Florida has a peculiar way of bringing people together. Families come here for vacations, businesses come to set up shop, and sometimes Florida is even the setting for reunions between friends both new and old. One of the most iconic examples of this is the friendship between inventors Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. The two men came from different generations and lived in different places, but they spent many a winter living next door to one another in sunny Fort Myers of Florida’s Gulf coast.
Ford and Edison met for the first time in 1886 at the annual convention of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies in New York City. At a banquet held at the Oriental Hotel on Long Island, someone pointed the young Henry Ford out to Edison and explained that Ford had developed a gasoline engine. Edison immediately began asking Ford questions about the design. As the young man described his creation, Edison excitedly banged his fist on the table and exclaimed that Ford had the right idea. Steam and electric cars (at that time) had too many insurmountable drawbacks, but gasoline-powered engines could make the automobile a feasible sell for the average consumer. Ford later explained that up to that time no one had given him any encouragement. To hear this enthusiastic approval from one of the world’s greatest inventors was invaluable.
Edison was first attracted to Florida a year before this chance meeting with Ford. While vacationing at St. Augustine, he was encouraged to visit the southwestern portion of the state, which at that time was generally reached by traveling to Cedar Key by rail, and then to Punta Rassa by steamer. Edison made the journey, with some difficulty, and was delighted with the area. Even better, he learned that giant bamboo grew naturally around Fort Myers. Edison had been using bamboo filaments for his early incandescent bulbs, but so far only fibers from specific Japanese bamboo species had been good enough to use. Perhaps the bamboo around Fort Myers, which was originally introduced to Florida from Japan, would make a good substitute. In a matter of days, Edison made the decision to buy up land in the area and set up a home and laboratory.
Meanwhile, Edison maintained his friendship with Henry Ford. In 1913, the Fords and Thomas Edison spent a vacation at the home of naturalist John Burroughs. The group had such a wonderful time that Edison decided to invite the Fords and Burroughs down to Fort Myers. The arrival of this party was a grand event for the small, sleepy town, as you might imagine. Every single automobile owner in town (all 31 of them) escorted the visitors to Edison’s winter home.
Henry Ford enjoyed himself so much at Fort Myers that he decided to purchase a winter home there as well. In 1916, the property adjoining the Edison home came up for sale, and he purchased it for $20,000. Ford called this property “the Mangoes” after all of the mango trees growing there. These had been brought from Key West by Dr. William Hanson in the 1880s.
The Fords and the Edisons began enjoying most of their winters together at Fort Myers. They spent their days exploring the barrier islands, including Sanibel, Captiva, and Pine islands, camping in the Everglades or along the Caloosahatchee River, and even square dancing on the pier to phonographic records. The two inventors also spent time doing what inventors do best – tinkering. Improving America’s source of natural rubber was one joint project – Ford experimented with planting rubber trees on his property, while Edison attempted to make rubber from goldenrod plants.
Thomas Edison died in 1931, and Henry Ford’s trips to Florida became less frequent. The legacy of the friendship these two men shared has, however, been enshrined by historians and preservationists. The Edison and Ford homes are now open to the public as museums, including Edison’s laboratory and gardens. One popular feature is Edison’s vast collection of phonographs, pictured below.
How has Florida helped bring people together in your own life or community? Share with us by leaving a comment below or by posting this blog to Facebook!