OLD NEWS: Einstein on intellectual poverty in the United States

A century ago, it was common to hold charismatic American inventors in high regard and cling to each of their statements as if “two were gold – as gold as the decorating tips of a pinball machine. television.

Editorials urged barefoot boys to pull themselves through non-existent bootstraps, as celebrities such as Thomas Alva Edison, inventor of incandescent light bulbs and telegraph perfectionist, had done. He started working at age 13 as a newspaper salesman. Never graduated from high school. Supposedly didn’t need it.

So when, in the spring of 1921, a college graduate who applied to work at Edison’s factory in Menlo Park, Calif., Told a reporter that he had to take a 160-question quiz to assess his Mental Health, newspapers across the country ran all of the Edison quiz questions that the failed youngster remembered being asked.

Most of the candidates for Menlo Park failed. The Arkansas Gazette reported that this led Edison to comment: “Academics are surprisingly ignorant, they seem to know nothing.

Among his questions: where is shellac found? What is a monsoon? Where can you find prunes? Where can you find domestic sardines? Where do we import cork from? What wood are ax handles made of? Who wrote “Home Sweet Home”? Where can you find condors? Who was Cleopatra? What voltage is used in trams? What is felt? Which states produce phosphates? Why the cast called pig iron? Who was François Marion? Who invented logarithms? What ingredients are in the best white paint?

In May 1921, Edison clarified his derogatory statement of middle school students by blaming their poor elementary schools. Primary schools should get rid of books and teach movies instead, he said. As the Gazette reports:

“The cure,” he said, “is to eliminate boring books. Movies are more vivid, more compelling to hold a child’s attention.”

Famous as the inventor of smokeless gunpowder and other explosives, Hudson Maxim in 1922 was a famous American scientist. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-F8-18126])

Elsewhere in America, another very famous inventor named Hudson Maxim tried his pal Edison’s quiz. Maxim knew all but six of the answers, he said. The 68-year-old former teacher at a rural Maine school quickly produced his own general knowledge quiz.

Maxim (1853-1927) was a New Jersey chemist who invented Maximite, a powerful explosive; Stabilite, a smokeless gunpowder; Motorite, a nitroglycerin compound for driving torpedoes and other explosives (see his bio at britannica.com). His brother Hiram invented a famous machine gun. His nephew invented a famous silencer. The brothers argued over many things, including the rights to the name H. Maxim.

Hudson Maxim has written extensively on many topics. He was like a factory that generated enlightened opinions. He wrote an instruction book on calligraphy while he invented an ink process and sold pens. He once tried to sell canned soybeans. He invented an “improved” version of chess which he called The Game of War.

He was a boxer, although his left hand had been torn off in the lab in 1894. The thumb was found the next day on top of a building 200 feet away.

Maxim would have gotten this teaching job at first because he looked strong enough to make sense of the boys in rural schools. He was muscular because he worked as a field laborer to raise money for his own education, what little he earned. And he had to walk two miles to get it and two miles to get home too, often through snowdrifts higher than him. (See arkansasonline.com/89maxim.)

Fun fact: he appeared as King Neptune for the 1922 Miss America pageant.

Neptune (Hudson Maxim) and Miss America (Margaret Gorman) parade at the Atlantic City Carnival in September 1922 (Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division [LC-B2- 5822-7])

Neptune (Hudson Maxim) and Miss America (Margaret Gorman) parade at the Atlantic City Carnival in September 1922 (Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division [LC-B2- 5822-7])

On August 8, 1921, the Gazette published a press service report containing some questions from Maxim’s quiz. Helpfully, he provided answers.

I’ve collected most of these questions in a quiz, which Ambitious Reader could try at the bottom of this article, or find here: arkansasonline.com/89ten.


None of these big names today hold the candle to the famous Albert Einstein who, in the summer of 1921, completed a long stay in the United States. On his way out, so to speak, he told reporters some things he didn’t like about America, like intellectual poverty. Also, that American men were the “toy dogs” of American women.

Waves of mockery still rippled outward.

In the Little Rock newspapers, the smart guys attacked his theory of relativity and, in the Arkansas Democrat’s case of July 27, 1921, tried to spark interest in a comedic debate on the theory. by two preachers. This event was announced at the top of page 1:

While admitting that he knows no more about the theory of relativity than Einstein himself, Reverend Harry G. Knowles, pastor of First Christian Church, challenged Reverend William B. Hogg, pastor of the Winfield Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church, to debate the topic. with him, “so that the world may be emancipated from the Cimmerian darkness” into which various and diverse complexities have thrown him headlong.

Knowles’s proposal for a debate – with Bible study groups from both churches as referees – is very sophisticated prose. Here are some tips:

◼️ “Esteemed Sir: In these difficult times of reconstruction and readjustment, a capital burden, not to say a transcendental duty, has been imposed on the shoulders of the clergy. The dividing lines separating the utility from the hypothetical are clear and unequivocal. But the question which now turns the intellectual world upside down and sweeps like an avalanche from the glacial trunks of the Himalayan heights of philosophical deduction is: are these lines converging or divergent, diametrically superimposed or transversely eccentric? I maintain that they are. “

◼️ “The fate of all civilization depends on the answer; intact thrones can waver and fall; republics pass from adolescence to senescent decay; literature and philosophy must be circumscribed or amplified in an unlimited way; the the historicity of humanity is diverted from its course, and e’en the constellations in their predestined orbits depend on the solution of this stupendous question: what is Einstein’s theory of relativity and why?

◼️ “Well understood and applied in practice, I affirm that Einstein’s theory will adjust all the conditions that currently disturb the world, personal and political, provincial and proto-Aryan, pathological and psychological; that it will allow us to liquidate the national debt; pay our grocers’ bills; explain income tax and the relationship between sunspots and hot weather; hasten the return to normal; restoring the raison d’être of Congress in tariff legislation; guarantee the autonomy of Ireland; clarify the issue of self-determination for small nations; justify the existence of free worms; ensure 100% dividends to all holders of oil stocks; allow everyone to live according to their income; bringing cotton back to 30 cents a pound, and all-cotton wool cheviot suits to $ 9.99, and various other things that the uninitiated may consider miraculous. “

◼️ “I don’t expect you to agree with me. If you did, I would adopt antithetical conclusions for controversial purposes.”

Hogg agreed, and the battle was waged to a packed house. Alas, the Democrat reported the next day, instead of verbal pyrotechnics, the public heard a bit of Einstein’s biography followed by mundane religious matters.

Debaters, according to the report, had assessed the audience’s mental capacity and moved on. The Bible classes agreed to meet again next time to decide “What is the Ku Klux Klan and why?”

And Einstein thought American cities were filled with intellectual poverty.

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And don’t worry, ambitious reader, you haven’t been forgotten:

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