Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Thomas Edison's Eccentric Job Interview Questions: A Cheat Sheet

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Thomas Edison had an encyclopedic memory, and by the early 1920s, he had become increasingly frustrated by the fact that college graduates applying to work for him didn’t have a wealth of knowledge comparable to his own. To test the mental mettle of incoming job seekers, he administered to each a series of 150 questions, tailored to the position for which they were applying. Some were specific to the industry, while others were mysterious. Masons, for instance, needed to know who assassinated President Lincoln.

Others were topical (In what cities are hats and shoes made?) and are now outdated (What telescope is largest in the world?). But just in case the Edison Quiz fad ever returns, here’s a cheat sheet to help you master some of the finer points. Good luck!

Who was Francis Marion?
An officer in the Revolutionary War, often cited as being the father of guerilla warfare. His skill at clandestinely moving troops by dressing drably and utilizing swamp paths earned him the nickname “Old Swamp Fox.”

Where is the River Volga?
Oh, the longest river in Europe? Russia, of course.

Who invented logarithms?
Scottish mathematician and ruff-wearer John Napier, in the mid 1600s. He also combined the work of Italian mathematician Fibonacci and Ottoman genius-of-all-trades Matrakç? Nasuh to invent the awesomely named “Napier’s Bones,” an abacus-like system of numbered rods that transform multiplication, division, and exponents into simple addition and subtraction.

What is the first line in The Aeneid?

Arms, and the man I sing, who, forced by fate
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate
Expelled and exiled, left the Trojan shore:
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore;
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latin realm and built the destined town,
His banished gods restored to rights divine,
And settled sure succession in his line;
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.
-- Virgil, and translated by John Dryden.

Note: The colon after “shore” is disputed, so we include the entire first stanza for good measure. Playwright George Bernard Shaw would have correctly answered this one, as evidenced by the title of his 1894 play Arms and the Man.

What war material did Chile export to the Allies during the War?
Sodium nitrate, which was used to manufacture gunpowder, and made Chile very rich. Nitratine appeared there in such large deposits, the mineral is also known as Chile saltpeter.

A question tailored to cabinetmakers: Who was the Roman emperor when Jesus Christ was born?
Caesar Augustus, Sept. 23, 63 BC—Aug. 19, 14 AD.

Where is the Sargasso Sea?
The only “sea” to be entirely surrounded by water, the Sargasso is actually an elliptical patch of the North Atlantic, near Bermuda. The water in this area is relatively calm and thick with seaweed (sargassum weed, actually), trapped there by the surrounding currents: the Canary Current at the northeast, the Northern Equatorial Current along the south, and the Gulf Stream on the northwest.

Because of the Sargasso’s relatively low precipitation, high evaporation, light winds, warm temperatures and high salinity, scientists used to think it was a sort of oceanic desert; they knew aquatic creatures made their habitat in the sargassum, but thought the water wasn’t hospitable to plankton. More recently, however, mysterious plankton blooms suggest that the area is “far more productive than we could explain...” according to Dennis McGillicuddy, oceanographer and leader on the Eddies Dynamics, Mixing, Export, and Species composition (EDDIES) project. Put that in your pipe, Edison.

Of what is brass made?
Brass is an alloy of zinc and copper. Humans started making brass as early as the Neolithic era, though ancient texts often use the term brass when they mean bronze – an alloy of copper and tin.

Who was Leonidas?
The military king of ancient Sparta who heroically led a mere 300 men in the battle against massive Persian forces in the battle of Thermopylae. Sure, he had some help from other Greeks, but the 300 thing is his legacy. So much so, he’s now most famous for being the guy who yells “This! Is! Spartaaaa!”

Who discovered the X-ray?
The obvious answer to this question is Wilhelm Röntgen, who, in 1895, famously noted the effects of a mysterious new kind of ray that appeared as a byproduct of his experiments with Crookes tubes. He called his discovery the “X ray,” to indicate its yet unknown properties, then went on to take a widely publicized X-ray print of the bones of his wife’s hand, and eventually won a Nobel prize in 1901 for his achievements. However, several other physicists made similar discoveries while experimenting with Crookes tubes around the same time. Among them: Nikola Tesla, Edison’s well-known rival. Edison had himself experimented with X-rays for a time, and was certainly aware of the variations in the X-ray origin story among his colleagues. This question suggests an eagerness to promote his preferred version.

Where do we get shellac?
You probably know shellac as a term commonly applied to wood varnish, which is actually a combination of alcohol and the naturally occurring thermoplastic resin also called shellac. But did you know the latter shellac is produced and secreted by the lac insect (Laccifer lacca), a type of scale bug somewhat related to aphids and cicadas? Proper shellac is also used commercially in products like sealing wax, hairspray, and even cake glazes and anti-caking agents in candy. Vegans beware.

Why is cast iron called Pig Iron?
Modern-day metal workers would argue that cast iron and pig iron are not exactly the same thing, but what Edison probably meant by pig iron was the raw material used in making iron and steel. Back in the day, pig iron was melted into casts that resembled baby piglets suckling from their mother. Likewise, iron workers used to call the iron in the adjoining lateral channel “the sow.”

Who was Bessemer and what did he do?
Henry Bessemer invented the Bessemer process, which revolutionized mass production of steel. From pig iron. See? We’re learning!

Pencils Down!

Of the well over 500 young men who took Edison’s test, only about 35 passed to his satisfaction (a score of 90% or higher). When several disgruntled rejects complained to the press, Edison refused to release his questions and answers, so the public had to rely largely on the memory of his “victims” for the complete list. Magazines subsequently began running “Edison pop quizzes,” and rival employers -- fancying themselves as exclusive as Edison -- began conducting employment quizzes of their own. Edison’s scientific conclusions on the subject?

“Only 2% of the people think, as I gather from my questionnaire.”

What's the most bizarre question you've been asked in an interview? Has the Sargasso Sea come up?

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Want to Chat with Your Colleagues? Don't Work in an Open Office
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Open office plans are often touted by companies as a way to encourage interaction among employees, but in practice, open offices are often a lot less collaborative than they’re designed to be. In fact, new research goes so far as to say that they cause people to “socially withdraw,” according to a study spotted by BPS Research Digest.

In the study, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Harvard researchers outfitted employees of two major corporations with sensor badges that could analyze their interactions. These badges—containing an infrared sensor, a Bluetooth transmitter, an accelerometer, and a microphone—could sense when employees were facing another person, whether they were speaking or listening (though it didn’t record what they were saying), if they were moving, and where in the office they were standing. The researchers also analyzed the employee’s corporate email and instant messaging data to determine whether people starting using digital communications more after they started working in open offices.

In one study, the researchers examined 52 employees working at a multinational Fortune 500 company that had recently decided to transform one of the floors in its headquarters to an open office. The company moved workers from workspaces with walls to a completely wall-free desk design with a similar layout. The researchers were able to record participants before and after the change.

In a second study, they analyzed 100 employees working in the headquarters of another multinational Fortune 500 company. This company was in the middle of redesigning its offices, too, and the researchers collected data before the redesign, when employees were working in cubicles, and afterward, when they were assigned to work at open desk spaces without dividers.

They found that the redesigns significantly changed how people interacted—and not in the way intended by most open-office advocates. Face-to-face interactions decreased by 70 percent as people began to opt for digital communication methods. Outgoing emails went up by between 20 and 50 percent after the change. “In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM,” the researchers note.

While companies hope to throw all their employees together in a room and create a culture of buzzing collaboration, the results are starkly different. “What they often get,” the researchers write, “is an open expanse of proximal employees choosing to isolate themselves as best they can (e.g. by wearing large headphones while appearing to be as busy as possible (since everyone can see them).”

Part of the problem is that in an open layout, even the smallest interactions end up broadcast to the whole office—which is awkward at best, and actively distracting to coworkers at worst. “Rather than have [a face-to-face] interaction in front of a large audience of peers, an employee might look around, see that a particular person is at his or her desk, and send an email.”

While previous research has tested employee satisfaction with open offices (and often found it lacking), this is one of the first studies to find an empirical way to measure how open offices can change social behavior at work.

The open office trend probably isn’t going away anytime soon. Companies may tout the collaboration benefits, but there's another reason they're so popular: Squeezing people together into long desks also helps businesses save on rent. Whether those rent savings balance out the cost of lost productivity is up for debate. But now at least we can say for sure that tearing down walls doesn’t actually get people talking to each other.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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New Poll Shows That Half of American Employees Are Looking for a New Job
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Nearly every job has its drawbacks, but for more than half of U.S. employees, their current work situation just isn't cutting it. A new Gallup poll found that 51 percent of workers in the country are keeping an eye out for job openings or actively searching for new positions.

There's a high number of jobs currently open in America, but many employees are still dissatisfied with where they end up. According to Gallup's latest "State of the American Workplace" report, 68 percent of workers say they're overqualified for the job they have. And even if they aren't looking to switch jobs right away, that doesn't mean they're thrilled with their present situation: Only 33 percent of employees reported feeling engaged at work.

But it isn't just unsatisfactory job conditions that have employees itching to move somewhere else: They also feel optimistic about their prospects. Sixty-three percent of people Gallup surveyed said they think it's "very likely" or "somewhat likely" they can find a job that's just as good as their current position. Compare that to 42 percent who said the same in 2010 following the recession.

If you're an employee who's not ready to make the next step in their career, or an employer who wants to keep their workers happy, science can help. Studies have shown that employees are happiest and most productive when they have the freedom to work from home and schedule breaks throughout their day.

But there are some jobs that can't be improved no matter how much you change your routine. Look out for these signs when assessing whether or not it's time to jump ship.

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