A Brief History of the Job Interview
Thomas Edison’s prodigious legacy as an inventor is unparalleled. Although, favour has fallen to his “current war” rival Nikola Tesla in recent years, Edison’s impact on modern innovation is still felt today, often in ways we hardly consider. One such invention was not comprised of wires and coils, but a much more human process: he invented the job interview.
Getting Hired Before Edison’s Time
Before Edison’s day, getting a job was a family business. To better understand why a job interview was such a novel idea, remember that the first “job” was to find food and shelter.
In ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt, assigning professions to certain members of society came through apprenticeship, most commonly through family. This tradition continued until the 1800s. If your father was a fletcher, you were likely in training to be one as well.
During the industrial revolution, when factories were springing up, jobs were plentiful, requiring little more of the applicant than being present. By the 1920s, the workforce had enough college-educated potential employees that those hiring were able to be a little more selective.
Though scientists may quibble about alternating versus direct current, there’s no question that Edison’s famous invention factory in Menlo Park, New Jersey — where the phonograph was created — was instrumental in modernizing the West. Famous even in his day, Edison would get applications from hundreds of college graduates eager to work in the lab.
Edison, though he had a reputation for being slovenly, had incredibly high standards — most geniuses do. So, he set about composing a list of questions for each potential hire. Some would be skill-oriented, ensuring they had the requisites. Other questions were more arcane — often involving literature or geography (take the test here).
Edison’s test was likely much more difficult than what applicants would face today. Only about seven percent of candidates would pass.
The Edison Test Makes Headlines
It wasn’t long before newspapers ran with the story. The headline of a 1921 New York Times paper read, “Edison questions stir up a storm.” The interviewees were described as “victims.” The Times was sure to include as many of the questions that a single candidate could remember being asked — all 141 of them.
The test, however, wasn’t derided everywhere. Other captains of industry began composing lists of their own, and of course those who were lucky enough to pass spoke highly of it.
Edison’s test wasn’t the first time someone had ever been asked questions before getting a position — the Woolworth Psychoneurotic Inventory was introduced to the military four years earlier in World War I — it was the first time a job interview was ever considered a trial.
Edison’s demeanour didn’t help. Candidates reported that he paced around the room while firing off the questions, before being quickly told to “leave the air” (go away).
Interestingly, apart from Edison’s gruffness, the complaints from candidates are not dissimilar to objections raised to more esoteric questions today. Larry Page’s brain-twisting, Barbara Walters-esque questions over at Google have often gotten the same negative feedback. Regardless, those curve-ball questions have become part of the norm. Thank, or blame, Edison.
Kenny Hedges | Contributing Writer