Thomas Edison was a dim bulb in denying the need for sleep

Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Edison developed the incandescent light bulb, allowing us to live and, more important, to work in what would otherwise be “the dark.” So it perhaps comes as no surprise that Edison was not just a proponent of wakefulness but an opponent of sleep.

His role in promoting a sleepless work ethic and its connection to masculinity is outlined in Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness, a book by Pennsylvania State University health and labor historian Dr. Alan Derickson (PhD). The book was published in November 2013 and cited in a recent article in The Atlantic.

In an interview, conducted in Paris in 1889 and reported in Scientific American, he admitted to sleeping four hours a night. The interviewer, who begged five minutes of the great man’s time, said, “Over here we hear wonderful stories of your working. You have the reputation of being able to work twenty-three hours a day for an indefinite period.” “Oh! I have often done more than that,” Edison replied. “As a rule, though, I get through 20 hours a day. I find four hours sleep quite sufficient for all purposes.”

By 1914, he was quoted as saying that sleep is a “bad habit.” The full quote was cited in the Corona (California) Daily Independent in 1931:

“The man who sleeps too much suffers for it in many ways. The average man who sleeps seven or eight or nine hours daily is continually oppressed by lassitude. There is really no reason why men should go to bed at all, and the man of the future will spend far less time in bed than the man of the present, just as the man of the [present] spends far less than the man of the past did. Really, sleep is a bad habit.”

Apparently, his employees were expected to follow his lead. “At first the boys had some difficulty in keeping awake, and would go to sleep under stairways and in corners,” Edison said. “We employed watchers to bring them out, and in time they got used to it.”

Edison’s assistants were “expected to keep pace with him,” John Hubert Greusel wrote in 1913. “When they fell from sheer exhaustion he seemed to begrudge the brief hours they were sleeping.”

The “enthusiasm for insomnia,” as Atlantic writer Olga Khazan put it, has come and gone since then.  In the U.S., at least, it has been on the rise since the mid-1970s, Dr. Derickson told her in an interview.

“We are the supremely arrogant species — we feel we can abandon four billion years of evolution and ignore the fact that we have evolved under a light-dark cycle,” Dr. Russell Foster (PhD) of the University of Oxford said in connection with the BBC’s “Day of the Body Clock” in May, when the broadcaster explored 24 hours of the human body clock through 24 hours of BBC News.

Dr. Foster, professor circadian neuroscience, added, “What we do as a species, perhaps uniquely, is override the clock. And long-term acting against the clock can lead to serious health problems,” including well-documented correlations with heart disease, diabetes, obesity and injury.~TM

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