June 27, 2013
In 1926, an
automobile magnate in Michigan received a fan
letter from Alabama: “We of the South
affectionately acclaim you, instead of Lincoln,
as the Great Liberator. Lincoln
has freed his thousands, you have freed your ten thousands. The rutted roads on
mountain sides and water sogged wheel tracks on lower lands have been smoothed,
that the wheels of Fords may pass. The sagged barbed wire gates of barren
cotton patches and blighted corn fields have been thrown open that brainblinded
and soulblinded recluses might joyously into the world with their families in
Richard Snow understands the role revolutionary technologies play in remaking
American culture. “In between the steam locomotive and the Apple,” he writes,
“came Henry Ford’s Model T.” I
Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford (Scribner; 364 pages;
$30.00) explores the genius who designed and manufactured the iconic car. It’s
mostly a story of triumph, terminated by a sad epilogue marked by ignorance and
Born on a Dearborn farm in
1863, in his words, Ford’s “earliest recollection” was that “there was too much
work on the place.” The family wasn’t poor, but agriculture was drudgerous, and
a neighbor called Ford “the laziest bugger on the face of the earth.” Hardly,
notes Snow, who recounts the boy’s relentless tinkering -- by the age of 12,
“he could not only take watches apart, but put them back together so that they
school at 17, and went to the city. Jobs in Detroit machine shops eventually led to a
position with the Edison Illuminating Company, where his abilities prompted a
promotion to chief engineer. No set schedule allowed him opportunities to
experiment with hydrocarbon-fueled engines. That led to the “Quadricycle,” a
four-horsepower, rudimentary car that quickly sold for $200. At 30, I Invented the Modern Age’s author
writes, Ford was “far from young to be gambling his and his family’s future on
a raucous novelty he’d improvised in time stolen from a respectable and
promising job.” But he went all-in anyway (“I had to choose between my job and
my automobile”), and resigned in 1899.
There was a considerable
amount of friction and failure before the birth of the Ford Motor Company
in June 1903. But the man wouldn’t quit -- he believed that there was a market
for cheap, reliable “horseless carriages,” and he had the self-confidence,
buttressed by an immensely patient wife, to surmount every obstacle. Gutsy
investors, capable mechanics, and skilled managers helped, too.
characterizes the Model A as “one of the most complicated things in the world
in its time,” and “wholly the product of Henry Ford’s mind.” It was good. A
successor was better. The Model T was light, durable, and at $850, relatively
cheap. By the end of 1915, a million had sold, primarily to buyers in rural America.
mother, echoing the sentiment of Ford’s correspondent from the Heart of Dixie,
pledged to “go without food before I’ll see us give up the car.”
More than 15
million Model Ts were built between 1908 and 1927, and such volume would not
have been possible, Snow documents, without “the only true industrial
revolution of the twentieth century.” Assembly-line-driven mass production,
instituted at the company’s Highland
Park factory and continued at its notorious River
Rouge plant, ruthlessly cut costs. By 1913, the Tin Lizzie’s price
had dropped to $550; in 1924, it bottomed out at $290.
car” made Ford an international superstar. But his abysmal lack of knowledge
about subjects other than engineering and business proved embarrassing on many
occasions. He launched an ill-fated peace mission to Europe
during World War I. A libel lawsuit
against the Chicago Tribune exposed
his yokel-level understanding of American history. He distributed copies of The
Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a tract as fact-based as the Weekly World News.
(Ford’s judgment didn’t always misfire. He called Woodrow
Wilson a “small man,” despised FDR,
and opposed the New
In the final
decades of his life, Ford devolved from Steve Jobs to C. Montgomery Burns.
Inventiveness, joviality, and humility gave way to obtuseness, megalomania and
cruelty. Ford died in 1947, leaving behind a company that hadn’t adequately
responded to nimble competitors and shifting consumer tastes.
the Model T, and the changes it wrought, were extraordinary.
Andrew Carnegie said, “is about turning luxuries into necessities.” I Invented the Modern Age -- the title
is a Ford quote -- vividly depicts the greatest achievement of one of America’s
D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.
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