The Astonishing Ignorance, and Brilliance, of Henry Ford

Henry Ford is heralded today as a technological genius, a brilliant capitalist, even a kind and generous moralist fighting for the rights and wages of commoners. He is often referred to as the inventor of the modern age.

Quotes from Henry Ford are plastered on notecards and in boardrooms everywhere.

“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”

“Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.”

“You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.”

Great quotes from a great inventor.

Look again. The remarkable things you know about Ford are true. What you may not know is that during his lifetime, Henry Ford was famously ignorant. There was no end to what he didn’t know. As historian John Stadenmaier put it, “he was revealed to be pathetically inarticulate and ill-informed. The stuff he didn’t know was amazing to people.” He lived his entire life near Detroit, and showed little interest in the world outside the walls of his mind.

Ford was ridiculed by the Chicago Tribune for his shocking idiocy. The world became enthralled by his obtuse ideas. Ford believed the earth could not carry the weight of skyscrapers. He believed Benedict Arnold was a writer. He had no sense, or interest, in history whatsoever. As he put it, “I don’t know much about history, and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition.”

Ford was oddly eccentric. He refused to vote, citing complete lack of interest in politics. He became infatuated with soybeans, and would wear suits made of soy, and serve nothing but soy meals to his guests. He attempted to purchase a tract of land in the Amazon and name it Fordlandia, with the sole purpose of supplying his company with rubber for his tires. He created a newspaper based on the notion of assembly-line writing, in which one writer contributed facts, another writer the opinion, another writer the humor, and so on. It was ghastly boring, prompting one critic to call his paper, “the best weekly ever turned out by a tractor plant.”

Henry Ford certainly did take action. He got things done. Early in his career, young Ford launched a car manufacturing company with a paltry $28,000 sourced from a variety of private investors, but ran into opposition from bigger manufacturers who claimed Ford was infringing on their patent. A few years earlier, in 1895, George Selden applied for, and was granted, a patent for the basic design of an automobile before the car industry even got off the ground.

Ford and his investors contested that patent for eight years, and finally won the right to produce their own automobiles. Ford’s final testimony included the comment, “It is perfectly safe to say that George Selden has never advanced the automobile industry in a single particular…and it would perhaps be further advanced than it is now if he had never been born.”

And with that legal win, Ford and his investors set off to build the Ford Motor Comapny empire, which made automobiles affordable and accessible to middle and lower-class Americans, and cemented his iconic name into the history books as a master capitalist, and brilliant inventor. He is even attributed a social and economic theory known as “Fordism” which, among other things, professes to create unskilled employment, adaptive assembly-line construction of goods, and – perhaps most importantly – the notion that the workers themselves could afford to purchase the goods they created.

Ford did indeed make remarkable contributions to our modern lives, and helped to transform industrialized economies. But my point here is that there is always more to the story. It’s worth a second look, a deeper dive.

Question what you know. It’s how things change.

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SmallActs-3DShawn Hunter is President and Founder of Mindscaling, a company building beautiful online learning courses based on the work of best-selling authors. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, (Routledge) just released. You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? Let’s talk.

Twitter: @gshunter