American History, Automobiles, Bill Bryson, Cars, Henry Ford, history, humor, Ignorance, Industrial Age, irony, Model T, One Summer: America 1927, Prejudice, racism, stupidity, The Irony of American History
“For a man who changed the world, Henry Ford traveled in very small circle. He resided his whole life within a dozen miles of birthplace, a farm in Dearborn, Michigan, just outside Detroit. He saw little of the wider world and cared even less for it.
He was defiantly narrow-minded, barely educated, and at least close to functionally illiterate. His beliefs were powerful but consistently dubious, and made him seem, in the words of The New Yorker, ‘mildly unbalanced.’ He did not like bankers, doctors, liquor, tobacco, idleness of any sort, pasteurized milk, Wall Street, overweight people, war, books or reading, J. P. Morgan and Co., capital punishment, tall buildings, college graduates, Roman Catholics, or Jews. Especially he didn’t like Jews. Once he hired a Hebraic scholar to translate the Talmud in a manner designed to make Jewish people appear shifty and avaricious.
His ignorance was a frequent source of wonder. He believed that the earth could not support the weight placed on it by skyscrapers and that eventually cities would collapse in on themselves, as in some kind of biblical apocalypse. Engineers explained to him that a large skyscraper typically weighed about sixty thousand tons while the rock and earth excavated for the foundations would weigh more like a hundred tons, so that skyscrapers actually reduced the burden on the earth beneath them, but Ford was unpersuaded. He seldom let facts or logic challenge the certainty of his instincts.
The limits of his knowledge were most memorable exposed in 1919 when he sued the Chicago Tribune for libel for calling him an ‘ignorant idealist’ and an ‘anarchist.’ For eight days, lawyers for the Tribune entertained the nation by punting through the shallow waters of Ford’s mind, as in this typical exchange regarding his familiarity with the history of his own country:
Lawyer: Did you ever hear of Benedict Arnold?
Ford: I have heard the name.
Lawyer: Who was he?
Ford: I have forgotten just who he is. He is a writer, I think.
Ford, it transpired, did not know much of anything. He could not say when the American Revolution was fought (‘In 1812, I think; I’m not quite sure’) or quite what the issues were that provoked it. Questioned about politics, he conceded that he didn’t follow matters closely and had voted only once in his life. That was just after his twenty-first birthday, when, he said, he had voted for James Garfield. An alert lawyer pointed out that Garfield was in fact assassinated three years before Ford reached voting age.”
Pulled from Bill Bryson’s superbly readable romp of a history book One Summer: America, 1927.
In all fairness to both author and subject, Bryson’s next paragraph gives you the other side of Ford’s commendable personal story:
Yet against this must be set his extraordinary achievement. When Henry Ford built his first Model T, Americans had some 2,200 makes of cars to choose from. Every one of those cars was in some sense a toy, a plaything for the well-to-do. Ford changed the automobile into a universal appliance, an affordable device practical for all, and that difference in philosophy made him unimaginably successful and transformed the world. Within just over a decade Ford had more than fifty factories on six continents, employed two hundred thousand people, produced half the world’s cars, and was the most successful industrialist in history, worth perhaps as much as $2 billion, by one estimate. By perfecting mass production and making the automobile an object within financial reach of the average workingman, he wholly transformed the course and rhythm of modern life. We live in a world largely shaped by Henry Ford…
Henry Ford was born in July 1863, the same month as the Battle of Gettysburg, and lived into the atomic age, dying in 1947.
So there’s that.
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