At G.E. in the 1920s, as a joke, newly hired engineers would be told to develop an inside frosted lightbulb, which was believed to be impossible. In 1925, newly hired Marvin Pipkin got the assignment, and astonished his peers by succeeding.

Fool’s errand

For other uses, see Fool’s errand (disambiguation).

Hammer and Nails (1977) by Hans Godo Frabel. A “glass hammer” is an impossible object which an apprentice might be sent to fetch as part of a fool’s errand

A fool’s errand is a type of practical joke or prank where a newcomer to a group, typically in a professional context, is given an impossible or nonsensical task by older or more experienced members of the group. Many such errands require the victim to travel some distance and request an impossible object by name; the prank will be widely known within the peer group as an in-joke, and the person they ask for the object will play along, often by sending the victim on to make the same request elsewhere.

The errand is an exampl…
Continue Reading (4 minute read)

6 thoughts on “At G.E. in the 1920s, as a joke, newly hired engineers would be told to develop an inside frosted lightbulb, which was believed to be impossible. In 1925, newly hired Marvin Pipkin got the assignment, and astonished his peers by succeeding.”

  1. FalseAlarmEveryone

    “When Pipkin went to work for General Electric he was assigned the can’t be done impossible task of finding a way to frost electric light bulbs on the inside without weakening the strength of the glass. He was not aware his assignment was a type of joke so went about the task as if it was something that could be done and had been done before. Pipkin produced an innovative acid etching process for the inside of the globe of an electric lamp so that it did not deteriorate the lamp glass globe. His was a two step acid process that etched the interior of glass with tiny crevasses on the first process as was the normal procedure done by other science engineers, but he added a second acid step that caused soft, rounded dimples from the crevasses which gave the bulbs added strength. There was minimal loss of diffusion of light with his innovation. It left the outside of the globe of the glass lamp smooth so that it did not hold dust like a rough surface one did. The first electric light bulb frosted on the inside with sufficient strength for ordinary handling that could be sold to the public was invented by Pipkin in 1925.”

  2. johning117

    Blinker Fluid is in short supply.

  3. qdtk

    My first week on a ship I spent an embarrassingly long time hunting down some pipe thread.

  4. Deckham

    One that used to be played on newcomers when I started working (very young, in a factory) was ‘go ask the store man for the’ mark of the glove’ (not in English). This would subsequently result in the storeman slapping the new guy across the face with a glove.

  5. ksiyoto

    The assignment was more of a way for the old heads to break in the young engineers who came in all bright eyed and bushy tailed ready to take on the world. They let the new guys flail away at this for a while, then they take them aside, said they knew it couldn’t be done, and then put them to work on real projects.

    Pipken, however, didn’t know that it couldn’t be done.

  6. codece

    >”Okay Pipkin, your next assignment is time travel”

    >”I already did that tomorrow Sir!”

Leave a Comment