Thomas Edison? Samuel Insull? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: I am curious about a quote attributed to the remarkable inventor Thomas Edison:
We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.
What proof exists that Edison actually said this? It’s such a visionary prediction that I’d love for it to be true.
Quote Investigator: There is strong evidence that Edison expressed this idea in 1880 though he used a different phrasing. A journalist for the New York Herald visited Edison’s laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey and observed the newly created electric lights. A report was sent via telegraph to the Herald office and published the next day on January 4, 1880 [EDNY]:
The little globes of fire still continue burning in all their beauty, notwithstanding the predictions of the sceptics. The three hours test which a rival electrician loudly dared Mr. Edison to make, proclaiming that only that length of time was necessary to prove the utter failure of his invention, has now grown into a test of 240 hours and still the lamps are burning.
The last section of the article was titled “The Question of Cost”, and a remark of Edison’s on this topic was printed. Instead of using the word “rich” Edison used the term “extravagant” [EDNY]:
The exact cost of the new light the inventor has not made public; but it is characteristically summed up in an answer which he was overheard to give an inquirer:—
“After the electric light goes into general use,” said he, “none but the extravagant will burn tallow candles.”
Edison’s comment above was reprinted in multiple newspapers in 1880. By 1914 another version of the saying that was closer to the modern statement was credited to Edison. In 2004 an article in the USA Today newspaper attributed a version of the remark to a competitor of Edison’s named Samuel Insull.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.