01 April 2019

Uncommon Friends

"One loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives."

--Euripides

No matter where we lived growing up in Michigan our home was filled with conversations, mostly around the dinner table.  Even after the arrival of a black and white Silvertone television from Sears, Roebuck and Company in the late 1950s, talking face-to-face was a priority for our family.  

My mother had culinary gifts which were a draw for a host of friends, neighbors, and dad's parishioners, around an oft-crowded mahogany dining room table (which now sits in our Florida home).  On those special occasions, time stood still.     

That sort of table talk can best be described as story-filled exchanges among older adults who enjoyed politics, religion, and sports.  Those same topics still show up when three generations of our family gather during the holiday season.     

It's from the early years we learned the value of carefully sharing ideas among close friends.  

Sitting on the porch 

In March long-time friends and high school classmates, Dave and Linda Johnson took Chris and me to the Edison-Ford winter estates.  Nearly 25 years have passed since we were in Ft. Myers, Florida in that beautifully landscaped setting on palm tree-lined McGregor Boulevard, next to the Caloosahatchee River. 

Thomas A. Edison first visited this part of the Southeastern U.S. in 1885 and while there, purchased the site that would become his winter home and laboratory. 

Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company, purchased the adjoining property in 1916.  


Image result for images edison ford and firestone in color
(L-R) Henry Ford, Thomas A. Edison, Harvey S. Firestone
on the front porch of the Edison laboratory in
Ft. Myers, Florida Circa 1930 (C) Edison Estate

Edison, Ford, and Harvey S. Firestone, founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., whose winter home was in Palm Beach, Florida, became "uncommon friends" spending time together in sunny Florida.  Their f
avorite places to sit and talk were the Edison and Ford covered porches.  

Our tour guide pointed out that none of the three great minds were "inventors" as such, something I had not thought about.  Innovators, not inventors, may be a better word to describe these seasonal friends, the guide offered.   

To illustrate--

o In 1800 Alessandro Volta developed the first practical method for generating electricity--the battery.  English chemist, Humphry Davy, produced the first electric lamp that same year.  What Thomas Edison did in 1879 was surpass his competition by producing a practical and inexpensive carbon-filament light bulb.  

o Henry Ford didn't invent the automobile--that was probably Karl Benz in 1885 or 1886.  What Ford did was find a way to mass produce the Model T car and sell 11,000 of them in 1908-09, raising $9 million to secure and expand the business.   

o John Boyd Dunlop, a Scottish inventor, first patented the air-filled tire in 1887.  Harvey Firestone saw the potential for marketing tires to automobile companies and started a company in 1890 to do just that.

One conversation during World War I led Edison to partner with Ford and Firestone to find a rubber tree plant that could grow quickly in the U.S. removing dependence on foreign rubber.  They each contributed $25,000 ($630,000 in current dollars) to organize the Edison Botanic Research Corporation and create a domestic supply of rubber. 

What did Edison find? After testing 17,000 plant samples he discovered a source in the plentiful Goldenrods, flowering plants in the aster family. 

If around today these industrial innovators would likely be talking about artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles.  Robotics and new sources of energy.  Or the unintended consequences of radial tires (they last too long).  

I doubt their conversations would be considered small talk.  

The wisdom of good friends

Who are your uncommon friends?  How often do you converse at length about things that matter most to each of you?    

Irrespective of Facebook's notion of "friending," real friends are few, and deep conversations rare.

You may not be able to sit on a porch in a botanical garden like Edison, Ford, and Firestone, but in a business culture where individuals tend to over-schedule themselves, there's wisdom in making time to be among exceptional friends.  The greater your responsibility the more you need to be around those who can be trusted, especially when thinking out loud.  

In the right settings, face-to-face conversations are sources of laughter, meaning, and encouragement.  Who knows, under those circumstances, a transformative idea could even emerge. 



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