I Invented the Modern Age – Q & A

What got you interested in writing this book?

I came across the statement that gives it its title. Toward the end of his life Henry Ford was being interviewed by a boy for his high school newspaper and he started getting nostalgic about the days of the one-rooms schoolhouse and old-time square dancing. The boy found this pretty boring. “But Mr. Ford,” he said, “That’s all very well, but this is the modern age.” Ford cut him right off: “Young man,” he snapped, “I invented the modern age.” It struck me that he hadn’t said, “I made a hell of a lot of automobiles.” He claimed credit for the world he and his interviewer inhabited.

This seemed slightly crazy to me. But I started reading about Ford, and the more I learned, the more I thought he had a right to the megalomaniac boast. If our times could be said to be the product of a single inventor, it was Ford. And I began to want to write about how he did it.

It’s quite a claim. How did he do it?

First, with his Model T, which he called “the universal car.” He was a Michigan farm boy, born during the Civil War into a world without cars, and he said his earliest memory was feeling there was too much work on the farm, and that machines should lift the labor off human shoulders. By the time he was thirteen he wanted to make an automobile. He educated himself in the machine shops of Detroit--the young city had a thousand of them--and he was a great student. All his life he had an almost eerie affinity toward machinery; when he was in his seventies he could look at a dozen identical carburetors laid out on a bench and point to the one that wasn’t working properly.

He built his first working car in 1896, used it to get backers for a car company, put that company out of business and did the same to a second one. He just wasn’t ready to build cars in any number yet, but on the third try he got it right. He founded the Ford Motor Company in 1903 and was selling successful cars by the next year. But in every car he sold he saw lurking the ghost of a greater car.

That was the Model T. He launched it in 1908, and it changed his world, and ours. It was as ugly and dependable as a cast-iron stove, simple to repair, possessed of a cranky, mercurial personality that its owners saw as near human, but always came through in a pinch. And Ford wanted to get it into everybody’s hands. At a time when a motorcar might cost $6,000--three times the price of a comfortable suburban home--he kept finding ways to make his ever cheaper. It cost $850 at the beginning of its twenty-year run and $290 at the end.

People bought it by the millions, and in a decade it broke the age-old isolation of the farm, began to change social patterns, and finally remade our society.

You make it sound revolutionary.

It most certainly was. We Americans have been through three great technological revolutions in our national history, events big enough not only to change the way we do things, but the very way we think. In the 1820s it was steam, and right now it’s the microprocessor...

...And in the early twentieth century it was the Model T?

Yes, but what Ford accomplished was more than making a fantastically popular automobile. In order for that car to do what it did, it had to be deployed in staggering numbers. And make that possible, Ford had to develop a new system of production. By the end of the first decade of the century he was turning out several hundred cars a day, which shows impressive organization and planning. But there’s a huge difference between quantity production and mass production, and it was by inventing the latter that he invented the modern age.

Put simply, when Ford was starting out one of his workers assemble a carburetor by doing thirty things. Ford thought that thirty workers doing one thing each might speed up the process--one worker putting a screw in the carburetor and passing it over to his neighbor, who would tighten that screw, and so forth. And sure enough, when each worker was doing a single, simple, repetitive job, the carburetor got finished faster. Ford then had moving assembly lines put in, which meant that the work came to the worker instead of the worker coming to the work. When the moving lines spread through his entire factory, the Ford Motor Company was turning out a finished car every ten seconds. The process brought economies that allowed him to double the wages of his workers at a stroke in 1913--the famous “five dollar day”--so that they could afford to become his customers. And this started a cycle of consumerism that is with us yet.

When the process spread to other industries it brought on the full power and wealth of twentieth century America: we became the most prosperous nation in the history of the world; and when the need arose, we had the industrial muscle to beat Hitler.

Where did Ford go from there?

He couldn’t figure that out, and his failure to do so turns his story into something very close to a tragedy. I know of no other inventor who had so close an emotional tie to his invention as Henry Ford did to his model T. To him it was more than a wonderful generator of wealth, it was a moral force. It was all the car people needed, and no more. It was perfect, and you can’t perfect perfection.

It’s weird to read about his life, because I know of no other figure who was a genuinely great young man--altruistic, friendly, civic-minded--and quite a terrible older one, and this change in his personality seems to have taken place in the span of just a couple of years.

What made him change?

Insofar as the causes are knowable at all, I believe the main one was frustration. In 1919 he was selling one of every two cars on the American road, but already a new generation of carmakers was seeing the automobile as more than an object of utility. It had become an object of desire as well.

Edsel Ford, Henry’s only child, understood this. Edsel was, as the industry’s high accolade put it, “a real car man.” Henry had received the unlikely blessing of a son who was perfectly suited to lead the company into its second generation. Edsel understood that that the Model was a pioneer, and its days were numbered. Ford hated the very thought of that, and he turned on his son. He made him head of the company, and never allowed him to exercise any authority. When Edsel tried to advance improved models, his father humiliated him in front of the high Ford executives. And when the executives pushed for changes on the Model T, Ford fired them in ugly ways. In the end, he was so cruel to Edsel that his grandson, Henry Ford II, once said that he believed his grandfather had killed him.

At the same time Ford launched his notorious anti-Semitic campaign. He bought a little local newspaper called The Dearborn Independent and made it national with an endless series of articles called The International Jew: Mankind’s Greatest Problem. He is probably the only person ever who believed the Jews had invented jazz (they did it to corrupt American youth, then went on to try and pollute baseball). Nobody knows quite why he battened on this prejudice. He did have a highly influential secretary named Liebold who was of German extraction and a proud anti-Semite, but Ford must have been waiting for some crusade to take up. He was wholly obtuse about the damage he was doing. Rabbi Franklin, the head of the Reformed synagogue in Detroit, was so close a friend that Ford sent him a new Model T every year. After Ford had started with the Independent, the rabbi sent back his latest Model T. Ford was astonished. His feelings were hurt. “What’s the matter, Rabbi Franklin?” he asked, “Have I done something to offend you?”

Ford eventually shut down his two-year tirade, but he had done immeasurable damage to his company (damage that almost from the moment of his death the Ford Motor Company has worked quietly and with great diligence and intelligence to redress).

Did he do anything good during the second half of his life?

Yes indeed. He set about building, in Dearborn, an immense museum devoted to the American past. As the richest man in the country, he could collect on a massive scale--he brought up from New Jersey Thomas Edison’s factory, and seven freight-car loads of New Jersey dirt so it could literally stand on its native soil--and he ended up with a town of over a hundred buildings that he called Greenfield Village, and next to it a mammoth museum. It’s called The Henry Ford today, and it’s thriving, and it deserves to: I think it’s the most interesting museum in the country.

Nevertheless, the first half of his life was by far the better half, and although I tell the whole story, I focus mainly on the years up to 1927, when he finally shut down production on the Model T. He’d made fifteen million of them by then.

What surprised you most when you were writing the book?

Something Ford said about how technology advances. It was quick and short; I almost missed it, but it made me think about something that had never occurred to me before.

In his autobiography, Ford talks about starting out and says in passing, “There was no demand for the automobile. There never is for a new product.” This completely turns upside down the old bromide about necessity being the mother of invention. Ford says exactly the opposite: It is the invention that gives birth to the necessity. And who’s to say he’s wrong? People never knew they needed an iPhone until they had one in their hands.

How was it spending three years with this man?

Never boring. But not always pleasant: how much did I want to read the book of his collected anti-Semitic broadsides? And yet, every now and then a redeeming courage gleams out at you. For one thing, it was brave of him to stake his future on producing automobiles at a time when the industry was completely fetal. He had to imagine every bolt and gasket in his first car. When he needed a carburetor, he had to invent one: there wasn’t even a word for the device.

And it’s largely forgotten that he fought alone against an absurd patent that had the whole car industry in shackles. An upstate New York attorney had somehow managed to get a patent on the idea of an automobile. His name was George Selden. He’d never built a car, but he had his patent, and every carmaker rolled over and paid him, even General Motors. But not Henry Ford; he battled the Selden patent for twelve years, and he won, and his victory liberated the entire automotive industry.

Sometimes, too, he can be extremely entertaining. He was often very funny in a quiet, almost reticent way. When he became famous, he attracted the attention of the clergy, and there were a lot of sermons about how God had led him to his success. In one particularly effulgent one the minister said that Mr. Ford kept a copy of the scriptures in every room of his mansion, so they’d always be close to hand when he needed guidance. With this in mind, a reporter asked Ford if he attended church regularly. “Nah,” he said. “The last time I went somebody stole my car.”

Looking back on Ford’s life, how would you assess his impact?

It’s hard to assess, because it’s universal. What Ford did surrounds us so completely that in some ways it’s as transparent as the air we breathe. And of course he handed us a Pandora’s box. I think what Will Rogers said seventy years ago still holds true. Rogers attended the ceremonies at Greenfield Village, and he dropped his usual friendly folksiness to tell Ford, “It may take a hundred years to tell whether you’ve helped us or hurt us, but you certainly didn’t leave us where you found us.”