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Letter from Thomas Edison to Congressman Roscoe C. McCulloch 

In 1916 with World War I in full swing, talks of tariffs and other means of raising revenue were commonplace in Congress.[1] On June 6, 1916 Representative Roscoe McCulloch, a Republican from Ohio, introduced a bill advocating for the appointment of a new tariff commission. This commission would have the power to not only set tariffs on foreign imports, but also to investigate concerns about tariff violations abroad.[2] In order to gain support for his newly introduced bill McCulloch began writing to major business leaders in America hoping they would favor the idea of a tariff on foreign goods. One of the business leaders McCulloch wrote to was Thomas Edison. On September 15, 1916 Edison replied to McCulloch, writing:

“Dear Sir – I received your favor of the seventh instant, and have read your speech on the Tariff question with a good deal of interest.

I think your arguments are sound, but, even if carried out, the plan could and would be entirely nullified by the scheme of ‘dumping.’

I originated this scheme thirty-two years ago, and sold incandescent lamps all over Europe below the cost of production at that time. I started, and it was followed soon after by two other concerns. In fifteen years, it became universal.”

Although Edison’s reply states neither his approval or disapproval of the bill, it does point out a flaw in McCulloch’s logic. Even if the new tariffs were to go into effect, a savvy foreign businessman could render them useless by dumping, which is a predatory pricing practice used to entice consumers into buying foreign products by selling them for much less than similar domestic products. Edison was very familiar with dumping, because he used the less than ethical practice in order to sell lightbulbs in Europe. In this letter Edison claims that he “originated this scheme”, but dumping was around long before Edison thought of it. However, Edison’s reply to McCulloch’s letter did not make much of a difference due to the fact that the bill was voted on and passed on September 8, 1916, a week before Edison sent his letter.[3]

Despite questionable claims and business practices, Thomas Edison, without a doubt pushed forward the technological horizons of the United States, and the world. His invention of the lightbulb, and subsequent success in making electricity commonplace was a huge contribution to history. Edison’s letter to McCulloch is now preserved in the Mercury Collection for future generations of historians and entrepreneurs to learn from.


[1] Congressional Record Containing the Proceedings and Debates of the First Session of the Sixty-Fourth Congress of the United States of America. Vol. LIII. Washington. Government Printing Office. 1916. p. 29-113.

[2] Weekly Drug Markets. Vol. II. No. 39. June 7, 1916. D. O. Haynes & Co. Publishers. New York. 1916. p. 10.

[3] Congressional Record Containing the Proceedings and Debates of the First Session of the Sixty-Fourth Congress of the United States of America. Vol. LIII. Washington. Government Printing Office. 1916. p. 795.


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