Henry Ford was born 150 years ago, July 30, 1863. He is remembered now for building a great many automobiles, for saying that history was “bunk” and for a strenuous anti-Semitic campaign that did his Ford Motor Co. incalculable harm (and whose effects the company has successfully worked to ameliorate almost since the day he died, in 1947).
But there is much more to his legacy than that -- a legacy that takes on added resonance with the bankruptcy of Detroit, where it was largely forged. Late in Ford’s life, Will Rogers dropped his friendly folksiness to say, “It will take a hundred years to tell whether you have helped us or hurt us. But you certainly didn’t leave us where you found us.”
Just where that might have been was articulated by Ford himself to a high school boy who was interviewing him. The carmaker was speaking nostalgically about the virtues of the farm and the one-room schoolhouse, and the boy found this pretty stodgy. “But sir, these are different times, this is the modern age and -- ” Ford cut him off. “Young man,” he snapped, “I invented the modern age.”
You’ll notice he didn’t say, “I built a hell of a lot of cars.” He was claiming authorship of the world he and the boy inhabited, and, despite its grandiosity, his boast is hard to gainsay. Yet the very scope of the changes he worked on American society may make them less obvious to us: They are as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, and thus as transparent.
Ford was born on a prosperous farmstead a few miles outside of Detroit. He would love the American farm all his days, save for one thing: He detested farming. From his childhood on, he sought ways to shift labor from humans to machines. Unlike most farm boys, he had a strong dislike of horses, and by the time he was in his teens, he was in thrall to the idea of a self-propelled vehicle.
When he was 17, he went into Detroit, then a vigorous young industrial city with a thousand machine shops. Those shops were his college, and he proved a brilliant student. He returned to the farm only briefly, in 1888, to marry a woman named Clara Bryant, a most fortunate choice as she proved steadfast, brave and so convinced of her husband’s genius that he came to call her “the believer.”
She needed to be when her husband made it clear that he was going to spend his future making gasoline-powered vehicles. As he said about his goal years later: “There was no demand for the automobile. There never is for a new product.” This defies the bromide about necessity being the mother of invention: Ford thought it was the other way around, and who can say he’s wrong? People didn’t know they needed an iPhone until they got their hands on one.
He built his first car in 1896, and it ran, and he founded a company, almost immediately withdrew from it, then bankrupted a second one. He wasn’t ready yet to manufacture what he was beginning to envision: a car as dependable as the $5,000 juggernauts the infant auto industry was turning out in the early years of the last century, yet so inexpensive that farmers and shop clerks could own it.
The way to do that, he said, “is to make one automobile like another automobile, to make them all alike, to make them come through the factory just alike -- just as one pin is like another when it comes from a pin factory, or one match like another when it comes from a match factory.”
When he founded his third company -- the one that would last -- he set about finding ways to do that. The result, in 1908, was the Model T, as ugly and dependable as a cast-iron stove. It was an instant success, and, as its high body negotiated the impossible roads of the day, it set about changing the way people lived. In a few years, it broke down the age-old isolation of rural life. “You know, Henry,” a Georgia farmwife wrote its maker, “Your car lifted us out of the mud. It brought joy to our lives.”
Of course, the Model T couldn’t remake a nation’s social patterns without being deployed in staggering numbers. By 1912, Ford was producing 340 cars a day, which shows impressive organization and control, but there is a vast difference between quantity production and mass production, and it is by inventing the latter that Ford invented the modern age.
Ford and his lieutenants began experimenting with bringing the work to the workers in a continuous flow. Instead of one man doing 20 things to assemble, say, a carburetor, 20 men would do one thing: tighten a screw or seat a valve as it rolled past them on a conveyor belt. The results were astonishing. By the 1920s, the Ford Motor Co. was turning out a completed car every 10 seconds.
With the accelerating production came profits so great that, in 1914, Henry Ford raised his workers’ base pay to $5 a day, doubling the standard wage in a single stroke. And in doing that, he made his employees his customers. So began a cycle of consumerism that is with us yet, and that is the goal toward which those production lines were moving: widening prosperity; a growing, mobile middle class; the modern age.
Even as he became the richest man in America, Ford soured. The second half of his life was one of increasing bitterness and bile. He became jealous of his high lieutenants and fired them one by one. He tormented his gifted son, Edsel, because he didn’t think he was tough enough, when in fact Edsel would have been Henry’s ideal successor: He understood, as the 1920s wore on, that the car was now no longer merely a utilitarian necessity but an object of desire. The pioneering days were over.
Ford surely saw this, but he hated it. No inventor has ever been more emotionally bound to his invention. To its maker, the Model T was more than a generator of wealth; it was a moral force. When Ford finally shut down the line after making his 15 millionth Model T, in 1927, he had waited years too long. In 1920, his company was building half the cars on the American road. Those days were gone forever, and General Motors Co. was in ascendancy.
But what Will Rogers said remains true. Even now it is too early to fully assess Henry Ford’s contribution to the U.S., to the world. But take one example: World War II. In his fine book about the conflict, “The Storm of War,” Andrew Roberts writes, “If Britain had provided the time and Russia the blood necessary to defeat the Axis, it was America that produced the weapons.”
It was Henry Ford who produced the weapons. That was never his goal; he was a lifelong pacifist who once told the press that every American soldier should have the word “murderer” embroidered on his uniform. But without the industrial techniques he developed 30 years earlier, the U.S. couldn’t have done it. Over the years, those techniques would surely have come about, but would they have been here when Hitler started battering down the dikes of civilization?
In his best years, when he was a genuinely great man and an inspiring leader, one of his workers described Ford’s personality by saying “he had the magnet.” All of us are still feeling its pull.
(Richard Snow is the author of “I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford” and several other books.)
To contact the writer of this article: Richard Snow at RSnow@forbes.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at firstname.lastname@example.org.