On the banks of the Caloosahatchee River in North Fort Myers, Florida, stand two important, but surprisingly modest homes. Today they’re known as the Edison and Ford Winter Estates. They’re historic landmarks of a sort. A tourist attraction with gardens, a museum, and plenty of printed three-fold brochures on hand to guide visitors to this or that corner of the grounds.
Thomas Edison took up residence there in 1885, buying 14 acres of land where he could relax, experiment, and host fellow industrialists, who like Edison, were weary of the hardships of a midwestern winter. Henry Ford was one of his guests, as was Harvey Firestone. By 1916 Ford bought the lot next door and built his own winter getaway there.
Each of those names, Edison, Ford, and Firestone are expressed as corporate logos today. However, more than a century ago they were the names of actual men, with families, and businesses that employed significant numbers of people. These three men literally built the mechanisms that led to the modern world.
Of course, the term “modern world” is a relative one. For those of us old enough to remember rotary telephones, televisions that didn’t come with remote controls, and cars before seat belts, modern is a description of a shifting set of technologies. What’s new and amazing at one time becomes pedestrian and quaint not long after.
The car phone, the compact disc, and VHS video tape players are all good examples of world-changing technological breakthroughs that came and largely went in no more than a couple decades. They were incredible, then they were gone, replaced by newer, better technologies.
Consider for a moment the state of daily life as Edison moved into the house on the river all those years ago. My family lived just up the coast in a not all that dissimilar home positioned where the Scientology Information Center in Clearwater, Florida, stands now.
The roads of Florida were rarely paved in those days. Horse-drawn carts were still the norm. Drinking water was less than appetizing. But technology was beginning to creep into our lives in unexpected ways. Electricity was unheard of at my ancestral home, although Edison had the skills and the craftsmen who could install their own generation plant outside his southern cottage. Within a few decades electricity was common, which led to the proliferation of remarkable inventions like the refrigerator.
Imagine for a moment that you had lived your entire life being unable to get a cold drink on a hot summer day, and then suddenly you could. You could have ice anytime you wanted it.
In 1885 air travel wasn’t even a consideration for most folks. It was fantasy at best. Edison and his technicians were changing the world, but they were doing it on the ground. As was any reasonable inventor of the day.
Then, along came two brothers from Ohio. Like Edison and Ford, they had relatively little formal education. None of the four graduated high school. But they dreamed big, tinkered often, learned to accept failure as a lesson in what not to do, and dreamed some more.
Four men who lived in a world we would find almost unimaginably backward and primitive invented the machines and processes that led to the world we now find so comfortable and accommodating. To think, some of the ideas that made all that happen came about, or at least began to percolate in the minds of great inventors, while sitting on the porch of a modest wood-frame house, watching the sun set over the Caloosahatchee River.
Today, Richard Branson is pioneering the concept of space tourism, building amazing machines that lift people into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Like Edison, Ford, and the Wrights, Branson has a less than impressive educational background. But he’s a dreamer. He’s a doer. And as a result, Virgin Galactic exists.
Elon Musk is perhaps the closest we have to an Edison or a Ford today. Interestingly enough, one of his companies, Tesla, has combined the specialties of those two industrial giants, putting Edison’s electricity together with Ford’s automobiles to produce a potentially environmentally sustainable mode of transportation. Yay, Elon.
Musk’s other innovation can be seen rising through the sky on occasion, pushed higher and faster on a column of flame and smoke as each new launch makes its way to Earth orbit. One day in the not too distant future those launches will seek destinations well beyond our home planet.
For my grandfather as a boy, iced tea in August was an expensive, unattainable luxury. Thirty years later it was cheap and common, thanks to Edison. Traveling from state to state took weeks, until it took mere hours, thanks to Ford. When I was born not a single human being had been beyond the atmosphere of our planet. Soon that previously impossible journey will be available to anyone with the means to buy a ticket. Not long from now, in my grandchildren’s time, it will be possible to leave Earth to live on another planet.
Remarkable. Absolutely, remarkable.
It would be a dream come true to have the opportunity to ride one of those rockets. To launch into space for a few minutes, or for the remainder of my years. Either way, I would be enthralled to be a participant in humanity’s greatest adventure, pushing the limits of technology and vision to explore new horizons. Higher, farther, and faster than ever before.
And to think, somebody is still sitting on a porch somewhere, being inspired by a palette of radiant colors as the sun sets, their mind firing off new ideas, as humanity gets one step closer to its ultimate potential.