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Henry Ford And His World

The controversial and brilliant Henry Ford and the world he invented.

Henry Ford sits at the tiller of his first automobile, the Quadricycle, in front of the John Wanamaker salesroom on Broadway between 49th and 50th Streets in New York City in 1904. (AP)

Henry Ford sits at the tiller of his first automobile, the Quadricycle, in front of the John Wanamaker salesroom on Broadway between 49th and 50th Streets in New York City in 1904. (Ford Motor Company/AP)

We all know the bare-bones story of Henry Ford.  And it’s incredible enough.  The stern, driven man who brought us the assembly line, the Model T, the $5 day — when that doubled the average wage.

But it’s worth stepping back again to look at the big, big picture.

Did Henry Ford crack open the modern age?  He invented it, he said himself.  And he may have been right.  Remaking our environment, our very sense of the world.

We’re looking again at that.  And who’s our Henry Ford right now?

This hour, On Point: Revisiting Henry Ford.

– Tom Ashbrook


Richard Snow, author of “I Invented The Modern Age: The Rise Of Henry Ford” — read an excerpt below.

Bill Wasik, senior editor at WIRED, who recently wrote “Welcome To The Programmable World,” a feature article about the future of technology. (@billwasik)


Excerpted from “I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford.” Copyright © 2013 by Richard Snow. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Bill Wasik On The Future Of Technology

WIRED’s Bill Wasik, author of the feature article “Welcome To The Programmable World,” said Google’s self-driving car and electric car maker Tesla represent two different examples of the future of technology.

Wasik described Google’s self-driving car as an example of applying the information revolution to the “ultimate in old-fashioned industrial product.”

As for Tesla, he said the manufacturer is “basically trying to rethink from the ground up the ways that cars are made — it’s a lot about materials, it’s a lot about processes and efficient, a lot of the same stuff that Henry Ford revolutionized but brought into the 21st century.”

Tweets From During The Show

From Tom’s Reading List

WIRED: Welcome To The Programmable World – “In our houses, cars, and factories, we’re surrounded by tiny, intelligent devices that capture data about how we live and what we do. Now they are beginning to talk to one another. Soon we’ll be able to choreograph them to respond to our needs, solve our problems, even save our lives.”

The Daily Beast: The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Henry Ford – “Henry Ford is among the strangest—and in some ways the least appealing—of great men. He hated cows, and declared in absolute seriousness ‘The cow must go!’ He believed the Jews had invented jazz as part of a race-wide campaign to corrupt, and then dominate, America. In 1915 he chartered an ocean liner, filled it with intellectuals and journalists, and set sail for Europe ablaze with a messianic intention. In the words of The New York Times’s headline, ‘GREAT WAR TO END CHRISTMAS DAY. FORD TO STOP IT.’”

Forbes: Would Henry Ford Double His Workers’ Wages Today? – “The Wall Street Journal ran an excerpt last week of a new Ford biography by Richard Snow, who highlights Ford’s sudden decision to raise wages at his factories to $5 a day in 1913. ‘This at a stroke doubled the prevailing salary for industrial work, and it caused a sensation,’ Snow writes. One reason Ford’s decision triggered such an uproar (albeit mostly positive) is that it was not, on the face of it, necessary. There was no shortage of workers at the lower wage level, so why give an unforced pay raise — let alone a doubling?”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1843096380 Vera Scott

    Your promo for the show a few minutes ago on All Things Considered mentioned Henry Ford’s anti-semitism.  That was only a portion of his bigotry.  The city of Dearborn has one of, if not the, largest populations of Arabic people outside of the Middle East directly because of Henry Ford’s racism.  Essentially he courted Arabic people to come to Dearborn so that they could serve as a “buffer” between African-Americans in Detroit and white folks in Dearborn.  As recently as the 1980s laws were in place that were designed so that black people were not allowed to use the public parks in Dearborn. 

    Looking forward to hearing about Mr. Snow’s book.  

  • Gregg Smith

    He didn’t go to college and he paid his workers well enough to afford the cars they built… without a union. That’s a great American.

    • nj_v2

      Typical simple-minded buffoonery from Greggg.

      • Gregg Smith

        What did I get wrong?

      • http://www.facebook.com/luke.held.9 Luke Held

         I agree Gregg, I don’t get it.  You are spot on.  There is really nothing even controversial in your comment.

    • Ray in VT

      He did some great things, but he had a darker side as well.  He was pretty anti-semetic, including sort of promoting the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.  It’s terribly unfortunate.

      Ford had the good sense to treat his workers well enough to allow them to proper while still enriching himself, but workers should not need to depend upon the benevolence of their employers for their workplace rights.  That having been said, though, if some of our contemporary business leaders showed this aspect of Ford, then we as a nation would likely be better off.

      • geraldfnord

        Yup, we really don’t need condescending saviours…and Ford demanded in return for his comparative benevolence the right to interfere with his employees’ private lives, sending men to check on the tidiness of their houses, their church attendance, and whether they ever drank illicit beer or liquor on their own time.

    • northeaster17

      If he did it with unions, would that make him a greater American?

      • Gregg Smith

        Only in the liberal mind, judging by what they say.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

      Does someone want to clue Gregg in to the Battle of the Overpass?

      • Gregg Smith

        I’ve never head of it, please do. I’ll wait.

  • nj_v2

    The American Experience series had a good documentary on Ford a couple of months ago.


  • PithHelmut

    Henry Ford built car (bodies) from industrial hemp, 8-10 times stronger than steel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGZEMwMx2vk

    Hemp can replace paper that is traditionally made from timber. 1 acre of hemp (in one season) is equal to 4.1 acres of trees (in 10-15 years) and no dioxine. It’s a no brainer.

    • Wm_James_from_Missouri

      PithHelmut , I think you are on to something when you mention the benefits of hemp. All I know is that over the years I have read articles that speak highly of hemp. I could be that hemp is to “overpowering ” to entrenched interest. These interest must feel that they could not compete, therefore they work to prevent its’ acceptance. Hemp growers will have to find even more uses for the crop to make it irresistible. ( Silk, is another power product but not as controversial. ) Might hemp be useful in 3D printing ?

  • Charles Vigneron

    Henry Ford knew his employees wages had to be high enough, a surplus beyond the basics of food, shelter, clothing, energy, to afford buying his product. 

    In turn, communities became richer. 

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

      It was actually a win-win: The turnover in labor exceeded, I think, 80% annually.

      The need for training new employees, in time and money and diverting people who were already at work, resulted in too many employees who couldn’t or wouldn’t do the job for long enough to justify it.

      Raising the wage increased the caliber of applicant and made it a preferred place to work, and the guys who got in the gate treated it that way.

      (For a time, that is. Things deteriorated, and The Battle of The Overpass happened later.)

      In the 1980s that recognition was rerecognized in the axiom “The mythical man*-month”, which states “Adding people to a late project makes it later”.

      (*The term is now archaic.)

      • Wm_James_from_Missouri

        Was Henry Ford trying to make it hard on his competitors by raising wages ?

        • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

          Interesting idea. I don’t know that that was his aim when it was done in the mid-teens.

          At some point, when one was in Ford’s position*, there were problems of procurement and scale that other manufacturers never had to worry about.

          *With just a bit of searching, I got that the Model T had almost 50% of the US auto market in 1914. Half the market was Model Ts; the other makers, from Cadillac and Chevrolet, through Studebaker and Hudson, down to Dusquene and EMF, got to fight for the remaining 50%.

  • J__o__h__n

    I was just watching the Ric Burns New York documentary and one of the talking heads made an interesting point about the automobile being a terrible idea but one that was executed brilliantly. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/luke.held.9 Luke Held

    “baby we could use a man like Henry Ford again”.  Where are the CEO’s that get it?  Gone, gone gone.  There is no social responsibility in our new capitalism.  Capitalism has gone terribly astray in the last 40 years, after giving us so much for centuries.  Let’s bring back Ford era tax rates, to bring back our national well being.

    Ford would not have done it without a tax rate that encourages social responsibility.  2008 showed us that the market doesn’t work on it’s own, but those lessons have been largely forgotten.   Our current wealth divide is systematic, we need to focus on the system, not individuals.

    With the growing middle classes through out the world, the US is no longer the only consumer for mid level products, so business have a larger consumer base, the US middle class has become somewhat unimportant to US businesses as a result. 

    • J__o__h__n

      Since the replacement show is on quotes, the All in the Family lyric was, “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.m.cogswell John M Cogswell Jr

    Hey what happened to Hour 2 today?  It wasn’t supposed to be about quotations :o((

    • InActionMan

      My guess your local NPR station dosen’t want to broadcast an hour lauding a vicious anti-semite.

  • WorriedfortheCountry

    Huh?  The website doesn’t match the broadcast.

    • Ray in VT

      Yeah, what’s going on I wonder.  Maybe the guest backed out?

      • DrewInGeorgia

        I’m glad to see it’s back up, I was disappointed when they dropped it.

  • Agnostic58

    I must be losing it. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

    Unexpected & bizarre…wonder what happened.

  • Duxyak

    Am I the only one trapped in a time warp? I’m hearing a rerun from August 23, 2011, on quotations. Not a word yet on Mr. Ford.

  • rexhenry

    I recycle TV & movie quotes by peppering them into conversation. Maybe it’s unoriginal, but it’s a common thread between friends.

    And to alter a Dumb & Dumber quote:
    “Although slow and dangerous behind the wheel, I can still serve a purpose.”

  • Ray in VT

    I suppose that I’ve comment on quotes.  They can be great, but a number of incorrectly attributed or flat out false ones always seem to circulate.  They, like some other popular myths, like how Columbus was just about the only guy in 1492 who thought that the Earth was round, just have lives of their own.

    • Wm_James_from_Missouri

      It is a mystery how the powerful can force so many memes and false concepts on us, isn’t it ? Your post made me think of Eratosthenes .

      • Ray in VT

        In what way?  In the sense that he just about nailed the circumference of the Earth in the 3rd century B.C.E. (maybe on that one.  There might be some debate regarding what measurement he used).

        • Wm_James_from_Missouri

          Yes, that one.

          • Ray in VT

            I told some Jehovah’s Witnesses about him when the stopped by to evangelize recently.  I could not recall his name, just the general facts about his story.

  • Duxyak

    Mystery solved, courtesy WBUR twitter feed:

    Change of plan! Henry Ford author not here on time, so we’re going with
    our archive show on how great quotations shaped the world.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

      That’s what I figured. It happens in live radio. (Of course, that doesn’t make me Ellery Queen.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=745185020 Cory Heaton

    Whats going on???

  • Ray in VT

    “I love Paul Revere whether he rode or not.” – attributed to Warren G. Harding in the book with the same title by Richard Shenckman.

  • Wm_James_from_Missouri

    Ford’s 1915 trip on an ocean liner sounds fascinating. Was he “phishing” for information or trying to preempt the Vienna Circle, or what ? He sounds like a man that was stepping on boxes !

  • donniethebrasco

    Henry Ford is the most to blame for Global Warming.

    He promoted the internal combustion engine around the world.

    Without Henry Ford, there would be more Polar Bears.

  • DrewInGeorgia

    “I invented the Modern Age” ` Henry Ford
    You circumvented true evolution. ` Me

  • wauch

    Anyone who wants to become our next Henry Ford would have to be someone interested in raising – rather than suppressing – the minimum wage? Good luck with that!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

    I don’t know that a Packard–already a luxury marque–is the right kind of car to hold up as normative in the American market before the Model T.

    How about Buick or Studebaker?

  • Satwa


  • Satwa

     Henry Ford created the traffic jam from which we can now tweet or call in to On-Point.
    Henry Ford created an assembly line to make cheap goods, just like had been done in textile industry in Europe for a century.
    The real invention of the modern era is the train. half a century earlier. Look at Europe, you can pretty easily get on a train from almost anywhere in Europe, and get to almost anywhere in Europe. Try traveling around some of the biggest cities of Europe in a car. There is a 90% chance you will get stuck in a traffic jam. A train will take you right to the center of London or Paris,  Glasgow, Vienna, or Milan.
    America has been given a rum deal, and is working its way into a giant traffic jam.
    Rail is the future.
    … Tom in Vermont

  • creaker

    As much as people like to rewrite history, antisemitism at that time in the US was pretty rampant.

    • jefe68

      It was common up until the early 60′s to see “No Jews Allowed” signs in shops, restaurants, clubs and organizations.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/todd.wheeler.writer Todd Wheeler

    The Ford industrial success often cited in the obsession of the time with efficiency and time management. This was applied to many areas of life including education and spurred ‘assembly line’ like changes to schools that regrettably continue to this day.
     - resource “Education and the Cult of Efficiency” by Raymond Callahan.
     - Todd in Somerville, MA

  • MatthewNashville

    Hmmm, sense of entitlement.  Did we move on from the last conversation?

  • ToyYoda

    Tom, can you ask your guest what would Henry Ford think of the world today?  Car use is down, and young people would prefer to take public transportation or biking.  Also, cars is a big culprit in global warming.

  • creaker

    The one thing that is just about gone, and will never come back, is the age of middle class laborers. Ford drove this, but it’s something that is past its time and has been replaced with technology and globalization.

    • Shag_Wevera

      Yesiree, creaker.

  • madnomad554

    Henry Ford…the indirect inventor of $4 gas. Irony can be a two headed serpent.  

  • geraldfnord

    Ford’s anti-semitism wasn’t limited to the “Independent”—he actively supported Hitler’s ascension to power (not as much as Fritz Thyssen or Benito Mussolini, but enough to win those medals), in the process ironically (in the morisettish sense of the word) becoming a shadowy International Bankroller.


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1017530103 Peter Alvin

    It can be argued that the disruptive Ford of today is Tesla’s & Space X’s Elon Musk.  His primary GOAL is to CHANGE SOCIETY for the better.

    • RobertLongView

      You mean Henry Ford put a lot of buggy whip mafg out of business?

  • http://www.facebook.com/randy.kangas.7 Randy Kangas

    Fordlandia wasn’t mentioned on the show. This could be an entire Show of it’s own; A Rubber Colony Ford started in Brazil which didn’t endure: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fordl%C3%A2ndia

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