Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, road-tripping buddies.
Beginning in 1914, the two American icons took yearly automobile trips through the countryside. Even though they didn’t accomplish much of note during these trips, journalist Guinn (The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, 2017) tells an entertaining story that mixes sharp portraits of their vivid personalities with details of their travels and a portrait of American society during those years. Although past his prime, Edison was universally worshipped as the world’s greatest inventor, while Ford was at his peak, having developed an automobile cheap enough for the middle-class families who bought it in droves. Idolizing the older man, Ford had requested an autographed photograph in 1911. A visit to Edison’s New Jersey lab soon followed, and the two hit it off. Ford accepted an invitation to Edison’s retreat in Florida, where they drove to the Everglades, which was then a trackless wilderness. Although this initial trip was an unpleasant experience, it began a yearly series of auto journeys. Edison and Ford were usually accompanied by Harvey Firestone (of Firestone Tires), a wealthy entrepreneur happy to serve as Ford’s factotum, organizing the itinerary. No ascetic, Ford paid for several vehicles filled with camping and cooking equipment, servants, and a chef that accompanied them. While Ford often stayed in hotels, Edison roughed it. According to Guinn, few Americans in 1914 ventured into the hinterland, a nearly roadless, exotic, often impoverished setting. Ten years later, thanks partly to enthusiastic newspaper coverage, “autocamping” became the rage, the recognizable America of campgrounds, motels, diners, and gas stations took shape, and the vagabonds themselves faded from headlines in favor of the latest 1920s idols. “A contributing factor to the end of the trips wasn’t the Vagabonds’ expectation of too much attention being paid to them, but too little,” writes the author.
An amusing account of celebrity travelers through the primitive and yet vaguely familiar America of 100 years ago.