Category Archives: Thomas Edison

As a Cure for Worrying, Work Is Better Than Whisky

Thomas Edison? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Apocryphal?

edison11Dear 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.

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  1. 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)

I’d Put My Money on the Sun and Solar Energy

Thomas Edison? James D. Newton? Apocryphal?

thomas12Dear Quote Investigator: A fascinatingly prescient remark about energy has been attributed to the famous inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison:

I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.

Edison died in 1931, and these words sound almost too futuristic to me. Is this an accurate quotation?

Quote Investigator: In 1987 the book “Uncommon Friends: Life with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel, & Charles Lindbergh” was published. The author James D. Newton was a friend of each one of these prominent figures from history.

Many of the discussions and incidents described in the book occurred decades before the publication date. To support their veracity Newton stated that he kept contemporaneous notes: 1

I have not had to rely on my memory alone to record the events, anecdotes, and conversations in which I took part with my friends over a period of nearly fifty years. Fortunately, during most of that time I kept a diary in which I noted times and places, key phrases, and vivid impressions. I also relied on publications by and about my friends, which jogged my memory.

Newton described a conversation between Thomas Edison, automobile manufacturer Henry Ford, and tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone. Edison began with a provocative remark about the possible depletion of resources in the future. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

“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.”

Firestone responded that oil and coal and wood couldn’t last forever. They’d been tackling rubber. He wondered how much hard research was going into harnessing the wind, for example. Windmills hadn’t changed much in a thousand years.”

Ford said there were enormously powerful tides—for example, the Bay of Fundy. Scientists had only been playing with the question so far.

Edison said, “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!”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1987, Uncommon Friends: Life with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel, & Charles Lindbergh by James D. Newton (James Draper Newton), Quote Page ix, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, California. (Verified on paper)
  2. 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 on paper)

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.

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  1. 1915 October 19, Riverside Daily Press, Will Greet Edison in Blaze of Lights Quote Page 1, Column 5, Riverside, California. (GenealogyBank)

There Is No Expedient to which a Man Will Not Resort to Avoid the Real Labor of Thinking

Thomas Edison? Joshua Reynolds? Irving Babbitt? Apocryphal?

reynolds06Dear Quote Investigator: A piquant statement about mental laziness is attributed to the inventor and research laboratory pioneer Thomas A. Edison. Here are two versions:

There is no expedient to which a man will not go to avoid the labor of thinking.

There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.

This expression is also attributed to the prominent English painter Joshua Reynolds. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: In the eighteenth century Joshua Reynolds was the most successful portrait painter in England, and he was selected to be the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Between 1769 and 1790 Reynolds delivered an influential series of Discourses about art. 1 The Twelfth Discourse contained a prolix statement with a meaning that largely matched the adage under investigation.

Through a multistep process the expression of Reynolds was greatly simplified and condensed to yield a much pithier statement. This new phrase was reassigned directly to Reynolds by 1914. Thomas Edison saw a concise instance and was impressed enough to choose it as an admonitory didactic motto for his organization. By 1921 Edison had decided to have placards placed on the walls of his plant in Orange, New Jersey displaying the saying together with an ascription to Sir Joshua Reynolds. Later writers elided the name of Reynolds and attributed the words to Edison.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. The Oxford Companion to English Literature (Seventh edition) by Dinah Birch, Entry: Sir Joshua Reynolds (1701—1779), Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford Reference Online. (Accessed May 15, 2014)

There’s a Way To Do It Better—Find It

Thomas Edison? David Sarnoff? Apocryphal?

edisonlab09Dear 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.

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  1. 1957 September 4, New York Times, Advertising: Promoting a Negative Quality by Carl Spielvogel, Quote Page 46, Column 6,New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1957 September 24, Greensboro Record, Trade Winds: Better Selling Need Emphasized by Lou Schneider, Quote Page B3, Column 2, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1957 December 23, Newsweek, Volume 50, (Advertisement for McGraw-Edison Company), Quote Page 28, Newsweek, Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  4. 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)
  5. 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)

Genius Is One Percent Inspiration, Ninety-Nine Percent Perspiration

Thomas Edison? Kate Sanborn? Apocryphal?

edisonsmart72Dear 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.

At last, in 1901 the modern version of the saying with a ratio of 1 to 99 emerged in a newspaper in Idaho where it was credited to Edison. This citation was located by top-researcher Barry Popik: 8

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.

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  1. 1892 December 4, Springfield Sunday Republican [Springfield Republican], Men Women and Affairs, Page 4, Column 4, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1893 April 21, Riverside Daily Press, Miss Sanborn’s Lecture, Page 4, Column 1, Riverside, California. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 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)
  4. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 77 and 292, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 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)
  6. 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)
  7. 1898 June 19, The Helena Independent, Brevities, Page 2, Column 2, Helena, Montana. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1901 May 6, Idaho Daily Statesman [Idaho Statesman], Doing One’s Best, Page 4, Column 3, Boise, Idaho. (GenealogyBank)

Opportunity Is Missed Because It Is Dressed in Overalls and Looks Like Work

Thomas Edison? Henry Dodd? Isaiah Hale? Paul Larmer? Lila Kroppmann? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following quote is credited to Thomas Edison:

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

Do you know when he said this and to whom?

Quote Investigator: Both QI and top researcher Barry Popik explored this saying and this entry is based on results from both investigators. The first attribution to Edison known to QI appeared in 1962. Since Edison died in 1931 this is very weak evidence.

May 1921 was the date of the earliest citation for a closely matching expression known to QI. The words were printed in a newspaper in Indiana, and the adage was not credited to any specific person [LPTI]:

The reason most people do not recognize an opportunity when they meet it is because it usually goes around wearing overalls and looking like Hard Work

An interesting precursor to this statement was in circulation by 1911. The precursor did not mention overalls but it did contain other key elements of the saying. No attribution was listed [ODHW]:

The successful man was out and on the job long before opportunity came a-knocking.
And this same opportunity, by the way, is ofttimes disguised as hard work

Another interesting precursor that was closer to the target quotation was in print by 1913. No specific name was given for attribution [ASAM]:

The reason a lot of people can’t find Opportunity is because old Op usually goes around disguised as Hard Work.

In May 1921 a version of the quotation under investigation using the word overalls was published as detailed previously in this post.

In June 1921 the same statement was printed in another newspaper in Indiana without attribution [BNAN], and in July 1922 it was printed without ascription in “The Beaver”, a magazine based in Winnipeg, Canada that was published by the Hudson’s Bay Company for their employees [TBWC].

In September 1922 the expression was printed in “The Rotarian” magazine published by Rotary International. Many sayings were grouped together in a section called “Take It From Me—” by quotation collector and coiner Coleman Cox. The adage was finally credited to a specific individual [RTHD]:

Henry Dodd says, “The reason most people do not recognize an opportunity when they meet it is because it usually goes around wearing overalls and looking like Hard Work.”

In later years the expression was assigned to other people, e.g., Paul Larmer, Lila Kroppmann, and Thomas Edison. The details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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I Have Gotten a Lot of Results! I Know Several Thousand Things That Won’t Work

Thomas Edison? Walter S. Mallory? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: There are many versions of a popular story about the inventor Thomas Edison. He was working on the creation of a practical light bulb or a new battery. He and his team of researchers conducted a series of unsuccessful experiments. The number of negative laboratory tests varies in different narratives; for example, 700, 999, 1,000, 10,000 and 50,000 have all been mentioned. A visitor to the lab, or a co-worker, or a reporter expressed sympathy to Edison regarding the failed experiments and the lack of results. Edison countered by saying one of the following:

  • I have not failed, not once.  I’ve discovered ten thousand ways that don’t work.
  • I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work.
  • I now know 999 different ways that won’t work.

In one variant of the tale Edison is asked if he is discouraged and replies cheerfully:

  • Not at all, for I have learned fifty thousand ways it cannot be done and therefore I am fifty thousand times nearer the final successful experiment.

Strangely, the same colorful quotation is credited to Benjamin Franklin. I am trying to figure out if this story about Edison is true. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence QI has located for this tale was written in 1910 in a comprehensive two volume biography called “Edison: His Life and Inventions”. The anecdote was told by a long-time associate of Edison’s named Walter S. Mallory. Edison and his researchers had been working on the development of a nickel-iron battery for more than five months when Mallory visited Edison in his laboratory. The key dialog below has been highlighted with boldface [WMTE]:

I found him at a bench about three feet wide and twelve to fifteen feet long, on which there were hundreds of little test cells that had been made up by his corps of chemists and experimenters. He was seated at this bench testing, figuring, and planning. I then learned that he had thus made over nine thousand experiments in trying to devise this new type of storage battery, but had not produced a single thing that promised to solve the question. In view of this immense amount of thought and labor, my sympathy got the better of my judgment, and I said: ‘Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?’ Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: ‘Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.’

In 1921 Thomas Edison was interviewed by B. C. Forbes for American Magazine. Edison described an incident that matched the anecdote presented by Mallory although he did not provide a precise dialog [BFTE]:

I never allow myself to become discouraged under any circumstances. I recall that after we had conducted thousands of experiments on a certain project without solving the problem, one of my associates, after we had conducted the crowning experiment and it had proved a failure, expressed discouragement and disgust over our having failed ‘to find out anything.’ I cheerily assured him that we had learned something. For we had learned for a certainty that the thing couldn’t be done that way, and that we would have to try some other way. We sometimes learn a lot from our failures if we have put into the effort the best thought and work we are capable of.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Everybody Steals in Commerce and Industry. I’ve Stolen A Lot Myself

Thomas Edison? Martin André Rosanoff? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: While reading a novel about the remarkable inventor Nikola Tesla I came across a statement credited to Thomas Edison that I find very hard to believe [TLDS]:

Everyone steals in commerce and industry. I’ve stolen a lot, myself. But I know how to steal! They don’t know how to steal!

Did Edison really say something like this? I know that Tesla and Edison were rivals, and perhaps the author of this Tesla book is biased against Edison. I hesitate to believe that this quotation is accurate.

Quote Investigator: A remark that was nearly identical to the one above was attributed to Edison in an article published in Harper’s magazine in September 1932 titled “Edison in His Laboratory”. The statement began with “everybody” instead of “everyone”. Note that Edison died in 1931, the year before the Harper’s article was printed. The author of the article was Martin André Rosanoff who performed chemical investigations for Edison.

Rosanoff stated that Edison asked him to test the composition of a wax that was used by a rival company because Edison suspected that the other company had stolen a secret formula for the wax. In the following excerpt Rosanoff referred to Edison as “the Old Man” [MRTE]:

The first I knew of this was when the Old Man asked me to investigate it and ascertain whether the rival’s wax was really new. He said I might be called upon to testify in court and urged me to make my experimental study thorough.

Rosanoff performed an exhaustive analysis of the wax and concluded that the rival’s wax was identical in composition to that used by Edison’s company. Rosanoff was angered by this apparent commercial theft, and described the data to Edison [MRTE]:

When I reported my results to the Old Man with spirited indignation at the unsavory ways of his rival, he asked with a merry twinkle of amusement, “What are you so excited about? Everybody steals in commerce and industry. I’ve stolen a lot myself. But I knew how to steal. They don’t know how to steal—that’s all that’s the matter with them” I said nothing; my breath was taken away.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Hell! there ain’t no rules around here! We are tryin’ to accomplish somep’n!

Thomas Edison? Martin André Rosanoff? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote investigator: All the rules and regulations of the modern world can be quite aggravating. That is why I greatly enjoy the following quotation proclaimed by Thomas Edison to the employees in his Menlo Park laboratory:

Hell, there are no rules here. We’re trying to accomplish something.

I read this statement in a book published in 2000, but an exact reference was not given. Did Edison really say this?

Quote Investigator: Yes, he probably did make a comment like this to one of his researchers. The evidence was published in the September 1932 issue of Harper’s Magazine which contained an article titled “Edison in His Laboratory” by Martin André Rosanoff who performed chemical investigations for Edison. Rosanoff described an exchange he had with Edison shortly after he had joined the staff around 1903 [HMLR]:

I approached him in a humble spirit: “Mr. Edison, please tell me what laboratory rules you want me to observe.” And right then and there I got my first surprise. He spat in the middle of the floor and yelled out,

“Hell! there ain’t no rules around here! We are tryin’ to accomplish somep’n!”

And he walked off, leaving me flabbergasted.

Note that the original printed quotation used the informal contraction “ain’t” instead of “are no”. Also, dialect spellings were employed for “tryin'” and “somep’n”.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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