We Will Make Electricity So Cheap That Only the Rich Will Burn Candles

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.

Continue reading We Will Make Electricity So Cheap That Only the Rich Will Burn Candles

If You Love Someone, Set Them Free. If They Come Back They’re Yours

Richard Bach? Jess Lair? Anonymous student? Sting? Peter Max? Chantal Sicile?

Dear Quote Investigator: On his first solo album in 1985 the musician Sting released a song called:

If You Love Somebody Set Them Free

Recently, I heard more elaborate quotations that included the above statement:

If you love something, let it go. If it returns, it’s yours; if it doesn’t, it wasn’t.
If you love someone, set them free. If they come back they’re yours; if they don’t they never were.

The statement immediately above was attributed to Richard Bach who wrote the enormously popular inspirationally work “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” in the 1970s. But I cannot find this saying in his novels. Could you tell me where this expression came from?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantiation that Richard Bach created or used the phrases above.

The earliest known evidence for a version of this saying appeared in a book titled “I Ain’t Much Baby—But I’m All I’ve Got” by Jess Lair that was privately published in 1969. Lair was a teacher, and he asked his students to create small writing samples. For each class meeting a student was supposed to write “some comment, question or feeling” on a three inch by five inch card and place it on a table in the front of the classroom. Lair read the short texts and made comments at the beginning of the class. The following was written on one card [JL69] [JL72]:

If you want something very, very badly, let it go free.  If it comes back to you, it’s yours forever.  If it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with.

Lair stated that about half of the cards were unsigned, and he did not identify the person who turned in the expression above. Here are three other examples from junior and senior students:

1. I heard a very profound statement last night. Unfortunately I’ve forgotten it.
2. No guts—no glory.
3. Laughter is the song of the angels.

Lair did not require the words to be original, and he did not request attributions. So the student may have gathered the quotation of interest from another unknown person.

Top quotation expert Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, obtained a copy of the 1969 book recently and verified the presence of the passage. Lair published multiple editions of his book, and in the past a 1974 edition was the earliest known and verified copy [JLYQ] [JLQV].

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If You Love Someone, Set Them Free. If They Come Back They’re Yours

In the Future Everyone Will Be Famous for 15 Minutes

Andy Warhol? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The expression “fifteen minutes of fame” is based on a quotation by the influential Pop artist Andy Warhol. But what exactly did he say and when did he say it?

Quote Investigator: Warhol’s notable maxim about the transience of fame has been popular for much longer than the standard allotment of fifteen minutes. The earliest evidence QI has located for a version of the phrase is in an issue of Time magazine dated October 13, 1967 [TIAW]:

Whole new schools of painting seem to charge through the art scene with the speed of an express train, causing Pop Artist Andy Warhol to predict the day “when everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”

Many reference works list an important citation that was published the next year in early 1968. An exhibition of Warhol’s art was held at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden and a catalog for the show was released in February-March 1968 which included a version of the popular apothegm [YQAW] [QVAW] [OQAW]:

In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.

This variant includes the extra modifier “world” that is absent in the earlier Time magazine citation. Indeed, the wording of the expression is highly variable, and Warhol himself deliberately altered the statement over time.

Here are additional selected citations in approximately chronological order.

Continue reading In the Future Everyone Will Be Famous for 15 Minutes

You Don’t Have to Know Everything. You Just Have to Know Where to Find It

Albert Einstein? Samuel Johnson? Sophonisba Breckinridge? John Brunner? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The depth and breadth of information available on the internet is wondrous. Here are three examples from a family of pertinent sayings I came across recently:

1) I don’t need to know everything; I just need to know where to find it, when I need it.
2) Never keep anything in your mind that you can look up.
3) Never memorize what you can look up in books.

These sayings express a fundamental insight into this age of vast knowledge bases and high-speed networks. The words were credited to Albert Einstein, but I cannot find any precise reference. There so much junk and misinformation about quotations. The prevalence of inaccurate data makes it harder to find correct information. Can you trace this general saying?

Quote Investigator: These quotations were not listed in the key reference work “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press.[1] 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper) Also, QI has not located any evidence of an exact match in the words written by the illustrious scientist.

Einstein did make a remark in 1921 that was conceptually related to the quotation. While visiting Boston he was asked whether he knew the value of the speed of sound, and he demurred. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[2]1921 May 18, New York Times, Einstein Sees Boston; Fails on Edison Test: Asked to Tell Speed of Sound He Refers Questioner to Text Books (Special to The New York Times), Quote Page 15, New York. … Continue reading

He was asked through his secretary, “What is the speed of sound?” He could not say off-hand, he replied. He did not carry such information in his mind but it was readily available in text books.

Einstein’s remark was about a single fact; hence, it differed from the statement under investigation. Nevertheless, it was possible to generalize and reformulate his comment to apply to the wider set of knowledge available in books. Indeed, another version of Einstein’s response that was published in 1947 was closer to the sayings being examined. (Details are given further below.) Hence, the modern expressions may have evolved from Einstein’s comment in 1921.

The idea presented in the quotation does have a long history before the computer age. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Don’t Have to Know Everything. You Just Have to Know Where to Find It

References

References
1 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
2 1921 May 18, New York Times, Einstein Sees Boston; Fails on Edison Test: Asked to Tell Speed of Sound He Refers Questioner to Text Books (Special to The New York Times), Quote Page 15, New York. (ProQuest)

Secret of the Universe: A Strong Smell of Turpentine Prevails Throughout

Bertrand Russell? William James? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.?

Dear Quote Investigator: The eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell discussed visions and experiences in his major opus “A History of Western Philosophy” in 1945. Russell noted that subjective experiences were not always reliable:[1]1945, A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, Book One, Part II, Chapter XV: The Theory of Ideas, Page 123-124, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper in 1976 paperback … Continue reading

William James describes a man who got the experience from laughing-gas; whenever he was under its influence, he knew the secret of the universe, but when he came to, he had forgotten it. At last, with immense effort, he wrote down the secret before the vision had faded. When completely recovered, he rushed to see what he had written. It was

“A smell of petroleum prevails throughout.”

What seems like sudden insight may be misleading, and must be tested soberly when the divine intoxication has passed.

Can you determine who experienced this eccentric revelation?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this passage can be traced back to an episode described by the prominent physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. who on June 29, 1870 delivered an address before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University. The New York Tribune reported on the speech two days after it occurred. Holmes discussed his experiments with ether and not nitrous oxide, and the curious insight he wrote down was about “turpentine” and not “petroleum”. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[2] 1870 July 01, New York Daily Tribune, [New York Herald-Tribune], Harvard: Meeting of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Page 5, Column 1, [Quote in Column 2], New York. (Genealogybank)

A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.

Here is an extended excerpt from the 1870 lecture of Holmes which was published in 1879:[3]1879, Mechanism in Thought and Morals: An Address Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University, June 29, 1870, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Quote Page 46-47, Houghton, Osgood … Continue reading

I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether, with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought I should find uppermost in my mind. The mighty music of the triumphal march into nothingness reverberated through my brain, and filled me with a sense of infinite possibilities, which made me an archangel for the moment. The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.”

An individual using the handle “joculum” investigated this quotation and posted a valuable analysis here on LiveJournal in 2008. The address by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was located by joculum before QI found it independently.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Secret of the Universe: A Strong Smell of Turpentine Prevails Throughout

References

References
1 1945, A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, Book One, Part II, Chapter XV: The Theory of Ideas, Page 123-124, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper in 1976 paperback reprint: A Touchstone Book: Simon and Schuster)
2 1870 July 01, New York Daily Tribune, [New York Herald-Tribune], Harvard: Meeting of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Page 5, Column 1, [Quote in Column 2], New York. (Genealogybank)
3 1879, Mechanism in Thought and Morals: An Address Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University, June 29, 1870, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Quote Page 46-47, Houghton, Osgood and Company, Boston. (Google Books full view) link

Hogamous, Higamous, Man is Polygamous, Higamous, Hogamous, Woman is Monagamous

William James? Dorothy Parker? Ogden Nash? Mrs. Amos Pinchot? Alice Duer Miller? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I read a wild story about William James, the prominent psychologist, educator, and philosopher. One night he experimented with the psychoactive gas nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas. While experiencing a reverie James became convinced that he had developed a profound insight into the universe. The next day when he examined the paper on which he scrawled his precious wisdom he read this bit of doggerel:

Hogamous, Higamous,
Man is polygamous,
Higamous, Hogamous,
Woman is monagamous.

Could this comical tale about the famous psychologist be correct?

Quote Investigator: Probably not. This poem has been attributed to Mrs. Amos Pinchot, William James, Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, and others. The earliest citation located by QI appeared in 1939 and credited Pinchot, but a cite in 1942 claimed that she denied the attribution. No decisive candidate for authorship has yet emerged in QI’s opinion.

William James did experiment with psychoactive agents, but his name was not connected to this verse until many years after his death. The earliest attribution to James located by QI was dated 1953, yet his life ended in 1910.

The first known evidence of this unusual anecdote appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper in November 1939. The article “Thanksgiving Nightmare” by Claire MacMurray discussed dreams and not drugs. MacMurray presented a supposed episode in the mental life of a person named Mrs. Amos Pinchot [APCM]:

She dreamed one night that she had written a poem so beautiful, so wise, so close to the ultimate truth of life that she was immediately acclaimed by all the peoples on the earth as the greatest poet and philosopher of all the ages. Still half asleep as the dream ended, she stumbled out of bed and scribbled the poem down, realizing that she must take no risk of forgetting such deathless lines. She awoke in the morning with the feeling that something wonderful was about to happen—oh, yes! Her poem.

She clutched the precious paper and, tense with excitement, read the words she had written. Here they are:

Hogamus Higamus
Men are Polygamous
Higamus Hogamus
Women Monogamous

The spelling and wording of this poem do differ from the most common modern versions, but QI believes that the words above likely correspond to the ancestral verse. The dream state is certainly an altered state, and it does generate insights, both genuine and spurious. But it is a relatively conventional mental excursion.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Hogamous, Higamous, Man is Polygamous, Higamous, Hogamous, Woman is Monagamous

Here are Two Tickets for the Opening of My Play. Bring a Friend—If You Have One

George Bernard Shaw? Winston Churchill? Randolph Churchill? Noel Coward? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The sharpest example of repartee that I have ever heard about was a famous exchange between George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill about a pair of tickets to a play.

Shaw: I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend—if you have one.

Churchill: Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second—if there is one.

I hope this jousting really happened. Could you examine this story?

Quote Investigator: The earliest printed evidence that QI has located appeared in 1946 in the influential syndicated column of Walter Winchell, but the participants were not Shaw and Winston Churchill. Instead, Churchill’s son and the popular playwright Noel Coward enacted a partial version of the anecdote. In the following passage UP refers to the United Press news service [WWRC]:

Randolph Churchill and Noel Coward haven’t always agreed on politics. A gag (from a UP pal in London) says that Churchill’s boy wrote Noel asking for two tickets to his new show. He received one ducat and this note: “Let me know if you really have a friend and I’ll send you the other ticket.”

The second cite was printed in the 1947 book “More and More of Memories” by Arthur Porritt. It contained a tale similar to the one above, but the wording given for Coward’s remark was closer to modern phrasing [APRC]:

When Mr. Randolph Churchill asked Mr. Noel Coward for a ticket for a new play he had written, Mr. Coward is said to have replied: “My dear Randolph. Here are tickets for my new show: one for yourself, and one for a friend—if you have a friend.”

The first evidence QI has found for the prevalent modern version is in a newspaper article with a dateline of January 1948 in New York City from the International News Service [EMJG] [EMOW]:

George Bernard Shaw sent Winston Churchill a couple of seats for the opening night of one of his plays, some time ago. Commissioner Ed Mulrooney was reminiscing the other day at the unveiling of the portrait of the late Jimmy Walker at city hall.

Shaw enclosed a little note with the tickets. It read, “Here are two tickets for the opening of my new play. Keep one for yourself and bring along a friend—if you can find one.”

Churchill returned the tickets with a nice little note, too.

“I’m sorry that a previous engagement precludes my attending your opening night.” he said. “I shall be happy to come the second night—if there is one.”

This anecdote was retold many times during the succeeding decades, but the phrasing used to describe Shaw’s message and Churchill’s rejoinder varied considerably. The name of the play was not given in the initial citations, but later versions mentioned at least four different dramas by Shaw: “Man and Superman,” “Pygmalion,” “Back to Methuselah,” and “Saint Joan.” By the 1960s a variant was being propagated that featured Winston Churchill and the playwright Noel Coward instead of Shaw.

The most interesting citation QI has located was published in “Shaw the Villager and Human Being: A Biographical Symposium” in 1962. The book presented the testimony of an orthopedic surgeon named L. W. Plewes who treated Shaw in 1950 when the playwright was 94 years old. Plewes said that Shaw himself provided the following version of the anecdote [LPSV]:

While G.B.S. was in hospital under treatment, some peaches arrived from Winston Churchill, who was in Florida at the time. Hearing from Mr. Churchill reminded G.B.S. of some correspondence he had had with him before Pygmalion was first staged. It went as follows: G.B.S. to Winston Churchill: “I enclose two tickets for the first night of my new play, one for yourself and one for your friend, if you have one.”Winston Churchill to G.B.S.: “I am sorry I cannot attend for the first night, but I should be glad to come on the second night, if there is one”!

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Here are Two Tickets for the Opening of My Play. Bring a Friend—If You Have One

When the End of the World Comes, I Want To Be in Cincinnati. It Is Always Ten Years Behind the Times

Mark Twain? Heinrich Heine? Otto von Bismarck? George Bernard Shaw? James Boswell? Will Rogers?

Dear Quote Investigator: As a one-time resident of Cincinnati I knew that Mark Twain once worked in the city, and I always enjoyed the comment he reportedly made about it:

When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always 20 years behind the times.

But this quip is also attributed to the popular humorist Will Rogers. Can you determine who created this joke?

Quote Investigator: The early evidence located by QI points to a different part of the globe. In 1886 The Atlantic Monthly printed an article about King Ludwig II of Bavaria that contained a version of the jape; however, the length of the time lag and the location were distinct [BVAM]:

It is a common saying in Germany that Bavaria will be the best place to emigrate to at the approaching end of the world, since that event, like everything else, will be sure to come off there fifty years later than in any other country. The Bavarians will be behind the times even as to the point when time shall be no more, and will enter as laggards upon the eternal life.

This citation suggests that a version of this gag expressed in the German language probably predates 1886.  Over a period of many decades multiple variants appeared. The remark was modified to target other locales, e.g., Dresden, Netherlands, Mecklenburg, Cincinnati and Ireland. The humor was credited to a variety of people including: Heinrich Heine, Otto von Bismarck, Mark Twain, and George Bernard Shaw.

The earliest Cincinnati-based citation found by QI was dated 1978, and the words were attributed to Mark Twain. Details are given further below. Note that Twain died in 1910, so this is a very late piece of evidence.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading When the End of the World Comes, I Want To Be in Cincinnati. It Is Always Ten Years Behind the Times

Great Invention, But Who Would Ever Want to Use One?

Ulysses S. Grant? Rutherford B. Hayes? Howard Pew? George Peck? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A quotation about the telephone has been in the news recently because it was used in a speech by U.S. President Barack Obama. A widely-distributed anecdote asserted that Rutherford B. Hayes participated in a demonstration of the telephone when it was a new invention. But his response was short-sighted:

It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?

What do you think? Did Hayes say this?

Quote Investigator: QI has been unable to locate any compelling evidence that Hayes made that skeptical remark about the telephone. The earliest known citation connecting Hayes to the telephone anecdote appeared in a 1982 book titled “Future Mind” about computers. Details are given further below.

Oddly, in 1939 an almost identical anecdote was told about Ulysses S. Grant who preceded Hayes in the White House. This is the earliest instance of the story located by QI. Note that Grant left the White House in 1877, and Hayes left in 1881. So the speech described immediately below was made many years after either man was President.

In 1939 Howard Pew, president of the Sun Oil Company, delivered an address at a meeting of the Congress of American Industry. Pew claimed that several famous individuals had made misguided comments about technology. One of his examples was a supposed remark by Ulysses S. Grant that revealed a dramatic lack of foresight regarding the potential of the telephone [UGHP]:

From history, he recited: George Washington thought the first demonstration of John Fitch’s steamboat of too little significance to justify his presence; President Ulysses S. Grant thought the telephone was “very remarkable” but wondered “who in the world would ever want to use one of them.”

Napoleon couldn’t “see the submarine.” Daniel Webster thought frost on the tracks would make it impossible to run trains.

In 1949 the anecdote about Grant’s reaction to the telephone appeared in an article by a writer named George Peck that was printed in a Virginia newspaper. The quotation attributed to Grant overlapped the version presented in 1939 immediately above [UGGP]:

Then there is the rather humorous episode in connection with the first telephone placed on the White House desk. This was when Ulysses Grant was president. After trial had convinced him that he could actually talk through it and hear the answering voice from the other end, he said: “Yes, it is all very remarkable: but who in the world would ever want, to use one of them?”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Great Invention, But Who Would Ever Want to Use One?

“Will You Write an Autobiography?” “Not Until Long After I’m Dead”

Samuel Goldwyn? Ezra Goodman? Robert Gessner?

Dear Quote Investigator: The supply of comical lines credited to the Hollywood chief Samuel Goldwyn seems endless. Here is one that I love:

I don’t think anyone should write their autobiography until after they’re dead.

But I have become rather skeptical of these jokes because no one seems to hear these risible phrases and malapropisms from the mouth of Goldwyn himself. Is there an example of a reporter or someone hearing one of these statements spoken directly by Goldwyn?

Quote Investigator: Yes. In fact, the questioner has found a good example. This Goldwynism was evidently heard by two different people: Ezra Goodman, a reporter for Time magazine, and Robert Gessner, a professor of film. But the two listeners each heard a different version of the phrase at a different time.

In May 1955 Time magazine published a story discussing the continuing Hollywood success of Goldwyn at the age of 73. He was still active assembling the major production “Guys and Dolls”, but he had no plans to reveal his extensive confidential knowledge of filmdom in a book [SGTM]:

A foxy lone wolf—no partners, no board of directors, no bank financing—Goldwyn probably knows as much about Hollywood and its half century of history as any man alive. But another Goldwynism covers the situation. “I’m never going to write my autobiography,” he says, “as long as I live.”

In August 1955 Time printed a “Publisher’s Letter” outlining the recent activities of the magazine’s Hollywood journalist, Ezra Goodman. He visited Michael’s Cheesecake Stand in the Los Angeles and saw Marilyn Monroe crowned “Miss Cheesecake”. He also spoke to Samuel Goldwyn and was responsible for recording the May 1955 observation given above though the precise phrasing below is slightly different [EGTM]:

And he is willing to testify personally to one epic Goldwynism: “I will never write my autobiography as long as I live.”

In 1960 the New York Times reviewed a biography of Louis B. Mayer who was one of the rival moguls during Goldwyn’s heyday. The reviewer, Robert Gessner, was described as a “Professor of Motion Pictures at New York University and president of The Society of Cinematologists”. Gessner claimed that he directly heard a version of this classic Goldwynism [SGRG]:

Sam Goldwyn once inadvertently explained the difficulty in writing an honest screen biography. In response to this reviewer’s urging that he compose his own, a look of horror came over Mr. Goldwyn’s face and he smacked his palms upon his chest. “I write my autobiography?  Oh, no—I can’t do that! Not until long after I’m dead.”

QI believes that this variant from Gessner is more humorous than the statement reported by Goodman because of its heightened absurdity. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “Will You Write an Autobiography?” “Not Until Long After I’m Dead”