The Henry Ford Rotunda, designed by Albert Kahn (the industrial architect behind Ford’s Highland Park Plant and River Rouge Complex), at 130-feet high and meant to resemble a stack of gears surrounding a courtyard, was first produced for the “Century of Progress Exhibition” at the 1934 World’s Fair on the South Side of Chicago, then later moved across the street from the Ford Motor Company’s Central Office Building in Dearborn, Michigan, and reassembled in its totality. The Rotunda was one of the “top five” American tourist destinations of the 1950s, up there with Smithsonian and the Lincoln Memorial, ahead of the Statue of Liberty, most notably during the holiday season, when its “Christmas Fantasy” spectacular, which included a 15,000-piece miniature children’s circus built at ½-inch-to-1-foot scale, 30 tents, 40 spires, and a workshop staffed by some kind of entities termed “beauty-operator elves,” culminated in the mounting of a 37-foot Christmas tree with 2,500 dolls at its feet.1
My mother remembers waiting in line. In November of 1962, while workers were waterproofing the Rotunda’s 18,000-pound geodesic dome, the world’s first commercial application of Buckminster Fuller’s iconoclastic design (we might label this an impotent crossing of historical vectors, like the drive-thru window at a KFC-Pizza Hut), a propane heater ignited partially pressurized vapors produced while warming the sealant. By the time the fire reached the quote—“highly combustible”—end quote Christmas Fantasy floor, the flames had grown 50-feet high and would burn the building to the ground in less than an hour.2 My parents were able to convey this to me in detail, as if sight-reading the score from a lullaby repressed as a life-long ache, though they were both eleven years old at the time.
Ford’s life-size nativity scene, which had received a special commendation from the National Council of Churches in 1958, as quote—”the largest and finest”—end quote, of its kind in the United States, an exemplar of quote—“the true Spirit of Christmas”—end quote, was totally destroyed. The Christmas tree, which hadn’t yet been taken out of storage, and the 14 million items in Henry Ford’s archive, protected in the building’s north wing by one of the earliest uses of the Cardox fire-suppression system, were the only survivors. The archival materials were donated the following year to the Edison Institute, now known colloquially as the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. General admission is $23.00.
My obsessions with Thomas Edison and Henry Ford probably started because I grew up in the second-ring Detroit suburbs. After finishing his Army Air Corps service in WWII, where he participated in the bombing of some places on some missions somewhere in Italy (among other locales I never thought to ask about while he was alive, a combination of respect for trauma, alienation from generational ethnic slurs, and genetically inherited recalcitrance), my grandfather, from the rear of the plane, a seat once removed from the position mythologized by the laconic opening of poet Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” (1945)—“From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State”—moonlighted for thirty or so years on the switchboards at the Detroit Edison Plant. The duel Edison smoke stacks, across the river from where I grew up, were the Twin Towers in my peripheral glimpses at childhood. I was terrified of school field trips to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, the indoor/outdoor historical manifestation of Ford’s passion for the Industrial Revolution and the glorification of his late-nineteenth-century upbringing on a Michigan farm. Nothing frightened me more than “Edison’s Last Breath,” a test tube that Charles Edison noticed leaning on a rack in the bedroom where his father had (literally just) died on October 18, 1931. An attending physician was asked to seal the tube with paraffin wax, a colorless solid derived from petroleum, and it was personally sent by Charles to Henry Ford, who kept it with other Edison mementos at Fair Lane, his family manor.
Fair Lane is a national historic site located next to Fairlane Town Center, one of my childhood malls, the first place I ever saw a Gap, which once possessed an ice-skating rink on the first floor, along with a Coffee Beanery that opened in 1978. The mall got quote—”kind of trashy”—end quote in the mid-to-late-1980s, when Dearborn, Michigan, home to Ford Motor Company’s world headquarters, started to experience its own bout of post-Fordist, post-industrial decline. Malls are, after all, the hospices of entrepreneurial franchisement. Dearborn is also home to 40,000 Arab Americans, who comprise approximately 31 percent of the city’s population, as part of the largest Arab American community in the United States. Henry Ford is an asshole—and a racist, by the way—though he counted 555 Syrians among his factory workers, as early as 1916.3
As anyone who attempts to stick their finger in the center of a wound might do, Thomas Edison often altered or recanted certain details when conveying the origin story of his hearing impairment. Sometimes he liked to say he was struck on the ears by a train conductor as an adolescent, when his chemical laboratory caught fire in a boxcar and he was expelled from the locomotive. Other times, he would credit the event to the conductor lifting him up by the ears onto a moving car. Edison’s first patent-holding corporation, the Edison Electric Light Company, was funded by JP Morgan and the Vanderbilt family, among others. Edison’s then-slogan for the incandescent electric light bulb was, “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.”4 In 1914, Henry Ford, an isolationist and an asshole, became consternated by America’s over-reliance on foreign rubber, an issue which would obsess him for the next decade. Ford partnered with Harvey Firestone, the tire magnet, to launch the Edison Botanical Research Corporation with $75,000 in seed funding and a laboratory based in Fort Meyers, Florida, where all three men—Firestone, Ford, and Edison—were neighbors, an asymmetrical term, if ever there was one, premised upon the radical imbalance of otherness, as both Aesop or Slavoj Žižek were wont to say.5
By 1928, Thomas Edison had planted tens of thousands of exotic plants, each of which could potentially produce latex, on the property. Edison eventually tested 17,000 species before settling on Goldenrod, the same flowering plant whose leaves produced the grayish-white natural rubber tires on the Model-T car Henry Ford had gifted Edison with in 1916. Goldenrod, which comes from a Latin compound meaning “to make whole,” is a diuretic. In the project’s later years, Ford solicited George Washington Carver, with whom he maintained a correspondence, though they were never neighbors, in the hopes of utilizing Carver’s expertise in regenerative soil and organic crop cycling to develop a possible substitute for gasoline (purportedly wooed by Edison shortly after the Institute’s founding, the myth of history has it that Carver chose instead to stay at Tuskegee, where his annual salary averaged out at $1000, rather than accept some six-figure income offered by Edison).6
This courtship of Carver followed the collapse of Henry Ford’s scandalous white-savoir foray into industrial colonialism, Fordlândia, a bespoke manufacturing town in the middle of the Amazon, among whose greatest hits include a worker’s strike put down by the Brazilian Army over the culturally suspect American-style food served in the cafeteria. In Fitzcarraldo-like fashion, Ford had wanted to forcibly shake down the British monopoly on the rubber trade, though none of his live-in managers knew anything about tropical agriculture. For what it’s worth, neither do Western practitioners make use of Goldenrod’s root, explicitly cultivated for its medicinal properties by Native healers over the course of at least two centuries.
Thomas Edison invented the kinetograph, a peep-hole camera, which turned into the kinetoscope. In 1895, Edison launched a film production studio, which went on to produce 1,200 films, among them Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Great Train Robbery, Frankenstein, and Electrocuting an Elephant, the 1903 Coney Island-based strangulation, poisoning, and titular electrocution of a pachyderm named Topsy. One holds back one’s astonishment when they learn Thomas Edison’s favorite film was Birth of a Nation. “Gold is a relic of Julius Caesar, and interest an invention of Satan,” was another famous Edison line, testament to his loathing of the gold standard.7 Edison was an alt-monetarist, and in 1922, he proposed an amendment to the Federal Reserve Banking System for a commodity-backed tender that reads as a working paper on today’s cryptocurrency debates. Thomas Edison, who invented Bitcoin, acquired 1,093 patents in his lifetime. In 1926, possibly joking, Edison told a reporter he was developing a spirit phone to talk to the other side.8 Thomas Edison was mostly an asshole, if ever a prescient one.
Four years prior to his death, in 1927, Edison’s recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” became the first words recorded and played back by a phonograph. Edison called his hearing aids ”auto-phones.” In 1977, one of the cofounding members of the first internet-based virtual community, the WELL, moonlighted as a lyricist for the Grateful Dead. It pains me to announce that “Mexicali Blues” was writ by a cyberlibertarian. The phenomenological relationship between the labor of sound and the auricular tactility of technology clearly precedes both Edison’s speaking machine and the viability of “coming to hear Uncle John’s Band.”
From the Old Testament, Book of Daniel, Chapter 10, Verse 6: “The sound of his words like the sound of a tumult.”
Elmer Dryer was employed by Ford Motor Company’s Metal Stamping Division Controller’s Office at the River Rouge plant during part of the Rotunda’s glory days, including the date it burned to the ground. His first-person memoir, My Journey, was self-published by Xlibris LLC in 2013, and includes an extensive accounting of the Rotunda’s holiday production, from which these numbers are drawn (p. 102).↩
Google returns 49,500 search results in 0.40 seconds for “highly combustible Ford Rotunda.”↩
“Introduction: On Margins and Mainstreams,” Arab Detroit: From Margin to Mainstream, eds. Nabeel Abraham and Andrew Shryock (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000), p. 19.↩
Thomas Edison, in a statement to a reporter on December 31, 1879, during the public debut of his incandescent bulb.
See Chris J. Magoc, Chronology of Americans and the Environment (ABC-Clio, 2011), p. 46.↩
The $75,000 in seed money—no pun intended—is noted by the Official Record of the United States Department of Agriculture.↩
Though the offer Edison may have made to Carver is often cited as a sly bit of PR, as all myths are, proof in the form of a letter from one C. Durham Campbell, a former Tuskegee instructor seeking employment in Edison’s West Orange lab, which mentions Edison’s solicitation of Carver as precedent. Even the blogger-archivist from the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers responsible for unpacking the anecdote confirms that Edison was so cheap, the suggestion of a six-figure income was approximately 30 times more than what he likely would have paid.↩
The Bankers Magazine, Volume 104 (Bradford-Rhodes & Company, 1922), p. 456.↩
Actual article title: “Dial-a-Ghost on Thomas Edison’s Least Successful Invention: the Spirit Phone.”↩