The father of applicant testing is… Thomas Edison?

May 21, 2015

“What is the weight of air in a room 20 x 30 x 10?” sounds like a brainteaser question ripped from a present-day tech interview.

It’s actually one of the estimated 160 questions Thomas Edison crafted and administered to job applicants himself in what became known as the “Edison Test.”

Thomas Edison job ad 1921

Thomas Edison’s job ad in the New York Times, February 24, 1921, page 18

The Edison Test was a post-application screening tool administered to would-be executives at Thomas Edison, Inc. beginning in 1921.

Why the Edison Test?

Edison, a self-taught man, was critical of college education. In a May 6, 1921 New York Times article he is quoted as saying, “Men who have gone to college I find to be amazingly ignorant. They don’t seem to know anything.”

He determined that a degree was not an accurate measure of ability.

So to sort out good hires from bad, Edison did what all good scientists would do – developed a rubric to empirically measure applicant knowledge. And the “Edison Test” was born.


Was the Edison Test an accurate measure of applicant ability – or an irrelevant recitation of facts?

Edison Test NY Times

May 11, 1921 article in the New York Times

Test questions covered history, science, geography, and – depending on the position – questions specific to the applicant’s field.

The New York Times published 140 questions in a May 11, 1921 article, based on Edison Test “victims'” memory.

Quoted interviewees were highly critical of Edison’s applicant test, referring to it as “silly.”

“Several letters commenting indignantly upon the test have been received by THE NEW YORK TIMES. A typical one suggests that it was “not a Tom Edison but a Tom Foolery test.” Another says that even a college graduate is a human being and is interested in other things besides the depth of the ocean, while a third accuses Mr. Edison of having been guilty of that conspicuous human frailty against which Socrates gave warning: Belief that because he knows one thing well, he knows all things well.”

Failures were common.

Another letter received yesterday described the experience of a man who answered Mr. Edison’s advertisement for a production engineer, was told that his qualifications were satisfactory and then was required to answer a questionnaire, after which he was to have a personal interview with the inventor.

“I finally completed my answers to the sixty or more questions,” he writes… “My written answers were given to him, and after a few moments of waiting I was told I had failed and was ‘give then air’ with the other fellows who had also failed.”

Failures were not limited to engineers alone. Famous Edison Test failures included Edison’s own son, Theodore, a gifted student and graduate of MIT (Physics, 1923) who went on to become an accomplished inventor himself.

Even Albert Einstein took the test after it was published in the New York Times – and failed.

Einstein failed Edison Test


A score of 90% or better was needed to pass the test – and Edison scored the tests himself. Passing scores were labeled “Class A” men; only 4-5% of all applicants measured up.

Edison defends his test; applicant testing

Edison defended the test in a November 1921 Scientific American article titled “What do you know? The Edison Questionnaire – Its Aim, Its Results, and Its Collateral Significance.”

Edison “wanted employees who could memorize a great deal of information,” believing “such people would be able to make quick business decisions.”

“When I call upon one of my men for a decision, I want it right away. When his department calls upon him for decisions, it wants it right away.”

And according to Edison the best way to test memory is, well, to test memory.

On the ground it seemed to me that the very first thing an executive must have is a fine memory … so I determined that I should test all the candidates for executive positions by learning what I could about their memories.

Don’t misunderstand me. Of course it does not follow that a man with a fine memory is necessarily a fine executive. He might have a wonderful memory and be an awful chump in the bargain. But if he has the memory he has the first qualification, and if he has not the memory he lacks the first qualification and nothing else matters. Even if after passing the memory test he turns out to be a failure and has to go, much motion and expense will have been saved by his immediate elimination of all candidates who lack this first prerequisite of memory.

The importance of testing for engineers, specifically.

Thomas Edison engineering applicants

“What do you know? The Edison Questionnaire – Its Aim, Its Results, and Its Collateral Significance,” Scientific American, November 1921

Thomas Edison, Inc. was an R&D and manufacturing goliath – it follows that most of its new hires were engineers. Edison found his applicant test particularly useful to evaluate their skills.

Per the Scientific American article Edison, “traces a connection between the careful reading of the question that leads to a correct reply, and the engineering instinct for identifying all the significant details of a problem and attaching to each its true weight.”

The Edison Test… worked. (According to Edison.)

The author of the Scientific American article rightly points out that “a correlation must be shown to exist between the thing for which we are looking and the thing which we find.”

When he asked Edison about the efficacy of a seemingly irrelevant set of questions on placing executives, he self-reported success.

As fast as he finds them he takes his “A” men into his factory for training as executives. When he runs out of “A” men he is sometimes tempted to step down, and try out some “B” men. And they turn out to make very poor executives. That ought to settle it.

Edison’s secretary, H.W. Meadowcoft, also reported the test to be an accurate predictor of successful hires:

Mr. Edison originated the questionnaire three or four months ago and is well satisfied with the results. Only some thirty of the several hundred applicants have managed to pass the test, it is true, but those who did and thus became inspectors of the factory have made good in every case.


Whether you agree or disagree that the Edison Test was a relevant indicator of candidate fit or ability, the controversy surrounding it made headlines. From that point forward, applicant testing was no longer a rogue experience known only to a few Ivy grads applying to lofty banking and insurance company positions – it became a hotly debated topic over kitchen tables and in living rooms nationwide.

And though tech companies (famously Google) have begun to dial-back their emphasis on brainteaser interview questions, applicant testing presses on in new iterations – like psychometric testing, for example. Or hackathons.

Have you ever been asked to answer a brainteaser interview question? Where do you see applicant testing growing in the future?

Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below or @HireEngineers on Twitter.


The Edison Test: Would You Be an “A” Candidate?

A score of 90% or more – or 126 out of the 140 questions listed below – would guarantee your position at Thomas A. Edison, Inc.

Could you have passed Edison’s original Applicant Test?

  1. What countries bound France?
  2. Where is the River Volga?
  3. What city and country produce the finest china?
  4. Where does the finest cotton grow?
  5. What country consumed the most tea before the war?
  6. What city in the United States is noted for its laundry machine making?
  7. What city is the fur centre in the United States?
  8. Can you play any musical instrument?
  9. What country is the greatest textile producer?
  10. Is Australia greater than Greenland in area?
  11. Where is Copenhagen?
  12. Where is Spitzbergen?
  13. In what country other than Australia are kangaroos found?
  14. What telescope is the largest in the world?
  15. Who was Bessemer and what did he do?
  16. Where do we get prunes from?
  17. How many states are in the Union?
  18. Who was Paul Revere?
  19. Who was Hancock?
  20. Who was Plutarch?
  21. Who was Hannibal?
  22. Who was Danton?
  23. Who was Solon?
  24. Who was Francis Marion?
  25. Who was Leonidas?
  26. Where did we get Louisiana from?
  27. Who was Pizarro?
  28. Who was Bolivar?
  29. What war material did Chile export to the Allies during the war?
  30. Where does most of the coffee come from?
  31. Where is Korea?
  32. Where is Manchuria?
  33. Where was Napoleon born?
  34. What is the highest rise of tide on the North Atlantic Coast?
  35. Who invented logarithms?
  36. Who was the Emperor of Mexico when Cortez landed?
  37. Where is the Imperial Valley and what is it noted for?
  38. In what cities are bats and shoes made?
  39. What and where is the Sargasso Sea?
  40. What is the greatest known depth of the ocean?
  41. What is the name of a large inland body of water that has no outlet?
  42. What is the capital of Pennsylvania?
  43. What state is the largest? The next?
  44. Rhode Island is the smallest state. What is the next and the next?
  45. How far is it from New York to Buffalo by way of the New York Central Railroad?
  46. How far is it from New York to San Francisco?
  47. Of what state is Helena the capital?
  48. What State has the largest copper mines?
  49. What state has the largest amethyst mines?
  50. What is the name of a famous violin maker?
  51. Who invented the modern paper-making machine?
  52. Who invented the typesetting machine?
  53. Who invented the printing press?
  54. On what principle is the telephone based?
  55. Of what is brass made?
  56. Where do we get tin from?
  57. What ingredients are in the best white paint?
  58. How is leather tanned?
  59. How is artificial silk made?
  60. What is a caisson?
  61. What is coke?
  62. How is celluloid made?
  63. Where do we get shellac from?
  64. What causes the tides?
  65. To what is the change of the seasons due?
  66. What is the population of the following countries: Germany, Japan, England, Australia, Russia?
  67. From what part of the North Atlantic do we get codfish?
  68. Who discovered the South Pole?
  69. What is a monsoon?
  70. Where is the Magdalena Bay?
  71. From where do we import figs?
  72. From where do we import dates?
  73. From where do we get prunes?
  74. From where do we get domestic sardines?
  75. What is the longest railroad in the world?
  76. Where is Tallahassee?
  77. Where is Kenosha?
  78. How fast does sound travel per foot per second?
  79. How fast does light travel per foot per second?
  80. What planet is it that has been recently measured and found to be of enormous size?
  81. What large rive in the United States is it that flows from south to north?
  82. Where are the Straits of Messina?
  83. In what country are earthquakes frequent?
  84. What mountain is the highest in the world?
  85. Where do we import cork from?
  86. Name six big business men in the United States.
  87. Who is the father of the railways?
  88. Where was Lincoln born?
  89. Who stated the following: “Four-score and seven years ago”?
  90. What business do you like best?
  91. Are you experienced in any of the following: salesmanship, clerk, stenography, bookkeeping?
  92. Name a few kinds of wood used in making furniture, and the highest priced?
  93. What kind of wood is the lightest?
  94. What kind of wood is the heaviest?
  95. Of what kind of wood are axe handles made?
  96. Of what kind of wood are kerosene barrels made?
  97. What part of Germany do we get toys from?
  98. What states bound West Virginia?
  99. Where do we get peanuts from?
  100. What is the capital of Alabama?
  101. Who wrote the “Star-Spangled Banner”?
  102. Who wrote “Home, Sweet Home”?
  103. Who composed “Il Trovatore”?
  104. Who was Cleopatra?
  105. Where are condors to be found?
  106. What voltage is used on street cars?
  107. Who discovered the law of gravitation?
  108. What cereal is used all over the world?
  109. Where is the Assuan Dam?
  110. What country produces the most nickel?
  111. What is the distance between the earth and the sun?
  112. Who invented photography?
  113. Where do we get wool from?
  114. What is felt?
  115. What states produce phosphates?
  116. Why is cast iron called pig iron?
  117. Name three principal acids.
  118. Name three principal alkalis.
  119. Name three powerful poisons.
  120. Who discovered radium?
  121. Who discovered the x-ray?
  122. What is the weight of air in a room 20x30x10?
  123. Where is platinum found?
  124. With what metal is platinum associated when found?
  125. How is sulphuric acid made?
  126. Who discovered how to vulcanize rubber?
  127. Where do we get sulphur from?
  128. Where do we import rubber from?
  129. Who invented the cotton gin?
  130. What is the price of 12 grams of gold?
  131. What is vulcanite and how [is it] made?
  132. What is the difference between anthracite and bituminous coal?
  133. Where do we get benzol from?
  134. Of what is glass made?
  135. How is window glass made?
  136. What is porcelain?
  137. What kind of a machine is used in cutting the facets of diamonds?
  138. What country makes the best optical lenses and from what city?
  139. Where do we get borax from?
  140. What is a foot pound?

A few additional questions were provided at the end of the original May 11, 1921 article in the New York Times:

  • What is a Chinese windlass?
  • If six bricks were placed on a glass plate, would it require more effort to move them if placed side by side or on top of one another?
  • If a ball weighing one pound is dropped from a height of one foot on an anvil, what force in pounds would it create when striking the anvil?
  • What pinch pressure at the driving wheels does a 25-ton locomotive require when drawing a load of 100 tons on [a] level track?
Featured photo credit: Imgur/ Laiz Kuczynski