Myth Buster

Did George Washington Carver Really Turn Down A Job Offer from Edison?

One of the "urban legends" circulating around the Internet today is the story of how the renowned African American scientist from Tuskegee Institute rejected a lucrative offer by Edison to work in the West Orange laboratory. Depending on which account one reads, the proposed salary ranged from $50,000 a year to the princely sum of $200,000. According to some of these accounts, Carver was a "treasured friend of Thomas A. Edison," and the inventor had once told him that "together we can remake the world."1

Photo: George Washington Carver.

Carver himself never claimed friendship with Edison, and there is no evidence that the two men ever met. However, Carver did repeatedly make the claim that Edison had once offered him a position in the West Orange laboratory. When asked for more specific information, he always replied that he had promised to keep the details of the negotiations secret, usually blaming an indiscreet chauffeur or taxi driver for leaking the job offer to the press in the first place. On several occasions he did remark that there were "six figures in the offer." That six-figure amount was reported as $200,000 by Ripley's Believe It Or Not in 1936 and as $100,000 in a Readers Digest article a year later.

Following the publication of the Readers Digest article, Norman Speiden, curator at the Edison Laboratory (now Thomas Edison National Historical Park) found himself inundated with requests to confirm the offer. He wrote to Carver asking whether he could provide any documentation.

The scientist replied with a two-page letter describing the circumstances of the offer but refusing to disclose the amount. According to Carver, he had received a telegram from a Mr. Hutchinson "shortly after the opening of the World War" inviting him to come to New Jersey for a conference with Edison. Mr. Hutchinson later came to Tuskegee himself to talk with Carver about the possibility of joining Edison's laboratory staff. The chauffeur who drove Mr. Hutchinson to Tuskegee overhead the conversation and "gave out the statement," which "would never have been known if he had not given it out." Unfortunately, Carver was never able to locate the telegram that would have proven his claim, nor was Speiden able to find documentation in the Edison archives.2

Carver's biographer believes that, despite the absence of conclusive evidence, "it is very unlikely that Carver would have fabricated the entire story." She adds, however, that "the incident appears to have impressed Carver and the public more than it did Edison." When the inventor wrote to Tuskegee in 1927 seeking botanists to assist him with his rubber experiments, he addressed the letter to the "Agricultural School" and did not mention Carver.

Although Carver had misspelled the name, the "Mr. Hutchinson" he mentioned was undoubtedly Miller Reese Hutchison, Edison's chief engineer. A native of Alabama, Hutchison had received his education at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University), which is about twenty miles away from Tuskegee. It is possible that the two men had met in Alabama as early as the 1890s. Although Carver would not achieve folk hero status until the 1920s, he did attain some notoriety in 1916 after being elected a member of the Royal Society of Arts in England. He was one of only a handful of Americans ever to receive that honor -- and a black American at that. Hutchison was also a member of the Royal Society. Whether he was elected before or after Carver is uncertain, but he most likely was aware that his fellow Alabamian had been admitted into this prestigious organization. As chief engineer, he probably had the authority to offer him a position in the laboratory without Edison's prior approval, and it is unlikely that Edison would have objected even if he had been told in advance. A few years earlier, Hutchison had offered a job to Ab Kennedy, a fellow Alabamian and classmate at Auburn. In 1917 he secured a position for Samuel C. Shaffner, whom he had befriended while they both were living in Mobile. In other words, it is likely that Hutchison, rather than Edison, took the initiative in offering Carver a job. That hypothesis is supported by Carver's statement that the telegram inviting him to come to New Jersey was sent by Hutchison and not Edison.

Photo: Edison at the timeclock, West Orange.

The documentation for which Carver and Speiden searched in vain can be found in Thomas A. Edison Papers: A Selective Microfilm Edition, Part V (1911-1919). Although the editors discovered no trace of Hutchison's telegram, a letter from C. Durham Campbell conclusively confirms Carver's claim. Campbell, who had formerly taught chemistry and physics at the Tuskegee Institute, wrote Edison in August 1917, seeking a job in the West Orange laboratory. He reminded the inventor that a year earlier he "had offered a position to Prof. Geo. W. Carver of that institution in your laboratories to perform research work along his special lines." As Campbell recalled, Carver had given some thought to the proposition but in the end "decided to stay at Tuskegee."3

Like Edison, Carver had a talent for self promotion and was not above embroidering his stories as time passed. The six-figure salary that he apparently began adding to his account during the 1930s is a case in point. Edison was notoriously penurious, and it is inconceivable that the man who once offered a "learned doctor" from Yale a weekly salary of ten dollars would offer a six-figure salary to anyone. The highest paid employee in the West Orange laboratory in 1914 received an annual salary of approximately three thousand dollars. Moreover, Carver had not yet achieved the iconic status that could have commanded "top dollar" from any employer. Thus, the highest "six-figure" salary that Edison would have offered Carver in 1916 would probably have been in the neighborhood of $3,000.00.

-Excerpt from From Phonographs to U-Boats: Edison and His "Insomnia Squad" in Peace and War, 1911-1919 by Thomas E. Jeffrey, Senior Editor, Edison Papers.

1The account in this and the following two paragraphs is based on Linda O. McMurry, George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol (1981: Oxford University Press), 176-178.

2G. W. Carver to Norman Speiden, June 12, 1937, cited in McMurry, George Washington Carver, 341, note 44. Speiden's copy of this letter can be found in the George Washington Carver folder, Biographical Collection: Edison Associates, Contemporaries, and Employees, TENHP archives.

3Campbell to TAE, August 17, 1917, Employment (E-17-39), Edison General File Series (TAEM 268:744). If Campbell's recollection was correct, the offer was probably made sometime during the first half of 1916. According to McMurry, Carver first mentioned it during a speech given in March 1917 (George Washington Carver, 177). By turning down Campbell's own request for a job, Edison missed an opportunity to hire his first African American experimenter. Although it is sometimes claimed that Lewis Howard Latimer worked for Edison, he was actually employed by the Edison Electric Light Co.