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In “The Children” (1937) by Howard Fast, a mentally-handicapped youngster is ironically referred to as “Thomas Edison” as Edison probably was, in the USA, the best-known "smart guy".

Today, no one would call someone an "Edison" ironically, but in the 1930s he probably was, in the USA, the best-known "smart guy" – many people were old enough to remember when he introduced his big inventions, the phonograph, and the lightbulb.

I would guess that Einstein on the other hand, at least until he emigrated to the USA in 1933, was only known to academics, and maybe only physicists and other scientists. The term "rocket scientist" would have been a post-1945 thing, I suspect.

I am sure that Einstein was asked about relativity during interviews in the USA- but is it possible tha it took the atomic bomb attacks on Japan to show the average person the significance of that theory, even though Einstein had a very limited (if important) role in the Manhattan Project?

As someone who was born well after WW2 ended, I 100% only saw the ironic usage of Edison in the Howard Fast work but I do remember people using the term "Einstein" in the 1960s and I am sure its use can be found in, say, 1950s sitcoms or maybe Sid Caesar or other comedy TV shows.

My question is “Could the end of WW2 in 1945 mark the first year when “Edison” was replaced by “Einstein” in popular culture as the archetype of an intelligent person?”

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  • Question suggests some change where "Einstein" term sort of "came out" to replace "Edison" which is purported to be the previous version of this idea on the basis of some hazy memory of a novel written by a 12 year old boy wherein a stupid person was named "Thomas Edison". Premise seems flimsy. Recommended action is remove Edison story. Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 5:56
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    @fertilizerspike: Howard Fast is no one to deride -- I would look him up.
    – releseabe
    Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 7:24
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    @fertilizerspike I disagree, and with the previous editor, the OP's reflections are highly relevant. Brevity is not the be-all and end-all.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 16:38
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    The OP's reflections are broadly inaccurate. It is not true that Einstein's fame did not peak until 1945. He was seen as a genius in the USA in 1919, and not only by scientists. His arrival in New York in 1921 was also heavily covered in the media daily.jstor.org/how-einstein-became-a-celebrity
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 16:39

3 Answers 3

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I found several instances published instances from the period 1922–1938 in which a person refers to another person as "Einstein" either to indicate that what the person is saying doesn't make sense or to express doubt about the person's insight by sarcastically calling the person a genius.

The earliest of these instances is from S. H. Horgan, "Process Engraving," in The Island Printer (January 1922):

Misinformation for Photoengravers

Another "Einstein" has turned up in the esteemed Photoengravers' Bulletin of November last. He writes: "It is a fact that light does not travel in a straight line but is subject to diffraction, or leakage, as it is called. If light traveled in perfectly straight lines. a beam of light that was exactly one-sixteenth of an inch in diameter would be that same size irrespective of the distance it had to travel. However, we know this is not the case." Photographers know, by daily practice, that if light did not travel in perfectly straight lines there would be know such thing as a sharp image on the ground glass and we would not have photoengraving. Photoengravers are also told that "For halftone making two types of lenses are available, one in which the image is dead sharp, and one in which the image is not dead sharp." The better advice to a photoengraver would be that if he has a lens which will not give a sharp image to get rid of it at once. It is careless writing, such as is quoted above, that is partly responsible for the letting down in the quality of reproductions that photoengravers took such pride in some years ago.

This instance of "Einstein" is clearly intended to be sarcastic and insulting, as the quotation marks around "Einstein" seem to signal that the writer is talking about a want-to-be scientific genius, not an actual one. It is worth noting, however, that many writers in the early 1920s were not convinced that Einstein himself was a brilliant thinker and not a charlatan.

From "These Funny Marines," in The Leatherneck (December 25, 1925):

Hi, old thing! How'sa Boy?

Rotten! Got 'nawful cold."

Yeah? How ja get it?"

"Bein' in that blankety-blank musical comedy."

"I fail to get you, Einstein."

Aw, I was the leadin' lady."—Ohio Sun Dial.

There is no reason to suppose that in this otherwise nameless dialogue, the name "Einstein" would appear unless Albert Einstein were being name-checked as a prototypical person whose thinking a normal person can't follow. One recurring remark about Einstein in the 1920s and 1930s was that only about a dozen people in the world actually understood the math and the abstract arguments that provided the basis for Einstein's special and general theories of relativity.

From an unidentified piece in The Atlantic Monthly (November 1932) [combined snippets]:

The inertia motor moaned into life. From all over the plant people began to gather on the apron. Out of the corner of his eye the pilot noticed the chief designer's hand gripping the edge of the wing, the knuckles white and hard. Compassionately he thought, 'Poor devil!'

Take it easy, Einstein ... I'll be seein' you!'

The designer looked away. He was too old a hand at the game.

Here, the allusion to Einstein seems to be meant in a friendly though perhaps mildly ironic way.

From "Merry-Go-Round," in The American Machinist (1932) [combined snippets]:

"So I came right back with the remark that with many wives it's polygamy, with one it's monotony. And right away he walked off in a huff, Ed!"

"Smart boy, Al? But hold on a minute—there's a point, that monotony business. We were talking that over a while ago—you know—about making men's jobs less monotonous. You probably promptly forgot it, but I've been thinking it over, and I think I've got a solution."

"Is that so, Einstein! Just what may it be?"

"Why not change the men around ; give 'em different jobs every so often? It is foolish to put an intelligent human being on a little two-by-four job and to leave him there until he grows gray or goes to the bughouse. That idea was worked up by personnel directors so that they could make their jobs look essential. It's all wrong from every point of view, I tell you." Ed was punctuating his remarks by pounding the cafeteria table till the dishes rattled.

This is much more an instance where "Einstein" appears as an epithet for someone whom the speaker is twitting for thinking he's so smart.

From an unidentified short story by Everett Freeman, in the Saturday Evening Post, volume 206 (July 1 [?], 1933) [combined snippets]:

Sam Shein's face hardened. "We ain't satisfied with your stuff any more."

"What's the matter with it?"

Well," Sam shrugged, "for one thing, it ain't got enough punch to knock over a lame mosquito."

"What are you talking about?"

"You heard me. The gags ain't pulling belly laughs."

"Well, at least they're original, which is more than a lot of comedians can say."

Sam Shein held up a small, pudgy hand. "original or not, it don't make any difference. We ain't pulling belly laughs. Your stuff is getting too high class."

"That's news to me. I always thought I kept my humor low enough to drag under an ant."

"You used to. And we were going over big when you did. But lately you been pulling your punch—or else you're going stale."

Billy leaned forward. "Listen, Sam. I'll come clean. I've been cutting down on gags intentionally. But there's a reason for it. The straight gag type of comedy is getting into disfavor."

"That's what you think."

"That's what I know."

"Well, how would you like to know also that fan mail is down to one-half of what it was?"

"And I'll tell you why."

"Tell me, Einstein."

"Because you're beginning to appeal to a type of audience that doesn't believe in writing fan letters."

"Yeah. And maybe they don't believe in drinking coffee either. You tell that to the sponsor."

"They ought to realize it. You can't keep radio humor on a perpetual level with second-rate vaudeville."

The character whom Sam Shein facetiously addresses as "Einstein" in the story is actually named Billy Wagner. Shein calls him "Einstein" just as he might, with equal sarcasm, have called him "genius." There is nothing affectionate or respectful in the usage here—and this is essentially the same way "Einstein" is used for sarcastic purposes today.

From Edwin Parsons, The Great Adventure: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille (1937) [combined snippets]:

Shortly after our arrival [at Dunkirk], some lame brain in the security of a comfortable office in Paris thought up a brilliant new idea to give pursuit pilots a headache. His marvelous conception wast to equip pursuit planes with bomb racks int he cockpit and send the bombs over low on the morning of attacks—to harass German aviation fields and keep enemy ships out of the air.

Having weighed this fertile brain child carefully and given it the full measure of his approval , this Einstein of the nonflying personnel at headquarters smacked his lips over the idea. He rushed madly about, giving the necessary orders. Then he washed his hands of the whole matter and promptly forgot it.

Our reaction to the theory of this mental giant was anything but flattering to either him or his immediate ancestors. He had started something that gave a few of us many moments of sorrowful anticipation and deep distress of mind while we were endeavoring to put his theories into practical execution.

This is the instance that Jonathon Green cites in his dictionary of slang (as noted in user 66974's answer).

And finally, from Phyllis Gallagher, "50 Grand Missing," in the [Sydney, New South Wales] World News (March 23, 1938):

Carbery favored him [police inspector Bill Rice] with the resigned look of a parent who has suddenly discovered signs of idiocy in his offspring, minus the underlying note of affection. "I mean that Hazel Ward was not married. And that girl was."

"How do you know?"

"Like this, stupid," Carbery said. "The sunken groove on that girl's hand showed she had been wearing a wedding ring, which has the same width all the way around. If the ring had been a signet with a wide top or a setting, the groove would not have completely encircled the finger. It would have broken. Get the idea, Einstein?"

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  • Much earlier than I would have imagined and I guess popular articles about special relativity (would general relativity have captured the imagination as much?) appeared while einstein was still living in Germany. Very surprising.
    – releseabe
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 10:10
  • @releseabe Einstein visited the US as far back as 1921. From the NYT, 2 April 1921, When Professor Albert Einstein, whose theories have evoked world wide discussion, arrives today with Professor Chaim Weizmann
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 10:51
  • NYT April 4, 1921 Those persons who may have comforted themselves with the reflection that no matter if the worst happened, and everything material in the universe were destroyed, there would still be time and space in which lonesome and expatriated spirits might wander, did not take Professor Albert Einstein into consideration at all. He said jocularly yesterday having supposititiously destroyed matter by a wave of his hand in which was clutched the omnipresent briar pipe, that under his theory even time and space would then cease to exist.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 10:56
  • Einstein actually became a household name almost overnight in 1919 when a key prediction of his theory of gravitation was validated. This was an unambiguous "Newton was wrong, Einstein was right" moment, and it got a lot of news coverage. See this discussion, which contains a link to the 1919 NYT article covering the astronomical observation: nytimes.com/2019/11/06/opinion/einstein-relativity-theor.html. Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 23:11
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Greens Dictionary of Slang suggests the idiomatic usage of Einstein by the late 30s.

Einstein n. [the crinkly grey hair/genius of the scientist Albert Einstein (1879–1955)]

  1. (US) an intellectual; also as a teasing term of address.
  • 1937 [US] (con. WW1) E.C. Parsons Great Adventure 288: [S]ome lame brain in the security of a comfortable office [...] thought up a brilliant new idea to give pursuit pilots a headache [...] this Einstein of the nonflying personnel at headquarters smacked his lips over the idea.

A much earlier example is from an article in Vanity Fair (August 1921) - Rhyme and Relativity.

And now , bo , here's this Einstein ; Good for a laugh in all the funny sections , Sure-fire stuff in the movies , comic-operas , burlesque , jazz parlors , honky tonks , two- a-day .

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  • Interesting and predates other citation. Einstein by 1937 must have been getting famous even if the popular descriptions of his work were probably pretty inaccurate. I recall the prestigious NY Times ridiculing Goddard (a rocket scientist) because in space, there is "no air to react against" (exactly how I thought about rockets when I was 10 years old but the NY Times could have asked any physicist about this, even in 1920 or so or read books about it by the genius Tsiolkovsky.
    – releseabe
    Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 18:21
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    The 1921 Vanity Fair reference to "Einstein" (from a poem by Carl Sandburg) seems to allude to Albert Einstein himself and not to some third person whom Sandburg is facetiously equating with Einstein. That, at any rate, was my impression when I ran across this particular instance in the wild. There are a number of other early instances where Einstein (the inscrutable mathematician and physicist, not the archetypal genius) is treated mockingly and/or dismissively—although I think that Sandburg here aims to comment ironically on the progress of science, from Euclid to Copernicus to Einstein.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 18:23
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1942 is the year of the earliest attestation of Einstein for this usage per OED:

A (usually mathematical or scientific) genius comparable to Einstein. Also used ironically.

1942    O. Nash Good Intentions 292    Do you know Mr. Ganderdonk, he is no Einstein, he has no theories of Time and Space.

Here is the full poem from Ogden Nash to better understand the ironical usage:

SLOW DOWN, MR GANDERDONK, YOU’RE LATE.

Do you know Mr Ganderdonk, he is no Einstein, he has no theories of Time and Space,
But he is the only man I know can be both hare and tortoise in the same race.
Mr Ganderdonk’s proclivity
Is divoty Relativity.
Put him behind you in a twosome or a foursome,
His speed is awesome.
His relationship to your rear
Is that of a catamount to a deer,
And while you’re still reaching for your putter
He is standing on the edge of the green going mutter mutter,
But once through you in his foursome or twosome,
His torpor is gruesome.
He is a golfer that the thought of other golfers simply hasn’t occurred to;
He has three swings for every shot, the one he hopes to use, the one he does use, and finally the one he would have preferred to.
His world from tee to cup
Consists of those behind him pressing him and those in front holding him up,
Wherefore the rest of the world is his foe
Because the rest of the world is too fast or too slow.
For Mr Gandergook there is only one correct pace and that is his,
Whatever it is.

Here are the other citations for this sense of Einstein from OED to see its usage in various contexts:

1944    D. L. Champion in Dime Detective Feb. 22/2    I thought that over for a moment and felt like all the morons Allhoff had ever called me when Battersby, who was no Einstein, got it before me.
1946    G. B. Shaw Geneva Pref. 24    In mathematics we have not only Newtons and Einsteins, but obscure illiterate ‘lightning calculators’.
1962    E. Cleaver in Negro Hist. Bull. 25 128/3    This Einstein had a more difficult, arduous and exacting quest.
1987    Sports Illustr. 9 Nov. 96/2    The definition of an MVP is best left to basketball Einsteins.

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  • This is great, ermaren. 1942 feels about right although I would have thought the a-bomb was the catalyst. Prior to Hiroshima, Einstein's contribution would have been top secret. I vaguely recall that maybe The New Yorker had at least one article, perhaps during the 1930s, about Einstein and Relativity. He may have started to be famous even in USA after the Eddington experiment just after ww1.
    – releseabe
    Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 7:31
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    Akin to saying "you are no jack Kennedy" which is without a corresponding "he's a real Kennedy" idiom to match it. This isn't irony, it's simple negation. Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 17:58
  • "[The idiom] can be used ironically for humor [and when idioms are used so the meaning generally changes]" Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 18:05

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