Edison’s IQ Test

By Larry Teren

Thomas Edison

was ‘great’ but not in the sense of being a likable guy. In fact, he was reviled by many competitors who accused him of doing underhanded tricks in order to accumulate patents. He was great because he was indeed larger than life which made him easy fodder for journalists.

In 1921, Thomas Edison put out job wanted ads looking to hire quality workers for his company. When the applicants showed up for the job interview, they were not asked to produce a resume. In fact, he didn’t care much to read one. Instead, he gave them a sort of intelligence test composed of one hundred fifty questions that he thought were appropriate for the type of job they were looking to get.

The questions on the test varied depending on the job opening. You be the judge- For a woodworker, he would ask, “which countries supply the most mahogany?” A bricklayer might be asked, “who assassinated Abraham Lincoln?”

Other questions were:

What city in the United States is noted for its laundry-machine making?
Who invented logarithms?
Who composed Il Trovatore?

Newspapers had a field day with this and every opportunity they had to corner Thomas Edison and interview him, which became rarer and rarer, they would try to trick him into answering their own made up questions of a trivial nature. It was supposedly said that he got ninety-five percent correct. The man had a steel trap of a mind. Some people accused him of having a learning disability which is why he memorized innocuous facts.

Possibly one in ten applicants got a passing grade on these early model IQ tests. Thomas Edison thought very little of the common man. He felt that they did little thinking and storing away of knowledge. He wanted only the exceptional to work for him


Albert Einstein

A few months after the test became public, Albert Einstein, another or maybe the ultimate celebrated genius of that time, was asked Edison’s test question of “what is the speed of sound?” His reply was, “how should I know? If I need to know, I can readily look it up in a book.” It is possible that Einstein, the most famous scientist ever, would not have been deemed worthy of employment by Edison.

For all his quirkiness, Thomas Edison was a clairvoyant in one area: cigarette smoking. He sent a letter to his friend Henry Ford on April 26, 1914, indicating that he would never, ever knowingly hire anyone who smoked. He felt that an addiction to narcotics was reversible but not to smoking. However, his understanding of the danger of smoking had nothing to do with cancer, which was not yet fully understood until Federal Government studies in the 1930. He was convinced that the burning paper wrapper formed a substance that had a negative effect on brain cells.

Most people today link the name Edison in Chicago to Commonwealth Edison, the company that charges too much money for delivering electricity. What they know of Edison the man is limited to classroom teaching of his dedication to the invention of a long lasting filament making electric light bulbs possible. But, he didn’t invent electricity itself. More than one hundred years earlier, even Benjamin Franklin who was more wrapped up in the Politics of Man observed electrical elements in the air.

Very recently, the State of Illinois opened up the opportunity for additional franchises in the state for the delivery of electricity. A handful of start-up companies came out of the woodwork going door to door trying to convince consumers that it was cheaper to switch to them than to stay with Commonwealth Edison. The funny thing is that even with years of being subjected to an overcharging monopoly in the area, less than one percent of businesses and households have felt the itch to switch. That would make old Thomas Edison proud and maybe he would then consider throwing out that darn job application test.

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