Monday, September 8, 2014

The Inscrutable Henry Ford and the Rise of the Machine Age

The Inscrutable Henry Ford and the Rise of the Machine Age
            I don’t know anything about history, and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world. The only history that is worth while is the history we make day by day. Those fellows over there in Europe knew all about history; they knew all about how wars are started; and yet they went and plunged Europe into the biggest war that ever was. And by the same old mistakes, too. Besides, history is being rewritten every year from a new point of view; so how can anybody claim to know the truth about history?
            History is more or less bunk. It is tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today.1
            The man who possibly did more to alter the history of the twentieth century than any other had little use for history, or so it was commonly thought. As reflected in the artifacts and shops of Greenfield Village, however, he did have a passion for the history of the common person. Like all of us, he was a person of contradictions, with both a public and a private face. But with Henry Ford, the inconsistencies were stark and the appearances clouded. On one hand he was a simple man, tied to rural American folkways; yet he was also a driven and quixotic individual, an anti-Semite who proved to be an inspiration to fascist leaders in Europe. Purportedly a champion of the common man, he drove his son Edsel mercilessly and hired thug Harry Bennett to run his company and keep the union at bay during the 1930s and 1940s. He preached old-fashion morality, yet met furtively with his mistress by taking a small boat moored behind his Fairlane mansion. While his Model Ts and As created a new place beyond the haystack for lovemaking, Ford personally designed front seat dimensions that supposedly prevented lovers from having sex. John Rae’s conclusion about Ford remains true to this day: “His personality . . . continues to elude us:  was he a simple man erroneously assumed to be complex, or an enormously complex individual with a misleading aura of simplicity?”2 At the heart of Ford was a drive to control – his son, his employees, the firm he founded, and perhaps even the world that he lived in.
            In sum, Ford did much to create a world in which paradoxically he was far from comfortable. Perhaps it was because this world driven by machines and organizations was so complex and inherently so uncontrollable. As historian Robert Wiebe once argued about the 1880 to 1920 era, America was searching for order, impossible perhaps to attain, given the host of forces at work, including those of globalization and industrialization.3
            Henry Ford was a child of the nineteenth century, but his leadership in developing mass production created a Machine Age in which individuality and worker satisfaction was diminished. Increasingly, rapid change took place, at times capriciously. It was a world where efficiency rather than close human relationships reigned supreme.
From a Dearborn Farm to the World Stage
            So much has been written about Henry Ford that it is difficult to say something new about his life or work. He was born in the midst of the Civil War on July 30, 1863, in Dearborn, Michigan.4 His father was a well-to-do farmer, and by the time young Henry was thirteen, his mother and a number of siblings had died. Left with five surviving brothers and sisters and plenty of farm chores, young Henry was not keen on farm life; however, that would not stop him from later interrupting his career as a machinist or from celebrating rural living after he became famous. There seems to have been questions about young Henry’s abilities, for it is said that his father once remarked “Henry had wheels in his head. John and William [two other sons] are all right, but Henry worries me. He doesn’t seem to settle down and I don’t know what will become of him.”5
            Henry did find joy in the farm workshop, however. As he matured, he became increasingly obsessed with machines, including watches, the most complex of all machines of that day. He left the Dearborn family farm at age 16 and found employment in Detroit as a mechanical apprentice. He learned how to repair steam engines, and that experience later convinced him that the steam engine was too heavy for a personal vehicle. He also worked part-time repairing clocks and watches. He next moved to the Flower Brothers machine shop and then to the Detroit Drydock Company, where he continued to learn more about machines and materials. By age 17 he had became a journeyman machinist who possessed the remarkable gift of understanding how machines worked, and how to improve them.
            Ford next worked for noted inventor George Westinghouse on thresher and sawmill steam engines. In 1885 Henry repaired an internal combustion engine while in the employ of the Eagle Ironworks in Detroit. It was some time afterwards that he decided to take an internal combustion engine and wed it to a vehicle. What distinguished him from other pioneer tinkerers and engineers of the period was that he wanted to achieve economies of scale and thus make automobiles in large numbers and lower production costs. At first he thought of watches as the product he would focus his energies on, but he soon turned to vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine.
            Despite all that has been written on Henry Ford, it remains somewhat a mystery how he developed the idea that the automobile was to be a universal necessity that would be in demand, both in good times and bad. In part, his thinking was the result of his common sense approach to life shaped by his early life on the farm. While American life was shifting from being predominately rural to urban at the turn of the century, many Americans remained tied to the land and lived in relative isolation without electricity or telephone.  In spite of this, Americans were restless and desired mobility, spatial and social, and the automobile would provide both: spatial in terms of a constant desire to move from place to place; and social, as a tool to increase one’s economic opportunities.
            Certainly, the ideas that resulted in the Model T were well formed by 1906, when Ford wrote the following to readers of The Automobile:
There are more people in this country who can buy automobiles than in any other country on the face of the globe, and in the history of the automobile industry in this country the demand has never yet been filled. . . .
The greatest need today is a light, low-priced car with an up-to-date engine of ample horsepower, and built of the very best material. One that will go anywhere a car of double the horsepower will; that is in every way an automobile and not a toy; . . . It must be powerful enough for American roads and capable of carrying its passengers anywhere that a horse-drawn vehicle will go without the driver being afraid of ruining his car.6
            Perhaps his understanding of the common person and his ability to read the market for automobiles when few could was derived in part from his understanding of self. Since the Colonial Era, Americans have been on the move, seeking new opportunities or simply to reinvent themselves. Additionally, American society was not nearly as starkly stratified as in Europe, and thus the automobile, with all of its class implications, played a very different role in an America where rigid class lines hardly existed. Equality led to widespread buying power, and this potential buying power of Americans, in Ford’s mind, was enormous. Ford somehow envisioned that as more automobiles were produced, more industrialization would follow. And that would result in even more buying power among the breadth of the middle and working classes. While most of the early pioneers in the automobile industry in America thought of their cars as leisure objects for the well to do, only Ford, Ransom Olds, and Billy Durant thought differently. This triumvirate found ways to meet the demand from a mass consumer market that desired to break the bonds of place.
            In 1891 Ford moved on to the Detroit Edison Company, and five years later he had a fateful encounter with Thomas Edison. Ford later saw that meeting as decisive to his future in the automobile business. He later claimed that Edison encouraged him to move forward with his car project as Edison advised that: “There is a big future for any light-weight engine that can develop a high horsepower and is self contained. Keep on with your engine. If you can get what you are after, I can see a great future.”7 Ford never forgot that moment with Edison, and later he would develop a unique friendship with America’s most useful citizen. Later he would move Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory to Dearborn as a part of his historical Greenfield Village, and in that museum is a glass tube that purportedly contains the last breath of Edison, collected at his deathbed on the wishes of Ford.
            Ford’s first prototype was constructed in 1891. In 1896 a refined model was built, the Quadricycle, and if we are to believe the legend, Ford found it too big for the woodshed door. He then knocked down a wall, and pushed the car on a rainy street. With wife Clara holding an umbrella and a friend on a bicycle warning horsemen along the way, Ford started his engine and took his first ride.
            Ford faced many more obstacles and challenges along the way before founding the Ford Motor Company in 1903. Two precursor companies failed, as Ford and his financial backers differed as to the target market and the role of racing in publicizing his cars.
            Racing was extremely important to Henry Ford and others during the pioneer days of the automobile industry. As now, racing results in publicity that cannot be acquired any other way. It cultivates a following interested in speed, a powerful and attractive quality associated with any form of transportation. Racing success was reflective of technological sophistication, and racing tested, both then and now, demonstrator technologies that were eventually introduced into everyday vehicles. 
            At the turn of the twentieth century no production automobile in America had a greater sophistication or reputation than the Winton, a car made in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1903, a Winton driven by Horatio Nelson Jackson would be the first to cross transcontinental America. In October 1901, Ford challenged Alexander Winton to a match race, and won. A year later, Ford built the famous 999 and set a new speed record.8 Consequently, he was known all over America and recognized as a key player on the Detroit automobile scene.
            It was from racing that Ford recognized the importance of shedding weight at every instance to gain more speed. A powerful engine is only one part of a racer’s equation, for the ratio of horsepower to weight is far more critical than just total horsepower alone in a racing machine. It was that quest for strength and lightness that led Henry to his discovery of vanadium alloy metal. He did not originate the use of vanadium in the automobile industry, for the French manufacturer Peugeot used it in racing machines prior to Ford’s discovery. But he understood the alloy’s utility in a production vehicle, and vanadium alloy steel became a critical material used in the Model T. Until metal could be alloyed into a very hard material, it could not be machined with the precision needed for parts interchangeability. The alternative was softer metal pieces that had to be “fitted” with files and jigs, one by one, to each vehicle. As the story goes, Ford was on the beach after a race in Florida where there had been an accident. Ford would later recount that, “There was a big smashup and a French car was wrecked . . . After the wreck I picked up a little valve strip stem. It was very light and very strong. I asked what it was. Nobody knew.”9 Ford had the valve stem analyzed, discovered that it was vanadium steel, and that this material gave three times the strength per weight when compared to production steel.
            In 1903, Henry Ford made a third attempt to establish an automobile firm with himself at the helm, and the Ford Motor Company as we know it today was founded. It began with $28,000 in capital, and the firm never raised another cent by selling stock until after Henry Ford died in 1947. A number of early models were produced between 1904 and 1908 which sold for a low price and had a reputation for reliability. In 1906 Ford produced the Model N, a $600 car, and the firm sold a record 9,000 cars and had revenues of $5.8 million. In the wake of this success with the Model N during the winter of 1906 and 1907, plans began to evolve for the production of Model T, one most important vehicles in the history of the automobile.
            Once the T was designed, it was fixed, thus eliminating expensive retooling costs. With the design “frozen,” the focus of activities at the Ford Motor Company shifted to production. While the practice of mass production emerged at Ford after 1908, it was both a reflection of distinctively American developments within the nascent auto industry beyond those taking place at the Ford Motor Company.10
            From the mid-1890s to 1908, skilled machinists dominated automobile production. They commanded the production processes of small-scale firms. Usually British, German, or generational Americans, they moved to the automobile industry from carriage making operations, bicycle manufacturing, or other trades. The highly-skilled machinists determined the pace of work, set the standards for the finished product, and hired/fired unskilled workers. “As the aristocrat of the shop,” wrote Stephen Meyer “the all-around machinist knew some mechanical drawing and mathematics, how to operate different classes of machine tools, and how to perform fitting, filing, and assembly operations at the bench.”11 The machinist used finely-honed skills while leading a team of apprentices and laborers. Meyer concluded that “Their knowledge represented their power in the production process and resulted in the powerful shop traditions of the autonomous craftsmen . . . this shop culture controlled and regulated production through various output quotas and restrictions on the amount of effort exerted or output manufactured.”12 As a result, production was slow and car prices were high. Early automobiles were novel, and sold to the elite. James Flink asserted that “so long as and wherever such artisanal production persisted, labor productivity was extremely low.”13 
            However, throughout the nineteenth century these and other artisanal skills were challenged by new technologies aimed at supplanting manual labor and raising production volume. Americans had been fascinated with motion and its role in production going back to Oliver Evans’ late eighteenth century automated flour mill. The nineteenth century pork disassembly line as perfected in Cincinnati, Ohio was another example of the American interest in production flow. While Ford claimed the meat processing disassembly line had influenced his thinking, his assistant, Charlie Sorenson, later denied it.

            Others in Detroit were also thinking of economies of scale and efficiencies during this time. For example, Billy Durant’s Buick, under the helpful guidance of Walter P. Chrysler, was making 5,000 cars a year in 1912. Indeed, many elements of mass production existed long before events would unfold at Ford’s Highland Park factory.

1 comment:

  1. The alternative was softer metal pieces that had to be “fitted” with files and jigs, one by one, to each cover