Are You Smart Enough to Pass Thomas Edison's Impossible Employment Test?

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Keystone/Getty Images / Keystone/Getty Images

If you thought Elon Musk's favorite question to ask job applicants was tough, you should see the employment test devised by Thomas Edison. When he wasn't busy inventing the light bulb or phonograph, or feuding with Nikola Tesla, Edison was apparently devising a trivia test of nearly impossible proportions.

As Smithsonian reports, the 146-question quiz was designed to weed out the candidates who would be ill-suited to work at his plant, which was a desirable place to get a job in 1921. College degrees didn't impress him much—"Men who have gone to college I find to be amazingly ignorant," he once remarked—so he needed to find a more effective method of determining prospective employees' knowledge.

The test may have been too effective, though. Of the 718 applicants who took the test, only 57 achieved a passing score of 70 percent, and only 32 scored Edison's desired result of 90 percent or higher. This was certainly frustrating to applicants who considered themselves to be pretty well-educated. An unsuccessful applicant named Charles Hansen, who shared all of the questions he remembered with The New York Times in 1921, called the test a "silly examination." Another applicant said it was "not a Tom Edison but a Tom Foolery test" [PDF].

After the test questions became public knowledge, reporters went out and started polling people to see how well they'd do on Edison's test. Albert Einstein reportedly failed (he didn't know the speed of sound offhand), as did Edison's youngest son, who was a student at MIT at the time.

If you want to challenge yourself, check out a few of the questions below, then scroll down to see the answers that appeared in The New York Times. (Note: The answers given were the correct answers in 1921, but some may have changed since then. Some questions and answers have been edited lightly for clarity.)

1. What city in the United States is noted for making laundry machines? 2. In what country other than Australia are kangaroos found? 3. What region do we get prunes from? 4. Name a large inland body of water that has no outlet. 5. What state is the largest? The next? 6. What is the name of a famous violin maker? 7. What ingredients are in the best white paint? 8. What causes the tides? 9. To what is the change of seasons due? 10. Who discovered the South Pole? 11. How fast does light travel per foot per second? 12. Of what kind of wood are axe handles made? 13. What cereal is used all over the world? 14. Name three powerful poisons. 15. Why is a Fahrenheit thermometer called Fahrenheit?

Feeling stumped? Scroll down to see the answers.

1. Chicago 2. New Guinea 3. Prunes are grown in the Santa Clara Valley and elsewhere. 4. The Great Salt Lake, for example 5. Texas, then California (Note: Today it's Alaska, then Texas) 6. Stradivarius 7. Linseed oil, with a small percentage of turpentine and liquid dryer, together with a mixture of white lead and zinc oxide 8. The gravitational pull of the moon exerted powerfully on the ocean because of its fluidity, and weakly on the Earth because of its comparative rigidity. 9. To the inclination of the Earth to the plane of the ecliptic. In the Earth's revolution around the Sun, this causes the Sun's rays to be received at varying inclinations, with consequent variations of temperature. 10. Roald Amundsen, and then Robert Falcon Scott 11. Approximately 186,700 miles a second in a vacuum and slightly less through atmosphere. 12. Ash is generally used in the East and hickory in the West. 13. No cereal is used in all parts of the world. Wheat is used most extensively, with rice and corn next. 14. Cyanide of potassium, strychnine, and arsenic are all acceptable answers. 15. It is named after Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit, the German physicist who invented it.

For the full list of questions and answers, check out Paleofuture's article about the test on Gizmodo.

[h/t Smithsonian]