I'm sure that most of y'all have come across a version of the following anecdote:
By 1879, when he invented the first practical incandescent electric lamp, Thomas Alva Edison was already a living legend—a folk hero, really—called the "Wizard of Menlo Park". People expected him to create technological miracles at will and one right after another. Newspaper reporters did not wait for him to invent the electric light; they came to his workshops periodically to interview him as he was working on the project. They seemed to take it as a personal disappointment when, week after week, they would inquire about the progress of the invention, only to be told that the Wizard had not yet succeeded.
At one point, Edison told a reporter that he had tried some 1,600 substances as filaments for the lamp. All had failed.
"You must be very disappointed at all that wasted effort," the reporter observed.
"Wasted?" Edison replied. "Not at all. Now I know 1,600 substances that will not work as a filament for my lamp".
The above version is from one of 'em "Be a better manager in 30 days" books. But I've come across it and other similar versions on numerous occasions. Sometimes, the number is 10000. Other times, 20000 for added effect. I also heard it being employed yesterday when my cousin set her 12-year-old to brute-force the forgotten combination to her suitcase. And here I am trying to figure out if the anecdote is genuine.
Others before me have tried to establish a reliable source for this anecdote (like, for example, this question on Google Answers), but have not been able to find anything convincing. I too have dived into a few newspaper archives that I have second-hand access to and come up empty. Web/book searches however, have been more promising, hence this post.
A relatively reliable source in the form of a referenced article on the Smithsonian website provides credence to the claim that Edison tested 1,600 materials "including coconut fiber, fishing line, and even hairs from a friend's beard" as filaments for his light bulb (before finally deciding on carbonised bamboo). The author does list references, but the provenance of this nugget is not explicitly noted.
Another source that notes that Edison did test 1,600 materials is a 1910 biography titled, Edison, his Life and Inventions by a Frank Lewis Dyer, "General Counsel for The Edison Laboratory And Allied Interests". The foreword notes that much of the information in the book has been compiled based on Edison's own written and oral statements as well as contributions from his associates. As Edison died only in 1931, this book was actually written during his lifetime.
From page 605:
The "try everything" spirit of Edison's method is well illustrated in this early period by a series of about sixteen hundred resistance tests of various ores, minerals, earths, etc., occupying over fifty pages of one of the note-books relating to the metallic filament for his lamps.
This again confirms that Edison (and his assistants) did in fact test different materials for the filament and the 1600 number also now appears to be reliable. No mention of the "reporter parable" though which at this point, I was beginning to think might be apocryphal. But reading on, I came across this on page 607:
The idea of attributing great successes to "genius" has always been repudiated by Edison, as evidenced by his historic remark that "Genius is 1 per cent. inspiration and 99 per cent. perspiration." Again, in a conversation many years ago at the laboratory between Edison, Batchelor, and E. H. Johnson, the latter made allusion to Edison's genius as evidenced by some of his achievements, when Edison replied:
"Stuff! I tell you genius is hard work, stick-to-itiveness, and common sense."
Firstly, a quick giggle on the now quaint usage of stuff which, nowadays, we can only see in the idiomatic "stuff and nonsense". Secondly, "stick-to-itiveness" seems to have much of the same thrust as the reporter anecdote.
Continuing further, on page 615, Frank Dyer relates a story told to him by a W.S. Mallory, "one of [Edison's] closest associates":
"This had been going on more than five months, seven days a week, when I was called down to the laboratory to see him. 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.'
Can we all now say JACKPOT?
- Edison did test 1600 different materials as filaments for his light bulb.
- He also performed over nine thousand experiments trying to perfect a new type of storage battery.
- Edison was asked about the unfortunate lack of results with respect to his battery experiments and not bulb filaments.
- He was asked this by an associate named W.S. Mallory and not a reporter.
- There is no mention of "waste of time" either although this is a minor point.
In other words, the anecdote related nowadays is a paraphrased conflation of two separate events. Setting that aside, the gist of it remains just about the same. I suppose that Edison is not particularly associated with batteries either and the tale is better off being about filaments and friend's beards.
While it is possible that other sources might reveal more information, such data is very likely sequestered deep inside some place, perhaps in The Thomas Edison Papers. But my own curiosity is quite satisfied :)