The Psychologist has a fantastic article on one of the first psychological ability measures, created not by a psychologist but by the inventor of the domestic light bulb, Thomas Edison, who devised his trivia-based ‘brainmeter’ test as a way of selecting employees.
Although earlier tests had been in use, such as the prototype of the modern IQ test created by French psychologist Alfred Binet, they were designed to detect disability rather than ability – specifically, to identify children with learning difficulties.
Edison’s test was quite different though. It consisted of a 163 seemingly unconnected obscure general knowledge questions of which the pass mark was arbitrarily set at 70%.
The test was considered by be nonsense by psychologists of the day, lacking both statistically validity and a proven connection with other mental abilities, but it became wildly popular and became a frequent media topic:
After the complete test was leaked to newspapers, the questions spread across the country in a national craze. ‚ÄòIf You Cannot Answer These You‚Äôre Ignorant, Edison Says,‚Äô declared one Pennsylvania newspaper, while police in Massachusetts picked up a deranged young man claiming that he was on the run from assassins who were after his book of Edison test answers, ‚Äòvalued at $1,000,000‚Äô.
Journalists gleefully sprang Edison questions on politicians, professors and captains of industry. New York‚Äôs governor failed; so did the mayor of New York City, its police commissioner and, rather alarmingly, its superintendent of schools. One particularly enterprising reporter tracked down Edison’s son Theodore, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also failed. ‚ÄòDad would find me amazingly ignorant,‚Äô the younger Edison admitted.
His father faced a media circus: the Fox movie studio ran mock Edison tests of biblical trivia to advertise its ‚Äòsuper-screen spectacle‚Äô The Queen of Sheba, while ads for Vogue magazine assured women readers ‚ÄòNever mind the Edison questions! All you need to know is how to be becomingly dressed‚Äô. Others were more seriously interested in its value: within days, the Eastman Kodak company announced a similar test for its employees, and the elite Groton School in Massachusetts extended its use to applicants.
The article goes on to explain that Edison’s ‘brainmeter’ test was the inspiration for the American college entry exam, the SAT, which is still in use today.
There turns out to be a few articles on Edison’s test in the archives of The New York Times, my favourite, from 1921, being titled “EDISON BRAINMETER DIVIDES THE CRITICS; Comments on Questionnaire Continue and About One-Half Are From Scorners. COLLEGE MEN NOT SOOTHED Suggestion That Chess Game Would Be a Better Test Meets With Favor From Players.”
Link to The Psychologist article ’163 ways to lose your job’.
Full disclosure: I am an unpaid associate editor and occasional columnist for The Psychologist and I file all knowledge under the categories ‘psychology/neuroscience’ and ‘miscellaneous’.