Take the 146-Question Knowledge Test Thomas Edison Gave to Prospective Employees (1921)


I remem­ber open­ing my col­lege news­pa­per one day, and out of it fell what looked like an adver­tis­ing sup­ple­ment of unusu­al­ly util­i­tar­i­an design. Upon clos­er inspec­tion, it con­tained a series of math‑y look­ing prob­lems for the read­er to work out and, if they did so, mail in to an address pro­vid­ed. Word soon began to cir­cu­late that this unusu­al leaflet came from no less an insti­tu­tion than Google itself, already well known as a provider of advanced search ser­vices but not quite yet as a benev­o­lent provider of dream jobs (an image now sat­i­rized in movies like The Intern­ship).

The unusu­al hir­ing prac­tices of giant, inno­v­a­tive Amer­i­can tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies have become the stuff of mod­ern myth, but the usage of seem­ing­ly job-unre­lat­ed intel­lec­tu­al tests as a fil­ter for poten­tial employ­ees has a much longer his­to­ry. Thomas Edi­son, that orig­i­nal giant of Amer­i­can tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion, put for­ward the first famous exam­ple: a 146-ques­tion test on sub­jects of gen­er­al knowl­edge from geog­ra­phy to his­to­ry to physics to the price of gold.

“Amer­i­cans obsessed over the test fol­low­ing [the] pub­li­ca­tion of many ques­tions in the May 11, 1921 New York Times,” writes Pale­o­fu­ture’s Matt Novak. “From there the test was debat­ed, copied, and par­o­died in news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines around the coun­try.” If you’d like to get a sense of how you’d have fared in the scram­ble for a sweet Edi­son job, set your mind back to the ear­ly 1920s and tack­le these ques­tions as best you can:

1. What coun­tries bound France?

2. What city and coun­try pro­duce the finest chi­na?

3. Where is the Riv­er Vol­ga?

4. What is the finest cot­ton grown?

5. What coun­try con­sumed the most tea before the war?

6. What city in the Unit­ed States leads in mak­ing laun­dry machines?

7. What city is the fur cen­tre of the Unit­ed States?

8. What coun­try is the great­est tex­tile pro­duc­er?

9. Is Aus­tralia greater than Green­land in area?

10. Where is Copen­hagen?

11. Where is Spitzber­gen?

12. In what coun­try oth­er than Aus­tralia are kan­ga­roos found?

13. What tele­scope is the largest in the world?

14. Who was Besse­mer and what did he do?

15. How many states in the Union?

16. Where do we get prunes from?

17. Who was Paul Revere?

18. Who was John Han­cock?

19. Who was Plutarch?

20. Who was Han­ni­bal?

21. Who was Dan­ton?

22. Who was Solon?

23. Who was Fran­cis Mar­i­on?

24. Who was Leonidas?

25. Where did we get Louisiana from?

26. Who was Pizarro?

27. Who was Boli­var?

28. What war mate­r­i­al did Chile export to the Allies dur­ing the war?

29. Where does most of the cof­fee come from?

30. Where is Korea?

31. Where is Manchuria?

32. Where was Napoleon born?

33. What is the high­est rise of tide on the North Amer­i­can Coast?

34. Who invent­ed log­a­rithms?

35. Who was the Emper­or of Mex­i­co when Cortez land­ed?

36. Where is the Impe­r­i­al Val­ley and what is it not­ed for?

37. What and where is the Sar­gas­so Sea?

38. What is the great­est known depth of the ocean?

39. What is the name of a large inland body of water that has no out­let?

40. What is the cap­i­tal of Penn­syl­va­nia?

41. What state is the largest? Next?

42. Rhode Island is the small­est state. What is the next and the next?

43. How far is it from New York to Buf­fa­lo?

44. How far is it from New York to San Fran­cis­co?

45. How far is it from New York to Liv­er­pool?

46. Of what state is Hele­na the cap­i­tal?

47. Of what state is Tal­la­has­see 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 print­ing?

54. How is leather tanned?

55. What is arti­fi­cial silk made from?

56. What is a cais­son?

57. What is shel­lac?

58. What is cel­lu­loid made from?

59. What caus­es the tides?

60. To what is the change of the sea­sons due?

61. What is coke?

62. From what part of the North Atlantic do we get cod­fish?

63. Who reached the South Pole?

64. What is a mon­soon?

65. Where is the Mag­dale­na Bay?

66. From where do we import figs?

67. From where do we get dates?

68. Where do we get our domes­tic sar­dines?

69. What is the longest rail­road in the world?

70. Where is Kenosha?

71. What is the speed of sound?

72. What is the speed of light?

73. Who was Cleopa­tra and how did she die?

74. Where are con­dors found?

75, Who dis­cov­ered the law of grav­i­ta­tion?

76. What is the dis­tance between the earth and sun?

77. Who invent­ed pho­tog­ra­phy?

78. What coun­try pro­duces the most wool?

79. What is felt?

80. What cere­al is used in all parts of the world?

81. What states pro­duce phos­phates?

82. Why is cast iron called pig iron?

83. Name three prin­ci­pal acids?

84. Name three pow­er­ful poi­sons.

85. Who dis­cov­ered radi­um?

86. Who dis­cov­ered the X‑ray?

87. Name three prin­ci­pal alka­lis.

88. What part of Ger­many do toys come from?

89. What States bound West Vir­ginia?

90. Where do we get peanuts from?

91. What is the cap­i­tal of Alaba­ma?

92. Who com­posed “Il Trova­tore”?

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

94. Where is plat­inum found?

95. With what met­al is plat­inum asso­ci­at­ed when found?

96. How is sul­phuric acid made?

97. Where do we get sul­phur from?

98. Who dis­cov­ered how to vul­can­ize rub­ber?

99. Where do we import rub­ber from?

100. What is vul­can­ite and how is it made?

101. Who invent­ed the cot­ton gin?

102. What is the price of 12 grains of gold?

103. What is the dif­fer­ence between anthracite and bitu­mi­nous coal?

104. Where do we get ben­zol from?

105. Of what is glass made?

106. How is win­dow glass made?

107. What is porce­lain?

108. What coun­try makes the best opti­cal lens­es and what city?

109. What kind of a machine is used to cut the facets of dia­monds?

110. What is a foot pound?

111. Where do we get borax from?

112. Where is the Assuan Dam?

113. What star is it that has been recent­ly mea­sured and found to be of enor­mous size?

114. What large riv­er in the Unit­ed States flows from south to north?

115. What are the Straits of Messi­na?

116. What is the high­est moun­tain in the world?

117. Where do we import cork from?

118. Where is the St. Gothard tun­nel?

119. What is the Taj Mahal?

120. Where is Labrador?

121. Who wrote “The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner”?

122. Who wrote “Home, Sweet Home”?

123. Who was Mar­tin Luther?

124. What is the chief acid in vine­gar?

125. Who wrote “Don Quixote”?

126. Who wrote “Les Mis­er­ables”?

127. What place is the great­est dis­tance below sea lev­el?

128. What are axe han­dles made of?

129. Who made “The Thinker”?

130. Why is a Fahren­heit ther­mome­ter called Fahren­heit?

131. Who owned and ran the New York Her­ald for a long time?

132. What is copra?

133. What insect car­ries malar­ia?

134. Who dis­cov­ered the Pacif­ic Ocean?

135. What coun­try has the largest out­put of nick­el in the world?

136. What ingre­di­ents are in the best white paint?

137. What is glu­cose and how made?

138. In what part of the world does it nev­er rain?

139. What was the approx­i­mate pop­u­la­tion of Eng­land, France, Ger­many and Rus­sia before the war?

140. Where is the city of Mec­ca?

141. Where do we get quick­sil­ver from?

142. Of what are vio­lin strings made?

143. What city on the Atlantic seaboard is the great­est pot­tery cen­tre?

144. Who is called the “father of rail­roads” in the Unit­ed States?

145. What is the heav­i­est kind of wood?

146. What is the light­est wood?

Some of these ques­tions, like those on the loca­tion of Copen­hagen or the iden­ti­ty of Leonidas (you need think back only to 300), have grown eas­i­er with time. Some — “What is coke?” “What is vul­can­ite and how is it made?” — have grown hard­er. Oth­ers will require you to call upon not cur­rent knowl­edge, but peri­od knowl­edge: sure, you know the num­ber of states in the union now, but how about in 1921? And sure, you know which city is the fur cen­ter of the Unit­ed States now, but how about in 1921?

Once you’ve made your guess­es, you can check your answers over at Pale­o­fu­ture. Edis­on’s test will almost cer­tain­ly frus­trate you — and if it does­n’t, you may have a career wait­ing not at Google, but on Jeop­ardy! — and it may even fill you with grat­i­tude that we live in an age where hot employ­ers check for raw brain­pow­er, not the abil­i­ty to mem­o­rize a seem­ing­ly ran­dom assort­ment of facts. But the test itself, like sev­er­al of its ques­tions, pulls a bit of a trick. The tremen­dous amount of atten­tion it received when the pub­lic caught a glimpse of it reveals Edis­on’s mas­tery of the high­est Amer­i­can force: pub­lic­i­ty.

Note: Thanks to one of our read­ers, you can see how Edi­son defend­ed the test in the pages of The New York Times.

via Pale­o­fu­ture

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Har­vard Stu­dents Fail the Lit­er­a­cy Test Louisiana Used to Sup­press the Black Vote in 1964

Thomas Edi­son & His Trusty Kine­to­scope Cre­ate the First Movie Filmed In The US (c. 1889)

Take The Near Impos­si­ble Lit­er­a­cy Test Louisiana Used to Sup­press the Black Vote (1964)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture as well as the video series The City in Cin­e­ma and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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