We take it for granted that we must interview before being offered a job. We practice for interviews – and dread them – as if they were inquisitions, but we hardly ever stop to think about who invented this particular form of torture. The answer shouldn’t surprise you, since the same man was responsible for creating the modern manufacturing workplace: Thomas Edison.
In the 1920s, as Edison was hiring workers for his factory, he would often have hundreds of applicants for his jobs. He expressed disappointment that most of them didn’t meet his standards for education and intelligence, which happened to be his own education and IQ (genius.)
Edison developed a test that he used to determine who was worthy of executive positions in his company. Some of the questions related to the jobs he was hiring for, but most of the questions were Jeopardy-style trivia that historians estimated only seven percent of the college-educated population at the time could pass. The New York Times published a list of the question in May, 1921, and shortly after, several job applicants with prodigious memories had assembled a list of 156 questions and the answers Edison had used at one time or another. The test became a national sensation.
The test included question on geography (What countries bound France? Where is the River Volga?) and American manufacturing (What city in the United States leads in making laundry machines?) It asked about famous historical figures such as Paul Revere and John Hancock and someone named Bessemer and what he did. It asked questions that seemed like trivia: What war material did Chile export to the Allies during the war? And questions that did not seem job-related: How far is it from New York to Buffalo? What state has the largest amethyst mines?
There were some odd choices. Where do we get our domestic sardines? What is felt? Name three powerful poisons. What is the price of 12 grains of gold? What was the approximate population of England, France, Germany and Russia before the war? Here’s one every Jacksonville resident should ace: What large river in the United States flows from south to north?
Here is the text of the recruiting ad Edison placed in the New York Times:
The President of a large corporation is looking for executives in the embryo stage—Young men who have graduated from a first-class college, technical or non-technical; experience in the manufacturing world unnecessary, but candidate must be willing to buckle down and work hard to learn a business of national repute from the raw material to the finished product; only those men who know they can compete with the best, who are above the average, who are still studying, plugging, and analyzing problems and are full of ambition to get to the top will stand a chance of qualifying; those who measure up to the high standard required will have a brilliant opportunity and promise of the future; starting salary $25 to $30 per week; let your application tell us briefly your ambitions, and give age, education, religion, and experience.
Applicants had to get 90 percent of the answers correct to pass the test. To earn $30 per week. No more whining from you. (Just kidding; in 1921, $30 was worth $366.00 per week.)
You can see the entire test and then the answers here.
By the way, one test taker famously whiffed on the question about the speed of sound. His name was Albert Einstein. You’re in good company.