Henry Ford


At once the most impressive and most disturbing fact about Henry Ford is the extent to which he held up a mirror to the modern American character, in his technological talents, his teats as organizer, his individualistic economics, his social blindness, his frequent brilliant insights, his broad veins of ignorance, prejudice and suspicion, he at first glance seems unique; a man fascinating in his intricacy even to those who most detest some of his traits. Assuredly, we say, nobody else ever existed like Henry Ford. Nothing in industrial history is more inspiring than the triumphs of his early days at the Piquette and Highland Park plants. Nothing in the same history is more depressing than some of the pages he wrote later; pages that would approach high tragedy but for their stupidity and harshness. We seek for threads to explain his labyrinthine complications, and we suddenly realize that in strength and weakness, pioneering thrust and reactionary conservatism, generosity and selfishness, he came near typifying the America of his time.


What made him a tremendous American force was his clear perception of four or five fundamental facts: that the American people not only wanted but needed cars in millions; that a single durable inexpensive model could meet that demand; that new technological elements (precise standardization of parts, the multiplication and perfection of machine tools, separation of the job into minutely specialized functions, quantity manufacture, continuous motion, Taylor time studies), when woven together to create mass production, could furnish the millions of cheap vehicles; that steady price reduction meant steady market expansion (“Every time I lower the price a dollar we gain a thousand new buyers”); and that high wages meant high buying power.

All this was as obvious, when demonstrated, as Columbus’ art of standing the egg on end. Until demonstrated it was so far from patent that the ablest manufacturers scoffed, and Ford had to battle his principal partner and the current trend to prove it. A special kind of genius lies in seeing what everybody says is obvious—once somebody thinks of it: and Ford, in relation to his time, had that genius. It changed the world.

Next to this insight, Henry Ford’s most striking gift was unquestionably his peculiar engineering talent. In mechanics, he combined much of da Vinci’s creative quality with much of James Watt’s practical acumen. As a few rare men are born with the power of instantaneously performing intricate mathematical computations, Ford had the power of divining almost any mechanism at a glance. He read engines. Indeed, his associate, W. J. Cameron, says that the great engine collections he made in his museum and at Greenfield Village were his historical library. “They were living things to him, those machines. He could almost diagnose the arrangement by touching it. There was a peculiar sympathy between him and a machine.” That gift had been with him when as a boy he took apart and reassembled every watch he could reach, and spent a Sunday afternoon, his father away, in disassembling and restoring much of a steam engine.

This flair generated a passion which explains another of his traits, his remarkable power of hard, sustained work. The relaxed air which the mature Henry Ford wore in public, together with his well-advertised recreations in square dancing, collecting Americana, and making excursions with Edison, Firestone and Burroughs, concealed from some observers the fact that from boyhood to old age (he was seventy in 1933) he led a singularly laborious, concentrated life. In his prime his frequent periods of intense industry would have exhausted a less resilient man. At Highland Park and River Rouge his responsibilities were always enormous. But his engineering passion made one important part of them—the responsibility for steady mechanical experiment—almost a refreshment.

Day-to-day study of his activities gives us the picture of a man in whose quick brain exploded a steady succession of technological ideas. A helical type of spring band to use in planetary transmission for holding the drum; a new element in the carburetor; a bolder mode of casting the engine block—always some novel ingenuity had to be tried. That side of his mind never rested. “He was up at Harbor Beach one time,” writes E. G. Liebold, “where he had a summer cottage, and he was coming home with Edsel. Suddenly he said: ‘I’ve got the idea. We’re going to put a worm drive on the tractor.’ ” That idea solved the theretofore vexatious problem of power transmission to the rear axle— or so he hoped; and he drove his tractor factory ahead with enhanced zest.

In experimentation, pioneering, the quest for fruitful mechanical innovations, Henry Ford at his apogee was happiest. Anything was worth trying. In 1914–15 he became interested in making a better electric car than any on the market, and reports spread that he and Edison were collaborating. If the idea proved good (which it did not) he thought of forming a separate company. A later scheme called for the use of plastics in building cars; in fact, a plastic-body car was built. This experiment was connected with Ford’s intense interest in promoting soy bean culture, for he realized that American agriculture needed new crops and that American industry suffered from a growing shortage of vegetable oils.