A century ago it was popular to hold charismatic American inventors in high esteem and to hang upon their every pronouncement as though ’twere golden — as golden as decoration tips from a house flipper on TV.

Editorials urged barefoot boys to pull themselves up by nonexistent bootstraps, as had celebrities such as Thomas Alva Edison, inventor of incandescent light bulbs and perfecter of telegraphy. He started working at age 13, as a newsboy. Never graduated from high school. Supposedly didn’t need to.

So when, in spring 1921, a college graduate who had applied for work at Edison’s plant in Menlo Park, N.J., told a reporter that he had been made to take a 160-question quiz to assess his mental fitness, newspapers around the nation published all the Edison quiz questions that young failure had remembered being asked.

Most applicants at Menlo Park failed. The Arkansas Gazette reported that this caused Edison to remark, “College men are amazingly ignorant, they don’t seem to know anything.”

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

In May 1921, Edison clarified his statement disparaging college men by blaming their bad primary schools. Primary schools ought to do away with books and teach movies instead, he said. As the Gazette reported:

“The remedy,” he said, “is to eliminate boresome books. Motion pictures are more vivid, more compelling for holding a child’s attention.”

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

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

Elsewhere in America, another wildly famous inventor named Hudson Maxim tried his buddy Edison’s quiz. Maxim knew every answer but six, he said. The 68-year-old former teacher of a rural school in Maine promptly produced a general-knowledge quiz of his own.

Maxim (1853-1927) was a New Jersey chemist who invented Maximite, a high explosive; Stabilite, a smokeless gunpowder; Motorite, a nitroglycerine 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 fought over many things, including rights to the name H. Maxim.

Hudson Maxim wrote much about many subjects. He was like a factory that generated informed opinions. He wrote an instructional book on calligraphy while he was inventing an ink process and selling pens. He once tried to sell canned soybeans. He invented an “improved” version of chess he called The Game of War.

He was a boxer, despite having blown off his left hand in the lab in 1894. The thumb was found the next day on top of a building 200 feet away.

Maxim supposedly got that early teaching job because he looked strong enough to knock sense into rural school boys. He was muscular from working as a field hand to raise money for his own schooling, what little he got. And he had to walk two miles to get it and two miles to get home, too, often through snowdrifts taller than he was. (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 Aug. 8, 1921, the Gazette carried a wire service report containing some questions from Maxim’s quiz. Helpfully, he supplied answers.

I have gathered most of those questions into a quiz, which Ambitious Reader might try out at the bottom of this article, or find here: arkansasonline.com/89ten.

GENIUS

Neither of these great names today holds a candle to the famous Albert Einstein, who in summer 1921 wrapped up an extended stay in the United States. On his way out the door, as it were, he told reporters a few things he disliked about the United States, such as intellectual poverty. Also, that American men were “the toy dogs” of American women.

Waves of mockery rippled ever outward.

In the Little Rock newspapers, smart-alecks took potshots at his Theory of Relativity and, in the case of the July 27, 1921, Arkansas Democrat, tried to whip up interest in a comical debate of the theory by two preachers. This event was announced at the top of Page 1:

Although admitting that he knows no more about the theory of relativity than Einstein himself, Rev. Harry G. Knowles, pastor of First Christian Church, has challenged Rev. William B. Hogg, pastor of Winfield Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church, to debate the subject with him, “in order that the world may be emancipated from the Cimmerian darkness” into which various and sundry complexities have hurled it headlong.

Knowles’ proposal of a debate — with Bible study groups from both churches as umpires — is very fancy prose. Here are bits:

◼️ “Esteemed Sir: In these parlous times of reconstruction and readjustment, a momentous burden, not to say transcendental duty, has been imposed upon the shoulders of the clergy. The lines of demarcation segregating the utilitarian from the hypothetical are definite and unequivocal. But the question now convulsing the intellectual world and sweeping like an avalanche from the glacial truncates of Himalayan heights of philosophic deduction is, Are these lines convergent or divergent, diametrically superimposed or traversely eccentric? I maintain they are.”

◼️ “The fate of all civilization depends upon the answer; untottered thrones may totter and fall; republics pass from adolescence to senescent decay; literature and philosophy be circumscribed or illimitably amplified; the historicity of mankind be swerved from its course, and e’en the constellations in their predestined orbits depend upon the solution of this stupendous question: What is Einstein’s theory of relativity and why?”

◼️ “Properly understood and practically applied, I assert that Einstein’s theory will adjust all conditions now disturbing the world, personal and political, provincial and proto-Aryan, pathological and psychological; that it will enable us to liquidate the national debt; pay our grocers’ bills; explain the income tax and relation of sunspots to hot weather; hasten the return of normalcy; restore sanity to Congress in tariff legislation; guarantee Ireland home rule; clarify the question of self-determination of small nations; justify the existence of verse libre; ensure 100% dividends to all holders of oil stock; enable everybody to live within his income; restore cotton to 30 cents a pound, and all-wool cotton cheviot suits to $9.99, and various other things the uninitiated may consider miraculous.”

◼️ “I do not expect you to agree with me. Should you do so, I would adopt antithetical conclusions for controversial purposes.”

Hogg accepted, and the battle was joined before a packed house. Alas, the Democrat reported the next day, instead of verbal pyrotechnics, the audience heard a bit about Einstein’s biography followed by mundane church affairs.

The debaters, the report said, had sized up the mental capacity of the audience and moved on. The Bible classes agreed to meet again, next time to decide “What and Why is the Ku Klux Klan?”

And Einstein thought American cities were filled with intellectual poverty.

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And worry not, Ambitious Reader — you have not been forgotten:

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CORRECTION: Menlo Park is in New Jersey. The wrong state was listed in an earlier version of this story.