When Henry Ford Met Thomas Edison

I am fascinated by the encounter between two generations of entrepreneurs.

The first time Henry Ford met Thomas Edison, Ford was rebuffed. He was an engineer working at one of Edison’s subsidiary companies. He was formally introduced at a dinner where Edison was present. He was introduced as the inventor of a cart that was powered by gasoline powered engine. At the meeting, Edison peppered Ford with questions and Ford outlined the design he had in mind. The conversation ended with Edison apparently stating: “Your car is self-contained–carries its own power plant–no fire, no boiler, no smoke and no steam. You have the thing. Keep at it.” This interaction left a very strong impression on Ford who idealized Edison. Ford returned home with the conviction that he should continue working on his invention.

Eleven years later Ford sends a letter inviting Edison to his factory for a photo-op. Edison ignores the letter. Perhaps he does not remember their initial encounter. Edison was a closed off guy. He wasn’t the kind of person that would make social connections and deep friendships. He was a private person. And when he became famous it became even harder for him to connect with people because he feared that people would ask favors of him. Thus when a year later, after introducing the Model T Ford became famous in his own right, Edison could let his guard down. Ford did not need anything from him. In fact, later on it was Ford who funded many of Edison’s projects.

Ford proposed Edison collaborate with him on making an electric car. Edison asked Ford if he was willing to invest in his efforts to build a battery which could be used for the car. Both men hated raising money from Wall Street, which they saw as not friendly to inventors. So Ford happily lent him the $700,000 to fund the R&D for his battery that his cars could use. When Edison was not able to deliver on the battery promise, Ford stayed away from imposing any accountability. He had his business partner conduct audits and tests of the battery. The business partner reported to Ford that the battery did not work. Ford did not directly confront Edison on this. Instead he put the contract up for a re-bid and gave it to another company. Edison on his part also did not protest. Ford continued to support him financially. When Edison’s factory burnt down, Ford have him a $100,000 loan. For Edison’s 82nd birthday in 1929 Ford made a gift of $5 million to establish an endowment for his museaum’s collection of Edisonia and to establish a technical school in Edison’s name.

They grew so close that there families started vacationing together, going to Fort Myers and elsewhere around the country. Again Edison was not comfortable doing this with other people. But in Ford he found an intellectual equal, a business success and someone who had also been weirdly pulled into the world of fame just like Edison.

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, 1921 Camping Trip

They both also tried to avoid any awkwardness with their friendship. At one point Edison asked if he could borrow an efficiency engineer for a week from Ford’s factory. Ford did not have such an engineer to provide. Everyone in his departments had a specialty. For awkward requests like this, the two men corresponded through their secretaries, instead of directly. Thomas Edison Jr, Edison’s son who was trying to make a name for himself independent of his father tried to do business directly with Henry Ford. Ford and his business partners had no intention of doing business with him, but they still humored him. They felt they could not ignore him. But they also made sure that Edison never found out about his son’s outreach.

Their story illustrates the delicate relationship between business, mentorship and friendship.

*Quotes taken from The Wizard of Menlo Park, photos taken from The Henry Ford Collection