D. Dowd Muska

 

The Modern Age, Courtesy of Henry Ford

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 Fords.”

Historian 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 intransigence.

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 worked better.”

Ford left 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.

Snow 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. An Indiana 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.

The “universal 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 Deal.)

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.

Nevertheless, the Model T, and the changes it wrought, were extraordinary.

“Capitalism,” 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 greatest capitalists.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

# # # # #