The Inventor Of Insomnia

Olga Khazan traces the American tendency to view sleep deprivation as a badge of professional dedication back to Thomas Edison:

Early newspaper accounts touted Edison’s willingness to work “at all hours, night or day,” to frequently rack up more than a hundred hours of work in a week, and his tendency to select his subordinates based largely on their physical endurance. In an 1889 interview with Scientific American, Edison claimed he slept no more than four hours a day, and he apparently enforced the same vigilance among his employees. …

Over time, children’s books and magazines began to promote this type of Edisonian asceticism. “One juvenile motivational text featured a photo of Edison with a group of workers identified as his Insomnia Squad,” [historian Alan] Derickson writes. Early 20th century biographies of Edison featured him interviewing job candidates at 4 a.m. and cat-napping on lab benches between marathon work sessions.

Some short-sleepers might have shrugged and said they were simply biologically lucky. But Edison encouraged all Americans to follow his lead, claiming that sleeping eight hours a night was a waste and even harmful. “There is really no reason why men should go to bed at all,” he said in 1914.