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Road Tripping with Henry Ford and Thomas Edison Through Rural America In Beat-Up Model Ts

August 01, 2023
00:00 58:39
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Some of the most important moments in the lives of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison weren’t their inventions or business successes. It was their road trips through the most remote, rustic parts of America. Between 1916 and 1924, Ford, Edison, Harvey Firestone went on a number of camping trips. Calling themselves the Vagabonds, they set up campsites, took photographs, and fixed cars themselves. They were also joined by famous naturalist John Burroughs, an elderly writer with a large white beard who looked like a gold prospector.

The relationship began in 1913 between Burroughs, then 75, and Ford, nearly 50, and enjoying a banner year for the Model T. Both men were influenced by the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but they disagreed about the role of the automobile in American life.

To Ford’s chagrin, Burroughs wrote in an article in Atlantic Monthly that the automobile “was going to kill the appreciation of nature”; Ford believed it would open up facets of America that most people could not access. In response, Ford sent Burroughs a new Model T, which indeed changed the old naturalist’s life by prompting him to set out on wide-ranging road trips beyond his Hudson River homestead. Meanwhile, Ford and Edison, who had both “imbibed” the rural values of the Midwest, and Firestone, “the head of the largest tire manufacturing concern in the country,” were long-standing friends, busy plotting numerous new business ventures.

Their road trips became increasingly ambitious to San Francisco, the Adirondacks of New York, and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Davis chronicles the memorable road trip of summer 1918, when the fast friends—who held wildly different views about the impending war—drove from the Allegheny range through West Virginia and into the “rustic magic of the Great Smoky Mountains,” all in the spirit of curiosity and exploration.

To discuss these journeys, and the long-lasting impact it had on Ford, Edison, and 20th-century America, is today’s guest Wes Davis, author of “American Journey: On the Road with Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and John Burroughs.”

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Meet Your Host
Scott Rank is the host of the History Unplugged Podcast and a PhD in history who specialized in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Before going down the academic route he worked as a journalist in Istanbul. He has written 12 history books on topics ranging from lost Bronze Age civilizations to the Age of Discovery. Some of his books include The Age of Illumination: Science, Technology, and Reason in the Middle Ages and History’s 9 Most Insane Rulers.. Learn more about him by going to
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