Ford and Edison Tried to Build and “Gift the Nation” a “Utopian Garden City”

I have greatly benefitted from two of Hager’s previous books: The Alchemy of Air and The Demon Under the Microscope. A third one, Ten Drugs, was OK. I am looking forward to reading the new Hager book discussed in the passages quoted below from a WSJ review. I wonder if an inference from the book will be that more infrastructure could be privately provided, if the government would allow it? (By the way, I am by no means as convinced as the reviewer that the TVA was one of FDR’s greatest accomplishments.)

(p. A17) Henry Ford and Thomas Alva Edison were the twin wizards of the first decades of the 20th century in America.

. . .

The story of this pair’s vain effort to build a utopian garden city powered by a mammoth hydroelectric dam at Muscle Shoals, Ala., is all but forgotten. Now it’s been disinterred by Thomas Hager, in “Electric City: The Lost History of Ford and Edison’s American Utopia,” a well-researched, crisply written account tinged with irony.

. . .

During World War I, the government hatched a plan to dam the river and use the electricity generated to power two plants turning out nitrates for munitions. The dam was half built and the factories equipped when the war ended and the project was abandoned.

President Warren Harding didn’t want to spend the $30 million needed to finish the mile-wide 10-story dam and told underlings to lease the whole works to private interests. Ford had already been tempted to acquire the nitrate plants, which could be refitted to turn out the kind of fertilizer used by regional farmers. He envisioned the completed dam supplying cheap power for his blended new American community of garden cities strung for miles along the river. Worker-farmers would commute—in their Model T’s, of course—to small factories running on electricity from the dam. They would be given time off in planting and harvesting season to raise crops they could sell to supplement their incomes. It was a Jeffersonian vision of America updated to the age of the automobile and bounteous electricity.

Ford enlisted the prestige and smarts of his camping buddy Edison. They wanted, Mr. Hager writes, “to gift the nation they loved with a titanic, living example of how they thought America should work . . . The results would be new kinds of cities, new ways of making things, new approaches to labor and leisure, and improved lives for everyone.”

. . .

In the end, Edison faded from the picture, and Norris ended Ford’s hopes—passing legislation that made Muscle Shoals a federal undertaking, although Coolidge refused to sign it. And in the wondrous alchemy of American politics, when the Great Depression propelled Franklin D. Roosevelt into the White House, Muscle Shoals became the core of the TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority, one of the first and greatest of FDR’s accomplishments.

For the full review, see:

Edward Kosner. “BOOKSHELF; Bright Lights, Big River.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021): A17.

(Note: ellipses between paragraphs were added; ellipsis in the middle of a paragraph was in the original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date December 22, 2021, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Electric City’ Review: Bright Lights, Big River.”)

The book under review is:

Hager, Thomas. Electric City: The Lost History of Ford and Edison’s American Utopia. New York: Harry N. Abrams Press, 2021.

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