Saturday, August 16, 2008


Hey, Genius!

I'm in New Scientist this week with an early attempt by Thomas Edison at short-answer testing for prospective employees:
EARLY in 1921, New Yorkers who answered an anonymous job ad in the New York Times received a curious reply: they were to go Newark, New Jersey, take an early morning bus on the West Orange line to Thomas A. Edison Industries, and ask at the front desk for a Mr Stevenson. No letter of introduction or resumé was required. Applicants who followed the mysterious instructions found themselves ushered inside a laboratory and subjected to a barrage of 163 seemingly random questions: Is Australia larger in area than Greenland? Of what wood are kerosene barrels made? What is copra?....

Edison pointed to his results as proof that he had isolated a specific mental ability: of 718 men who took the test, only 32 scored more than 90 per cent, and only 57 scored above 70 per cent. Those tested appeared split between "A-men" who could answer the questions, and "XYZs" who believed Bengal was the capital of Maine, that tides caused the phases of the moon, and the “candidate [who] reasoned that if the active principle of coffee is caffeine, that of tea ought in all fairness to be taffeine.”
For a time in 1921, a favorite journalist gotcha was springing the "Edison Test" on the unsuspecting. Edison's own son failed it, as did NYC's Superintendent of Schools. And, of course, there came this immortal headline in the Times:

Asked to Tell Speed of Sound, He Refers Questioner to Text Books.

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