The catalyst for Henry Ford launching the Ford Motor Company was a single word of encouragement from Thomas Edison. In the book, Edison As I Know Him (1930), Henry Ford recounts this amazing story which I’ve posted below. Thomas Edison would go on to be Henry Ford’s most beloved mentor. It’s a reminder to each one of us to never underestimate a single word of encouragement.
I first met Mr. Thomas A. Edison on the eleventh of August, 1896. That date means much to me, I think that I first saw him a year before. I had become chief engineer of the Detroit Edison Company. He was returning from his father’s funeral at Port Huron and he walked past the plant, which was next door to the Hotel Cadillac where he had spent the night. I saw him with a group of men – at least, someone told me that Mr. Edison was in the group, but they passed so quickly that I am by no means sure that I saw the right man.
Our first actual meeting was at a dinner at the old Manhattan Beach Hotel at Manhattan Beach, which is just a few miles from Coney Island. We were holding an Edison Convention – an annual event to which came the chief engineers and managers of the various Edison plants in order to exchange experiences. I went with Mr. Alexander Dow, the president of the Detroit Edison Company.
The dinner table was oval, with Mr. Edison at the head. At his right sat Charles Edgar, president of the Boston Edison Company, and I sat next to him. On the other side of the table was Samuel Insull, who has since become great in the electrical industry; J. W. Lieb, Jr., president of the New York Edison Company; John Vleeck, the chief engineer of the New York Company; John L. Beggs, and a number of others whom my recollection is not so certain.
During the afternoon session the convention had given itself up largely to discussing the new field that was opening for electricity in the charging of storage batteries for vehicles. The central station men saw in the electric carriage, the horseless carriage that everyone had been looking for. They predicted that the cabs and carriages would soon be on the streets by the thousands and would require much attention in the way of recharged batteries and the like, and of course that meant enormous revenues. At dinner the talk continued until Alexander Dow, pointing across to me, said:
“There’s a young fellow who has made a gas car.”
Then he went on to tell how he had heard something going pop, pop, pop, below his office window and had looked and seen a small carriage without any horses, and my wife and little boy sitting in it; that then I came out of the plant, got into the seat, and the thing moved off – pop, pop, popping all the way while everyone stopped and looked.
Someone at the table asked me how I had made my carriage go, and I started to tell, speaking fairly loudly so that those across the table could hear me, for they all stopped talking to listen. Mr. Edison caught some of it and put his hand to his ear to hear better, for even then he was decidedly deaf.
Mr. Lieb saw Mr. Edison trying to hear and motioned to me to pull up a chair from another table and sit beside Mr. Edison and speak up so that all of them could hear. I got up , but just then Mr. Edgar offered to change places with me, putting me next to Mr. Edison. He began to ask me questions which showed that he had already made a study of the gas engine.
“Is it a four-cylinder engine?” he asked. I told him that it was, and he nodded approval. Then he wanted to know if I exploded the gas in the cylinder by electricity and whether I did it by a contact or by a spark – for that was before spark plugs had been invented.
I told him that it was a make-and-break contact that was bumped apart by the piston, and I drew a diagram for him of the whole contact arrangement which I had on my first car – the one that Mr. Dow had seen. But I said that on the second car, on which I was then working, I had made what we today would call a spark plug – it was really an insulating plug with a make-and-break mechanism – using washers of mica. I drew that too.
He said that a spark would give a much surer ignition and a contact. He asked me no end of details and I sketched everything for him, for I have always found that I could convey an idea quicker by sketching than by just describing it. When I had finished, he brought his fist down on the table with a bang and said:
“Young man, that’s the thing; you have it. Keep at it. Electric cars must keep near to power stations. The storage battery is too heavy. Steam cars won’t do either, for they have to have a boiler and fire. 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.”
That bang on the table was worth worlds to me. No man up to then had given me any encouragement. I had hoped that I was headed right, sometimes I knew that I was, sometimes I only wondered if I was, but here all at once and out of a clear sky the greatest inventive genius in the world had given me a complete approval.
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