Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Henry Ford [Heroes of Science and Technology]

"Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently." - Henry Ford

One hundred and fifty years ago, on July 30th, 1863, Henry Ford was born on a farm in Greenfield, Michigan. A dubious hero to be sure, but Ford did much for the American worker and the American landscape. As Ford said and Richard Snow asserts in his biography of Henry Ford, "I invented the modern age." It might be that Ford did more to change the face of America than any other man of his age.

Ford's Model T, and the manufacturing process associated with it, changed the world in a number of significant ways. The Model T required a good deal of maintenance and Inspired a generation of auto mechanics and tinkerers. Richard Snow writes in his biography, "In the Second World War, for example, German tanks were often superior to their American counterparts. But this advantage was canceled by how quickly a disabled Sherman could get itself repaired and back into action. The Germans were baffled and dismayed to find that… Ford had created a whole generation of mechanics."

Ford applied his manufacturing process to making Eagle boats at the purpose-built Rouge plant during World War One and B-24 Liberator bombers at Willow Run during World War Two. Even though the Eagle boat venture wasn't very successful for Ford he kept the plant to make cars. The B-24 assembly line was much more successful and the Ford Motor Company produced half of all the B-24s manufactured during the war.

There seems to be some dispute as to who pushed the idea of paying Ford workers five dollars a day in 1914. Maybe it was James Couzens that pushed the idea on a reluctant Henry Ford or maybe the story was different. It matters little what the real story was. The outcome is plain enough to see. The Ford Motor Company paid its workers much more than any other factory worker or automaker in the country. The high pay made Ford's workers potential customers and as Peter Drucker said, "Ford's action transformed American industrial society. It established the American working man as fundamentally middle-class."

There is also a dark side to the history of Henry Ford. He owned a newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, that published several anti-Semitic articles that were collected into a series of books in Germany called The International Jew. Interestingly, Ford is the only American mentioned by name in Hitler's Mein Kampf. There is more to this dark side and I don't want to turn a blind eye to it, but flawed as people are, I tend to look back on Henry Ford for his accomplishments not his numerous failings and shortcomings. That part of Henry Ford is a subject for a different day.

Ford changed America in a very big way and ushered in an age of prosperity in this country that we're only now starting to come down from. He was a maker and a tinkerer that built gasoline powered "quadricycles" in his shed. The proliferation of the, mass produced, affordable automobile that Ford insisted on producing, created a culture of gear heads, wrenchers, and makers that continues to this day.

Ford said, "I am collecting the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used…" Ford started by collecting items from his life: his family home, a steam engine he worked on, and so on. In his later years, Ford spent more time at the museum than at the Ford Motor Company. The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village are the unbelievable legacy of a larger than life man.

I'm lucky to live in the Detroit area, just a short drive from the Henry Ford. I love museums and The Henry Ford is great one, on par with any I've seen, especially if you happen to be a fan of technology and the technology of making things. The Henry Ford Museum, very fittingly, also hosts the annual Detroit Maker Faire. - Jeff

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