The bill presented by a famed fix-it man details the difference between value of work done and value of the knowledge behind it.
How long this story has been around is a mystery. It’s probably best viewed as a homily that amply demonstrates the difference between the value of an action and that of the knowledge behind the action:
Example: [Cerf, 1945]
Nikola Tesla visited Henry Ford at his factory, which was having some kind of difficulty. Ford asked Tesla if he could help identify the problem area. Tesla walked up to a wall of boilerplate and made a small X in chalk on one of the plates. Ford was thrilled, and told him to send an invoice.The bill arrived, for $10,000. Ford asked for a breakdown. Tesla sent another invoice, indicating a $1 charge for marking the wall with an X, and $9,999 for knowing where to put it.
- Practically anyone famous for his knowledge can be offered up as the virtuoso in this tale:
- Nikola Tesla
- Thomas Edison
- George Washington
- The electrical genius Charles Proteus Steinmetz
- Unnamed mechanics, electricians, plumbers, computer wizards, and other craftsmen
- What the tool-wielding specialist does to earn his fee varies depending upon his area of expertise:
- Masters of all things mechanical sagely put an ear up to the malfunctioning machine, then casually chalk an ‘X’ over where the problem lurks.
- Plumbing mavens correct a problem by banging the right pipe with a wrench.
- Mechanics solve an automotive problem by replacing an inexpensive part.
- Land surveyors charge not for hammering in the stakes, but knowing where they should go.
- Orthopedic surgeon resets a broken hip with a well-placed screw.
- Computer gurus give the stubborn mainframe a whack with a hammer on just the right spot or tighten an inconspicuous screw.
Anyone who has handed his car over to a mechanic knows the lesson of this legend very well. With a few smooth moves, a skilled grease monkey can strike straight to the heart of that annoyingly disturbing sound the car owner was baffled by. Ultimately, the solution may come down to a matter of tightening a few errant screws, and thus seem (on the surface, at least) to have not required all that much effort. But even as he winces over the bill, the car owner is struck by the realization if the problem had been left solely with him, he’d never have solved it or even known where to have begun.
In the 1880s, James MacNeill Whistler, as plaintiff in a libel action, was challenged, “For two days’ labour, you ask two hundred guineas?” “No, I ask it for the experience of a lifetime.” That seems an apt summary of the message of this legend.
The value of work can appear contradictory in that those who are visibly busy frequently earn but a fraction of those who seem to not be doing all that much. Judged by the eye alone, the secretary who can at the end of the day point to the stack of letters she typed would appear to be worth more than the executive who at the end of the same day can display no physical manifestations of what she’s spent her time on. Equally, one who flips burgers and fills orders appears far more productive to the naked eye than the manager in charge of the place.
What is the value of a task? As this legend points out, performing the actual labor can easily be the smallest part of the process, with the real value lying in correctly diagnosing the problem and coming up with a viable solution to it. Ultimately, a task is worth whatever the person who needs it performed is willing to pay, whether the work is cerebral or manual.
Getting back to our legend, we find that at various junctures the basic story will appear in a reworked format, now starring a different famous name. Lore is often migratory, and anecdotes tend to gravitate towards the person they would most likely apply to. Ergo, a parable about a workman’s worth will tend to affix itself to Tesla or Edison, inventive geniuses who went hands on with the mechanical world.
Our tale wasn’t always attributed only to famous men, though; often the unnamed mechanic, plumber, or electrician steps to the forefront to take his bow:
[Collected on the Internet, 1994]
I heard it as a joke story told more than three decades ago in Germany, regarding an auto mechanic. A customer required a nut fastened somewhere on the car. Complaining about the 25.00 DM bill, he gets this itemized list from the mechanic:
Nut .50 DM Gewistwo 24.50 DM
(Gewistwo is dialect in that part of Germany for “Knowing where …”)
Sightings: In May 2018, the Facebook page Humans at Sea attracted more than ten million views with a video-based version of the tale titled “Story of an old man.” That iteration told the same story about an “old man” who had been “fixing ships since he was a youngster”: