Work Quotes and Misquotes: Thomas Edison

Well, Thomas Edison would know about hard work!


Thomas Edison has been misquoted as saying he tried 5,000 times to create the light bulb before succeeding. Sometimes the number has been reported as 10,000. But there is no evidence of him ever saying such a thing.

According to a publication from Rutgers University, The Edisonian – Volume 9 Fall 2012, the misquote may be based on the following statement he made in an  1890 interview in Harper’s Monthly Magazine

“‘I speak without exaggeration when I say that I have constructed three thousand different theories in connection with the electric light, each one of them reasonable and apparently to be true. Yet only in two cases did my experiments prove the truth of my theory. My chief difficulty, as perhaps you know, was in constructing the carbon filament, the incandescence of which is the source of the light. Every quarter of the globe was ransacked by my agents, and all sorts of the queerest materials were used, until finally the shred of bamboo now utilized was settled upon. Even now,’ Mr. Edison continued, ‘I am still at work nearly every day on the lamp, and quite lately I have devised a method of supplying sufficient current to fifteen lamps with one horse-power. Formerly ten lamps per horse-power was the extreme limit.'”

Another candidate for the misquote of the thousands of hours of work on the light bulb (again according to The Edisonian, and from Edison: His Life and Inventions) is:

“This [the research] had been going on more than five months, seven days a week, when I was called down to the laboratory to see him [Edison].  I found him at a bench about three feet wide and twelve feet long, on which there were hundreds of little test cells that had been made up by his corps of chemists and experimenters.  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 lots of results!  I know several thousand things that won’t work!'”

Regardless of exactly how many experiments his lab did, it’s evident there were quite a lot.

So, my favorite quotation attributed to Edison is the simple one in the poster above. Unfortunately, I can’t find any evidence he said that either!

But I can find plenty of evidence that work is essential to success.  How about you?