Today, Henry Ford forgets what he once knew. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Historian John Staudenmaier
asks how Henry Ford grew
so hidebound after the stunning brilliance of his
Ford, born during the Civil War, began making cars
when he was 40. Few roads were paved, and there was
no system of service stations. Ford understood that
successful cars had to be rugged, and you had to be
able to fix them yourself.
Ford began making cars the way everyone else did --
by hauling material to work stations where people
did many operations. He first broke with orthodoxy,
not by creating his assembly lines, but by
convincing stockholders that cars weren't just for
the well-to-do. He went for higher production and
He gave us the Model T in 1908, the soul of
simplicity and ruggedness. It was so successful
that he didn't have to predict sales. He could sell
every car he made. So he developed faster
production methods. By 1914 he'd invented the
moving assembly line.
Workers hated the dull repetition of the moving
line. Worker turnover grew astronomically. Ford
innovated again. This time, he doubled wages from
$2.50 to $5.00 a day. He cut the working day from 9
to 8 hours. He shared profits with his workers.
For that the press made him into a folk hero. But
he was also becoming a paternalistic boss, checking
up on workers' home lives and habits. That went
more or less unnoticed at first.
By 1927 Ford's company was worth 700 million
dollars. But success was working its mischief. Ford
had built success by looking down the road at the
future. Now he was only 63, and he'd long since
begun putting up walls and putting on blinders.
He'd isolated his plants physically, refused to
unionize, and tried to manufacture his own rubber
and steel. Worst of all, he'd stopped looking
ahead. He'd stayed with his own formulas for
In the early '30s the great Mexican muralist Diego
Rivera celebrated Ford's factories with a set of
murals. Rivera showed Ford's plants spilling out
into the world as a transforming force. He didn't
realize how Ford had closed in on himself. By then
Ford was pouring millions into a strange museum at
Greenfield Village. He moved an entire old watch
shop and a Cotswold cottage from England. He built
a private nostalgic dream world.
Even as Rivera painted, General Motors had
displaced Ford as the premier automaker. The Model
A and the V-8 engine couldn't stem the tide. In the
end, Staudenmaier says, the virtues of "patience,
hope, imagination, humor, and a willingness to fail
and to disagree" make us great. We receive those
virtues by being open to external realities. Those
are the just the virtues Ford cut himself off from
-- right at the peak of his success.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds