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How Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and Thomas Edison Pioneered the Great American Road Trip

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08.07.2019

A century ago, arguably the most famous man in America was an innovator and entrepreneur. So was the second most famous. So when Thomas Edison and Henry Ford embarked on their annual proto-glamping excursions--which, yes, they did, accompanied by less-starry chums Harvey Firestone and the naturalist John Burroughs--Americans obsessively followed along. Eager to sell more Model T's, personal-brand-savvy Ford encouraged press coverage. There were many manly photo opps (think wood chopping), kindnesses doled out to commoners, presidential pop-ins.

So we learn in Jeff Guinn's new book, The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison's Ten-Year Road Trip (Simon & Schuster, July 9), which unfolds against a landscape transformed by what that formidable duo invented or advanced. Both were flawed. Ford, the virulent anti-Semite, raised wages to $5 a day--and then sent inspectors to search employees' homes for booze or mess. But the public viewed their accomplishments as magic. And, each summer, these magicians moved among them, inspiring not just admiration but--for a time--something approaching love.

Edison and Ford rolling across the country in their well-stocked caravan were only marginally more sincere than today's founders, who make their populist moves via social media. But given privacy fiascos, disappointing IPOs, and ongoing bad behavior, Silicon Valley needs a new narrative. It's summer. Enjoy the following excerpt from Guinn's book and then consider hitting the open road.

The Vagabonds party filled their gas tanks in Greensburg, and also bought a linen "duster" coat for Burroughs, who wasn't sparing in his complaints about being cold the night before. There followed a further delay caused by what would become a common irritant on the trip. Virtually everyone in Greensburg surrounded the cars, maneuvering for clear glimpses of their iconic........

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