221b: Curiosity and Edison


In 1910, Thomas Edison created a controversial test as part of the application process to join his company. Though every applicant had passed college, Edmund Morris writes in *Edison,* only 4% passed the application “test.”

The questions were leaked to the press because of how ridiculous they were. In a  column  with the headline “Edison Questions Stir up a Storm” followed be a subhead saying “’Victims’ of Test Say Only a Walking Encyclopedia Could Answer Questionnaire,” some questions were listed:

  • What kind of wood is the heaviest? What kind of wood is the lightest?
  • What part of Germany do we get toys from?
  • Of what kind of wood are axe handles made?

Einstein threw shade at the test and is quoted saying he saw no reason to clutter his mind with facts one could read in an encyclopedia. Nikola Tesla, who isn’t the most unbiased source regarding all things Edison, said, “Edison attaches too great a value to mere memory.”

But as brilliant as both of those gentlemen were, they missed the point of the test. Edison explained it was a “rough test” to see who had the quality he loved most - curiosity. He wasn’t trying to measure “intelligence, logic or reasoning.” He wanted to hire those who had, “power of observation and interest in the life of the world.”


20 years before the phonograph, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, an expert stenographer, patented a machine that recorded sound. After learning about how vibrations move through the ear in a textbook, he thought a machine might be able to do something similar.

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His machine captured sound waves through a funnel with a stylus on the end. The vibrations from the sound would move through the horn and the stylus would etch the corresponding waves onto the paper. He called it the phonautograph. But there was a problem.

There was no way to listen to the sound. As Steven Johnson writes in *How We Got to Now* since people could read the symbols of shorthand, Scott assumed they’d be able to do the same with the etchings on the scroll, or as they came to be called, phonautograms.

In the end, it was less of a flaw in the design and more of a flaw in the logic of how the devise would be used.

In 2008, the machine was discovered in a Paris patent office with a phonoautogram still etched in the scroll. Thanks to new technology, sound engineers were able to listen to the sound. It  was a recording of someone singing  “Au Clair de la Lune” from 1860. It’s the earliest known recording of a human voice.

It sounds cool , but eerie. Definitely not something you want to hear over the baby monitor in the middle of the night.


People say money can’t buy happiness. I disagree. If you don’t have to worry about paying bills or picking up a check with friends for dinner, you’re going to be objectively more happy than if you had to worry about those things. Nonetheless, too much money can cause problems. Even though George Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, spent six years building a 135,000-square foot home, Morgan Housel  writes  that most of the land was eventually sold off to pay tax debts (after nearly ruining Vanderbilt financially). Housel continues quoting an 1875 op-ed that said, “socialites ‘devote themselves to pleasure regardless of expense.’ A Vanderbilt heir responded that actually they ‘devote themselves to expense regardless of pleasure.’”


Bureaucracy in an organization is often the result of a solution to fix something that went awry at some point in time. Some examples:

  • An email went out with a typo in it four years ago, so now any outbound communication has to be read by four different editors.
  • A contractor got paid before they finished the work one time and were never heard from again. Now, any contractor needs to be vetted with multiple interviews and HR approvals before any contracts get signed or works get started.

Jason Fried, founder and CEO of 37Signals, has a term for this: “scarring on the first cut.” He  explains , “Policies are organizational scar tissue. They are codified overreactions to situations that are unlikely to happen again. They are collective punishment for the misdeeds of an individual. This is how bureaucracies are born. No one sets out to create a bureaucracy. They sneak up on companies slowly. They are created one policy — one scar — at a time.”

Don’t scar on the first cut.

A quote on my mind...

"Learn enough from history to bear reality patiently, and to respect one another's delusions."

– Will and Ariel Durant


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