The Employment Test Edison Wanted Everyone To Fail

“This is a test. Take notes. This will count as 3/4 of your final grade.” —Harlan Ellison, “The Deathbird”

In A Nutshell

For some time, it’s been trendy for the best companies to ask difficult, if not bizarre, interview questions to test the problem-solving skills of employment candidates. Google recently stopped using these types of questions because they’re not effective at finding the best employees and they stir resentment. But back in the early 1900s, self-educated Thomas Edison didn’t care if he stirred resentment. He deliberately designed a 146-question trivia test to weed out unqualified college graduates who wanted to land one of the coveted jobs at his company. The test was so hard that even Albert Einstein reportedly failed.

The Whole Bushel

For some time, it’s been trendy for the best companies to ask difficult, if not bizarre, interview questions to test the problem-solving skills of employment candidates. Some of the crazier questions included this one for people who wanted to work in call centers for Mastercard: “Can you say ‘Peter Pepper picked a pickled pepper’ and cross-sell a washing machine at the same time?” Bed Bath & Beyond quizzed their sales associates with this imaginative question: “If you were a box of cereal, what would you be and why?”

The tech companies are more straightforward. Google used to ask some candidates, “How many cows are in Canada?” But Apple appeared to be evaluating creativity when they asked: “If you were a pizza delivery man, how would you benefit from scissors?” We’re not really sure if Yahoo was asking an employment or relocation question with this one: “If you were on an island and could only bring three things, what would you bring?” But hands down, one of the silliest questions was asked of engineering candidates at Clark Construction Group: “A penguin walks through that door right now wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he here?”

Google recently stopped using these types of questions because they’re not effective at finding the best employees and they stir resentment. As one Google executive admitted, these types of questions just made their interviewers feel smart.

According to recent research, when job candidates have poor experiences with a company, whether it’s through the interview process or simply the company not responding to job applications, 42 percent of job seekers won’t look for work at that company again, 22 percent will advise other people to look elsewhere for work and 9 percent will try to persuade others not to buy from that company.

However, back in the early 1900s, self-educated Thomas Edison didn’t care if he stirred resentment among job candidates. In fact, he deliberately designed a 146-question trivia test to weed out unqualified college graduates who wanted to land one of the coveted jobs at his company. The trivia was mostly irrelevant to the type of work that his employees did. Supposedly, Edison devised the test because he was disdainful of college graduates whom he felt lacked the proper knowledge.

When the New York Times published many of the questions in 1921, the American public appeared to become obsessed with the test, whether debating it seriously or making fun of it. Edison’s son at MIT failed the test when a reporter asked him the questions. But Edison promised his son a job at the company anyway.

Here are just three of the trivial questions Edison asked:

1. Where is Spitzbergen?

2. What is the weight of air in a room 20 by 30 by 10?

3. What is the speed of sound?

If you didn’t immediately know the answer to Edison’s third question above, you and Albert Einstein have something in common. Reportedly, that’s the question that caused him to fail the test, too.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
Crazy Job Interview Questions: 1, 2, 3
Huffington Post: 4 Reasons Why Candidate Experience Matters
Gizmodo: Take The Intelligence Test That Thomas Edison Gave to Job Seekers