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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