How Fake News About The Inventor Was Lapped Up Across The World In The 1880s
Thomas Edison was shocked when he received a letter in the early 1880s to supply his “newly invented shirts” in Germany. He had many inventions to his credit, and fans regularly tagged a good deal more to his name without justification, but the improvement of shirts certainly was not in his line. Soon, orders started pouring in from other countries.
A fantastic invention
This imaginary shirt was quite an onion, if anything — “a garment that Mr Edison was said to have succeeded in manufacturing of 365 delicately thin sheets of paper in layers.”
The story went out that Edison had invented a shirt with 365 layers that could be discarded one at a time as the outermost ones became dirty. It didn’t require any washing. You could go without peeling off a layer for a day or two, depending on how hot the weather was and how dirty the air. At a layer a day, the shirt would last a year; more if you kept the layers on longer. Somebody then garnished the story with a special leap-year shirt that had 366 layers.
That such an outrageous story got past copy desks and editors, and passed from paper to paper, country to country, shows why journalists should never suspend disbelief and common sense.
American journalists suspected the French press. “This story never got into the American papers. No American editor would have accepted it except as a bit of extravagant humour. But the foreign editors exploited it far and wide, and the foreign readers accepted it as true,” said an article published in Washington DC’s Evening Star paper on July 21, 1907.
Edison’s private secretary told the Wood River Times of Hailey, Idaho, in October 1883 that news of the ‘365 shirt’ had reached them through the Vienna Tageblatt. Then, a man in Paris had bought a $5 bill from a currency exchange and mailed it to Edison for a sample shirt, “and a chap in Berlin tried to buy the agency for it in Prussia.”
Of course, the story spread easily because of Edison’s reputation. He seemed capable of inventing anything. People called him the Wizard of Menlo Park. Another story that started in Connecticut at the time said Edison had made a talking toy baby “that can arrange the letters of any name from among spelling blocks,” form short sentences, cry, laugh, sing and play the piano. AI and robotics gurus, take note.
The American press could wisecrack at Edison’s expense: “It is said that Edison is perfecting an electric shirt-bosom pin for the cheap hotel clerk… The discovery of diamond making seems somewhat like Edison’s light; now you see it, and now you don’t (from The Louisiana Democrat of April 7, 1880),” but abroad, there was no room for such familiarity.
Never mind who started the rumour, French, German or British, by 1883, Edison’s shirt was being talked about in Australia. It arrived there in the pages of The European Mail, a monthly, and was picked up by the local papers.
A writer for the Port Augusta Dispatch and Flinders’ Advertiser of January 20, 1883, imagined how the 365 shirt would free wives from the task of washing and ironing men’s shirts, and then jumped to the possibility that men might no longer need to depend upon women.
“I am sure it will be a comfort to use one of the Edison shirts here mentioned, and to feel at mid day under a Port Augusta sun that your clean boiled rag of the present day does not look like a dishcloth. To the ladies also a large amount of satisfaction, as shirt washing and ironing will not be one of the especial tasks to learn before entering that happy state of marriage. What with the new Edison shirt and cellulose collars, man can almost now exclaim that he can do without women.”
The original story in The European Mail, headlined The Edison Shirt, was equally exuberant. It predicted the end of the laundry business and the freedom to wear the same shirt all the time, while coal-heaving and at a party:
“No little excitement has been caused in the world of washerwomen by the invention of the Edison shirt, which is attributed, rightly or wrongly, to the wizard of Menlo Park. By means of that shirt that venerable institution, the laundry, seems doomed to speedy extinction, and the last washerwoman and her tub will be deposited with other inutilities in the crowded cellars of the British Museum. The secret of the shirt is the material of which it is composed, which resembles linen most perfectly, and each shirt consists of 365 layers, which may be removed, so as to provide a clean shirt daily for a year, on the principle of the almanacs one sees so often. A special shirt is made for leap year, containing 366 layers. It is not stated whether layers are removed from the outside or inside; but one of the advantages claimed is, that one can do a little coal-heaving in the morning and go to a ball in the evening. Already a deadly blow has been struck at washing by the paper collar, and more recently by the cellulose collar, but the best regulated laundry cannot long survive the invention of the Edison shirt.”
None of that happened, but Edison had to go to the trouble of returning $6,000 to “credulous merchants who had believed the story of the Edison shirt.” All because a correspondent cooked up a story, and many editors bought it without taking the trouble to check with Edison’s office.