat and power will be stored in unlimited quantities in every community, all gathered by natural forces. Electricity ought to be as cheap as oxygen, for it can not be destroyed.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Edison also advocated “concentrating and storing up sunshine” in the 1910 interview: 2
Some day some fellow will invent a way of concentrating and storing up sunshine to use instead of this old, absurd Prometheus scheme of fire. I’ll do the trick myself if some one doesn’t get at it. Why, that is all there is about my work in electricity—you know, I never claimed to have invented electricity—that is a campaign lie—nail it!
“Sunshine is spread out thin and so is electricity. Perhaps they are the same, but we will take that up later. Now the trick was, you see, to concentrate the juice and liberate it as you needed it.
Elbert Hubbard died tragically when the RMS Lusitania ocean liner was sunk in 1915. The following year “Little Journeys To the Homes of the Great: Memorial Edition” by Hubbard appeared posthumously, and a reprint of the interview with Edison was included. 3
Thomas Edison died in 1931. The book “Uncommon Friends: Life with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel, & Charles Lindbergh” was published decades later in 1987. The author James D. Newton was a friend of these prominent figures from history.
The book included quotations from Edison, but their reliability is uncertain because of the time delay. Newton stated that he kept some contemporaneous notes. Here were two of the quotations: 4
“We are like tenant farmers, chopping down the fence around our house for fuel, when we should be using nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy—sun, wind, and tide.” . . .
“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait till oil and coal run out before we tackle that. I wish I had more years left!”
A separate QI article about these statements is available here.
The words Edison spoke during the Hubbard interview were included as a chapter epigraph (with accompanying footnote) in the 2015 M.I.T. PhD thesis of Leah C. Stokes: 5
Why, we have just begun to commence to get ready to find out about electricity. This scheme of combustion to get power makes me sick to think of–it is so wasteful….
You see, we should utilize natural forces and thus get all of our power. Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and the tides are manifestations of energy. Do we use them?
Oh no! We burn up wood and coal, as renters burn up the front fence for fuel. We live like squatters, not as if we owned the property.
– Thomas A. Edison
In conclusion, Thomas Edison should receive credit for the statements he made in the interview published in 1910. The statements attributed to Edison in the 1987 book are thematically similar, but their reliability is less certain.
Image Notes: Picture of solar panels and the sky from andreas160578 at Pixabay. The image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Leah Stokes. She identified the pertinent text in the interview with Thomas Edison published by Elbert Hubbard. She included a passage in her 2015 PhD thesis with a 1916 citation. Also thanks to German Bahamon, Jesse Jenkins, Justin Gillis, Leah C. Stokes and others who participated in a twitter thread that highlighted the Edison quotation. Additional thanks to Brad Johnson who learned of the quotation from Stokes and contacted QI via email with a 1910 citation.)
- 1910 April, The Fra: A Journal of Affirmation, Volume 5, Number 1, The Open Road: Afoot With The Fra, Thomas A. Edison, Start Page 1, Quote Page 6 and 7, Published by Elbert Hubbard, East Aurora, Erie County, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1910 April, The Fra: A Journal of Affirmation, Volume 5, Number 1, The Open Road: Afoot With The Fra, Thomas A. Edison, Start Page 1, Quote Page 6, Published by Elbert Hubbard, East Aurora, Erie County, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1916 Copyright, Little Journeys To the Homes of the Great: Memorial Edition by Elbert Hubbard, Thomas A. Edison, Start Page 319, Quote Page 339, Printed by Roycrofters, East Aurora, New York, William H. Wise & Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1987, Uncommon Friends: Life with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel, & Charles Lindbergh by James D. Newton (James Draper Newton), Quote Page 31, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, California. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 2015 June, Power Politics: Renewable Energy Policy Change in US States by Leah C. Stokes, Dissertation Submitted to Department of Urban Studies and Planning of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for Doctor of Philosophy in Public Policy, Thesis Supervisor: Lawrence E. Susskind, (Epigraph of Chapter 3), Quote Page 77. (Accessed dspace.mit.edu on October 2, 2019) link ↩