“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.”
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,” 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.
As Edison hero-worship hit its peak, Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in 1927, a feat that required him to remain alert and piloting for 33 hours straight. When he landed, he claimed he had experienced “no trouble keeping awake.”
Early psychologists, such as Colgate University’s Donald Laird, relied on celebrity examples like Edison and Lindbergh to make the case that less sleep was more. (At one point, Laird argued that “99 percent of cases of sleeplessness are a blessing,” Derickson wrote.)
Self-help gurus ran with the message from there. “We don’t even know if we have to sleep at all!” chirped Dale Carnegie in How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.
The enthusiasm for insomnia didn’t taper until the booming late 1950s, when few felt the need to go without, including without sleep. But sleeplessness ramped up again with the uber-competitive economy of the late 1970s and 80s.
“From the end of the second World War to the mid-70s, America is riding high and people could lead a more reasonable life,” Derickson told me in an interview. “But the party ends in the mid-70s. You have the oil shock, the rise of the Japanese economy, and an upturn in globalization. America starts freaking out.”
In Derickson’s estimation, our sleep-deprived mania has only worsened since then. He quotes The Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich’s Facebook creation story, as evidence:
“Eduardo [Saverin] was pretty sure Mark hadn’t slept much in the past week,” Mezrich writes. “He had been working round the clock, light to dark to light.”