Would You Pass Thomas Edison’s Employment Test?

Probably not.

Thomas Edison
Underwood & Underwood/Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

Of what kind of wood are kerosene barrels made? How is sulfuric acid made? What cereal is used all over the world? Where is the Assuan Dam? If any of these questions give you pause, we have bad news—you’d probably fail Thomas Edison’s employment test. But don’t worry…you wouldn’t be the only one.

In 1921, Thomas Edison was one of the most famous men in America—and jobs at his plant among the country’s most coveted. But the self-educated inventor who famously credited his success to one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration was suspicious of college graduates and frustrated when they weren’t qualified to do the job. So he came up with a brutal 146-question employment test (think: a more demanding 1920s version of Google’s dreaded open-ended interview).

There was only one problem—Edison’s test was nearly impossible to pass. As Matt Novak reports for Paleofuture, the test was laden with irrelevant trivia. And when it leaked to the press, it became a controversial public sensation:

Everybody had an opinion on the test, and those who scored well weren't shy to tell you about it. However, those who did well were definitely in the minority.

The Chicago Tribune sent reporters down to the University of Chicago to see how students would fare. They asked them each 20 questions and nobody did well...Reporters even quizzed Albert Einstein, who was said to have “failed” Edison’s quiz for not knowing the speed of sound off the top of his head. Edison's youngest son Theodore, a student at MIT, did poorly as well when questioned by a visiting reporter.

When the New York Times published the test in May 1921, it slammed the quiz as “a test of a man’s memory and store of miscellaneous information, rather than of his knowledge, reasoning power or intelligence.” The article included bitter testimony from people who had failed the test, including a man who apparently took it while the inventor paced and ranted about his executives’ “bone-headed” ways.

But Edison defended his test, claiming that each lapse of memory cost him up to $5,000. “Millions and millions of facts which have come into your mind...ought still to be there,” he maintained.

So how would you fare on Edison’s test? Try for yourself: Novak has listed the questions and their 1921 answers here.

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