Albert Einstein? Truman Twill? Lyndon B. Johnson? Laurence J. Peter? Paul A. Freund? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Many sayings attributed to the scientific genius Albert Einstein concern the mind. Here is a funny example:
If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?
I haven’t been able to find a solid citation. Would you please help me to determine whether Einstein said this?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein made this quip. It was attributed to him in the 2000s many years after his death in 1955. The most comprehensive reference about the physicist’s pronouncements is the 2010 book “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press, and the expression is absent. 1
This comical riposte was inspired by a family of admonishments about messy desks, and this website has a pertinent entry here: “A Cluttered Desk Produces a Cluttered Mind”.
The earliest match in this family known to QI appeared in 1911. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2
Orderliness and cleanliness are two important factors in efficiency. A disordered desk is an evidence of a disordered brain and a disordered character.
In 1941 a newspaper in East Liverpool, Ohio printed a column titled “Confession” by Truman Twill who was critical of the common adage extolling well-organized desks: 3
A neat desk, they always say, is the sign of a well ordered mind. Important executives make it a point of pride never to have any clutter on their desks. Finally, the desk is immaculate. It is free of clutter as a bald head.
Yet, Twill thought that the cleanliness advice was inherently flawed:
There is a man who has cleaned himself out of the wherewithal to work with, whose empty desk reflects his empty mind, a man who won’t be worth his social security till his desk gets cluttered up again.
So, Twill articulated the idea of the quotation under examination. He employed two concise counterpoint phrases, but the overall column was prolix.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Probably Not By Einstein, (No page number because statement is absent), Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1911 December, The Mediator, Volume 3, Number 12, Editor: J. K. Turner, Section: Editorial, Two Men and a Pin, Quote Page 34, The Mediator Publishing Company, Cleveland, Ohio. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1941 April 9, East Liverpool Review (The Evening Review), Confession by Truman Twill, Quote Page 4, Column 7, East Liverpool, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩