Henry and Thomas

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison–the two men are inextricably linked in so many ways that it defies kismet. Both were iconic inventors and visionaries with a twist of genius; both were titans of industry; they were best friends; they were neighbors; they were presidents of each other’s mutual admiration society; and they were both anti-Semitic.

On October 21, 1929–two days before the stock market crash–invitees arrived at Greenfield Village to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the electric light, and Ford’s dedication of Greenfield Village to Edison.

jubilee invitation
The Henry Ford

The event was a who’s who of dignitaries and celebrities, with the likes of Will Rogers, Marie Curie, Charles Schwab, Adolph Ochs, Walter Chrysler, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., J.P. Morgan, George Eastman and Orville Wright, etc.

Ford, Hoover, Edison
Henry Ford, President Herbert Hoover, Thomas Edison–The Henry Ford

All gathered inside Edison’s reconstructed Menlo Park laboratory…

Edison Office

Edison Lab

to witness the symbolic relighting of an incandescent lamp made famous a half century earlier, and credited with changing the world.

Early-Light-Bulb

Later, Ford ordered the armchair where Edison sat during the ceremony to be nailed in place for all time, and never to be sat in again.

It remains in the exact same place, today.

Edison Lab1

Greenfield Village was dedicated to Edison that evening as the Edison Institute of Technology. Henry Ford had prepared all year for this public relations bonanza by bringing Menlo Park, NJ to Dearborn, MI.

Menlo Park sign

Ford incorporated Edison’s machine shop…

MP Machine shop sign

Edison workshop

dynamo

Edison machine shop

and years later, he built a facsimile of Edison’s first power plant.

Edison Station sign

Edison station

Edison generators

Although Ford was 16 years Edison’s junior, and Edison had been Ford’s employer for a time, they became bossom buddies by the time World War I erupted. Ford’s acceptance of a 1914 invitation to Edison’s winter retreat in Ft. Myers sealed the deal.

estate exterior (2)

Two years later, Ford purchased The Mangoes beside Edison’s Seminole Lodge, and they became Floridian neighbors.

Henry Ford and cottage (2)

They took public vacations together, inviting John Burroughs and Harvey Firestone along for the ride–usually to the mountains or parts of rural America. The press corps were encouraged to follow their every move, dubbing them “The Vagabonds.”

The Four Vagabonds

While roaming the country, Ford was always eager to share his anti-Semitic views around the campfire, blaming the Shylock bankers in Germany as the root cause of the war, and Jews in America as the source of economic anxiety–all of which was propagandized in the Dearborn Independent, a newspaper published by Ford and used to expose his “truths” about the Jewish threat.

Ford's newspaper mantra
While Edison’s anti-Semitism was never as overt as Ford, it became clear that he harbored similar sentiments, and used his motion picture company to propagate Jewish myths and stereotypes. Cohen was a recurring dislikeable character in his early short films…


While Jean Farrell Edison, the granddaughter and heiress of Thomas Edison’s fortune was funding the Institute for Historical Review (an organization that promotes Holocaust denial), Henry Ford II had distanced himself from his grandfather’s vitriol by offering philanthropic support for Detroit’s Jewish community, as well as renouncing the Arab League’s boycott of Israel after Israel achieved statehood in 1948.

And how would Henry Ford react to Mark Fields’ appointment as Ford Motor Company’s CEO in 2014, or Bill Ford’s dedication of Ford’s first technology research center opening in Tel Aviv this year?

Likewise, Edison might pale upon discovering that the motion picture industry exploded in Hollywood with studios founded by: Carl Laemmle, Sam and Jack Warner, Sam Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer, William Fox, and Adolf Zukor.

Paradoxically, in 1997, the Israeli Postal Authority memorialized Edison with a stamp.

Israeli Edison stamp

Yet, a bigger question remains…
How is it that we live in a world that continues to embrace an ancient hatred that modern-day leaders are unwilling to disavow?

Titans of Industry

Every student of science, history and commerce knows the importance of Thomas Edison’s contributions (2332 worldwide patents),

Early-Light-Bulb (3)

and how through his imagination and industry…

patent schematic for kinetescope

kinetescope projector
Kinetoscope Projector

inside the phonograph

he single-handedly reshaped the 20th century.

No less famous and equally as successful, Henry Ford’s lifetime commitment to automotive innovation was without peer.

Edison's Ford

V-8 engine (2)

Now put the two titans together…

Historic Friendship

as next-door neighbors within their Ft. Myers, FL winter compound…

Eden

beside the Caloosahatchee River…

dock1

and the sum exceeds the parts. Adding John Burroughs, the nation’s leading naturalist and conservationist of his time to the party,

Edison_Burroughs_Ford (2)
Edison, Burroughs, Ford

resulted in the birth of the car-camping movement in America as we know it today: motoring across the country in search of fulfilling outdoor recreation and adventure.

camping caravan

Better known as The Vagabonds, the caravan later included tire magnate, Harvey Firestone, who would travel with the pack across America for the next ten years, taking vacations in an elaborate Packer and Ford motorcade that always included Edison’s battery of batteries to light the campsite,

batteries

a Ford chuckwagon attended by Firestone’s personal chef,

chuckwagon (2).jpg

and a pack of newspapermen and paparazzi who would record The Vagabond’s every step and conversation.

Edison’s inventions are presented in historical perspective in a comprehensive on-site museum space that credits Ft. Myers as an inspirational Eden for Edison’s genius.

There Is Only One Ft Myers

Additionally, by recreating his West Orange, NJ laboratory in Ft. Myers,

In the Lab

Edison's Lab

Lab2

office

Edison could work uninterrupted throughout the year, never missing an opportunity to tinker or embellish on an idea, while enjoying the comforts of a home…

Living Room

dining room.jpg

Pantry

bedroom

and grounds…

Edison home

Caretaker cottage

pool

the tree

that he designed in 1886,

Designing a Retreat

and Mina attended until his death in 1931.

Mina and Leah

Henry Ford acquired the neighboring bungalow known as The Mangoes in 1916,

Henry Ford and cottage

and the two titans drove each other to continuing heights of excellence in achievement.

But of all their noticeable accomplishments, their mutual love of country living coupled with the enormous publicity generated by their expeditions most certainly inspired an army of auto owners and outdoor enthusiasts to follow their example.

Thus, The Vagabonds paved the way for the popularity of motor camping, and gave rise to a recreational industry that advances the dream of this sojourner’s lifestyle: where the highway is my lifeline and my Airstream is my cradle.

Note: Historic photos courtesy of Edison and Ford Winter Estates collection.