Henry Ford’s Horseless Horse


Have you heard the story of the man who almost made a fortune in the soft-drink industry? He invented 6-Up.

All right, I know it’s a very old joke, but it illustrates a point: there are a lot more near-misses in capitalism than bull’s eyes. Many of these near-misses come about through simple bad timing or bad luck (RCA’s SelectaVision, for instance, blown out of the water by the VCR and laser disc). Others result from technological overreach (Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose).

But others happen because innovators fail to fully conceptualize the new technology they are dealing with and rely on models from the old technology they seek to replace. The first mechanical pencil sharpener was a Rube Goldbergian contraption that sought to imitate a human hand wielding a penknife. Not surprisingly it didn’t work very well.

Or consider Henry Ford’s Fordson tractor. While Ford no more invented the tractor than he invented the automobile, his Fordson tractor, like his Model T, revolutionized an industry, brought a powerful new technology within the reach of millions, changed an age-old way of life forever, and had vast economic consequences.

But while the Model T made Ford one of the richest men in the world, the Fordson tractor was, finally, a financial failure. The reason it failed, perhaps, was that Henry Ford hated farming and focused too much on simply replacing the horse and not enough on what the horse actually did for the farmer.


American agriculture, from its beginning, had been different from its European antecedents. In Europe land was expensive and labor cheap; in America it was exactly the reverse. Because of this reality, early American farmers often had a startling lack of interest in husbandry but were very receptive to laborsaving machinery.

At the time of the Revolution, farmers still had little in the way of equipment unknown to the Romans two thousand years earlier. It was reckoned that two men and a boy, using two or three horses or twice as many oxen, could plow only an acre or two a day.

But as early as 1788 Thomas Jefferson was working on the right mathematical curve for a plow to turn the earth with maximum efficiency (his equation, elegance itself on paper, was not successful in the field). Most farmers continued to use simple wooden plows, while the wealthier could afford cast-iron ones.

Then in 1819 Jethro Wood introduced cast-iron plows with replaceable parts, bringing them within reach of the average farmer. Two decades later John Deere introduced the steel plow, a great improvement on the cast-iron model and a capitalist bull’s eye of the first order. The John Deere Company used the motto “He gave to the world the steel plow” for well over a century (of course, as more than one farmer noted, “He may have given it to the world, but I had to buy mine!”).

There is much more to farming, to be sure, than plowing, and the Industrial Revolution also gave the farmer mechanical seed drillers, cultivators, reapers, and threshers. All this had a radical effect on productivity. In 1822 it had taken fifty to sixty man-hours to produce twenty bushels of wheat on an acre; by 1890 it took just eight to ten man-hours.

The number of “horse-hours,” however, had greatly increased, and by 1880 the number of horses and mules on American farms exceeded twelve million and was climbing quickly.

At that time the only alternative to the horse was steam. At first portable steam engines were employed on very large farms for threshing. In truth they were portable only in the sense that they were not permanently situated and could be moved, very slowly, by large teams of horses.

Somebody soon had the idea of using a steam engine’s own power to move it from farm to farm. It was exactly such an engine that the young Henry Ford encountered one day when riding in a wagon with his father. It was the first self-propelled device that Ford had ever seen, and he was wild with excitement as only a twelve-yearold boy can be.

“The engine had stopped,” Ford wrote half a century later, “to let us pass with our horses and I was off the wagon and talking to the engineer before my father...knew what I was up to.” The engineer cheerfully explained how everything worked and made a lifelong impression on Ford. Indeed, “from the time I saw that road engine...right forward to today, my great interest has been in making a machine that would travel roads.”

Steam, however, was not well adapted to farm use. Its energy output is low per unit of weight, and thus steam engines capable of doing farm work were very heavy and expensive. Very few farmers could afford to own steam engines, and many could not even afford to rent them.

With all of steam’s disadvantages, when the internal-combustion engine began to approach practicality, it was soon adapted to farm use. The first gasoline-powered traction engine (a phrase shortened by 1900 to “tractor”) was built by John Froelich in 1892, four years before Henry Ford built his first automobile. Froelich’s engine, like most early prototypes, didn’t work very well in the real world, and Froelich soon disappeared from history.