Henry Ford and Thomas Edison -- a friendship of giants



By Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News

Thomas Alva Edison, the wizard of Menlo Park, was an inventive genius who also was capable of seeing and encouraging genius in others — a fact that may have led Henry Ford to spark the automobile age, and certainly cemented a 35-year friendship between the two giants.

As a young man on his father’s farm in Dearborn, Henry Ford had followed Thomas Edison’s career.

Henry took a job at the Edison Illuminating Company, which later became Detroit Edison, and soon worked his way up to chief engineer.

Henry Ford shouts in the ear of his friend, Thomas Edison, who was hard of hearing.

In 1896, Ford and Alex Dow attended a company-sponsored convention in Manhattan Beach, New York. Edison was the guest of honor at the evening’s banquet. Alex Dow pointed out Ford to Edison, telling him “There’s a young fellow who has made a gas car.” Edison asked young Henry Ford a host of questions and when the interview was over, Edison emphasized his satisfaction by banging his fist down on the table. “Young man,” he said, “that’s the thing! You have it! Your car is self contained and carries its own power plant.”

Years later, Ford, reflecting on their first meeting, said in a newspaper interview, “That bang on the table was worth worlds to me. No man up to then had given me any encouragement. I had hoped that I was headed right. Sometimes I knew that I was, sometimes I only wondered, but here, all at once and out of a clear sky, the greatest inventive genius in the world had given me complete approval. The man who knew most about electricity in the world had said that for the purpose, my gas motor was better than any electric motor could be.”

Ford never forgot those words of encouragement. After that initial meeting, Ford was always very close to Edison. When Ford became a wealthy industrialist, he cooperated with Edison in technical and scientific projects. He convinced Edison to devote significant research to finding a substitute for rubber.

Together with John Burroughs, naturalist Luther Burbank, Harvey Firestone and occasionally, President Harding, Ford and Edison participated in a series of camping trips. A major source of fun for Ford and Edison was building dams on small streams and examining old mills for a calculation of the power output.


Edison, left, and Ford on one of their camping trips.


“They think in terms of power,” Firestone wrote. After his first experience with the Nature Club, President Harding joined the group whenever he could.

En route to a new campsite on a rainy day, the Lincoln touring car carrying Harding, Ford, Edison, Firestone and naturalist Luther Burbank bogged down in deep mud on a back road in West Virginia. Ford’s chauffeur went for help and returned with a farmer driving an ancient Model T. After the Lincoln was yanked from the mire, Ford was the first to shake the farmer’s hand.

“I guess you don’t know me but I’m Henry Ford. I made the car you’re driving.”


A 1921 camping trip. From left, seated: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, President Warren G. Harding, Harvey S. Firestone and George Christian. The man standing is unidentified.


Firestone chimed in, “I’m the man who made those tires.” Then he introduced two of the campers: “Meet the man who invented the electric light — and the President of the United States.”

Luther Burbank was the last to shake hands. “I guess you don’t know me either?” he asked.

“No,” said the farmer, “but if you’re the same kind of liar as these other darn fools, I wouldn’t be surprised if you said you was Santa Claus.”

The vagabond camping trips ended following the death of President Harding.

Edison, on the advice of his doctors, left his home in Menlo Park, N.J., for the warmer climate of Fort Myers, Fla. As would be expected of a man with 1,097 patented inventions, Edison outfitted the home with all kinds of novelties. There was an intercom system which he mischievously used to startle guests, and lights in the closet that blinked on automatically whenever the doors were opened. Edison also had the kitchen built in another building instead of the main house because he didn’t like to smell food cooking.


Edison out front of his winter home in Fort Myers, Fla.


Ford was a regular visitor. In 1916, when the seven-bedroom home next door became available, Ford bought it. A wooden fence separated the two estates, but the gate always stood open and became known as the “friendship gate.” When Edison’s doctors ordered him into a wheelchair in the last years of his life, Ford, still brisk and active, bought one too so they could race around the grounds together.

In October 1929, on the 50th anniversary of the light bulb, Ford established the Edison Institute, which now operates Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.

Even the rainy weather that October couldn’t put a damper on the festivities. Crowds lined 30 miles of Detroit streets to cheer Edison, President Hoover and 500 nationally and internationally known guests as they drove to the museum.

The ceremonies featured the re-enactment of the invention of the first successful incandescent bulb in the original Menlo Park laboratory, which had been moved by Henry Ford with other significant buildings to the Village.

Ford had brought in seven railroad cars of New Jersey soil to place around the buildings for complete accuracy. He even tried to get an old elm tree that stood near the door of the lab, but had to settle for a cutting of the old tree planted in the same spot.


Edison signs his name in cement at the dedication ceremonies at Greenfield Village.


Edison was pleased with Ford’s efforts, remarking that Ford got everything 99-9/10ths perfect. The inaccuracy, he told Ford, was that “our floor was never this clean.”

Ford and Edison’s assistant, Francis Jehl, who was with Edison when he developed his successful incandescent lamp, helped in the re-enactment.

Nationwide, people turned on their electric lights in honor of the historic event.

Later in the banquet hall, Edison stood up to speak, his snow-white hair disheveled, his hands and voice a bit shaky.

“I would be embarrassed at the honors that are being heaped upon me this unforgettable night were it not for the fact that in honoring me, you are also honoring that vast army of thinkers and workers of the past. If I have helped spur men to greater effort, if our work has widened the horizon of thousands of men and given a measure of happiness in the world, I am content.”

His last words were for Henry Ford.

“I can only say that in the fullest meaning of the term, he is my friend.”

Bibliographic Note:Edison As I Know Him, by Henry Ford; Edison, Inventing the Century, by Neil Baldwin; Detroit’s Coming of Age, by Don Lochbiler and the clip and photo files of The Detroit News.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of The Detroit News.)