Henry Ford Interview



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Henry Ford Interview

SPOKESMAN: Mr. Ford, I have been entrusted with the task of putting a number . . . The committee of which I am a member has the pleasure of informing you . . . Obliged as we are to erect a monument to that celebrity of our century who . . . The choice of your name, unanimously . . . For having exercised the greatest influence on the history of mankind . . . on the very image of man . . . Having considered your achievements and thought . . . Who if not Henry Ford has changed the world, made it completely different from what it was before him? Who more than Henry Ford has given form to our way of life? So, we would like the monument to have your approval . . . We would like you to tell us how you would prefer to be portrayed, against what background . . .

HENRY FORD: As you see me now . . . Amongst birds . . . I had five hundred aviaries like this . . . I called them bird hotels; the biggest was the housemartin house, with seventy-six apartments; winter and summer if they came to me birds would always find food, shelter and water to drink. I had baskets hung from the trees on wires and filled with bird seed all winter long, and drinking bowls with electric elements so that the water wouldn't freeze. I had artificial nests of various kinds put up in the trees: the wrens prefer swinging nests that sway in the wind; that way there's no danger the sparrows will set up there, since they only like very stable nests. In summer I had the cherries left on the trees and the strawberries on their bushes so that the birds would find their natural food. Every species of bird in the USA passed by my house. And I imported birds from other countries: buntings, chaffinches, robin redbreasts, starlings, bullfinches, jays, linnets . . . about five hundred species in all.

SPOKESMAN: But, Mr. Ford, I wanted to talk . . .

HENRY FORD: (suddenly rigid, extremely alert, furious) Why do you imagine birds are just something graceful to enjoy for their feathers and warblings? Birds are necessary for strictly economic reasons! They destroy damaging insects! Did you know that the only time I mobilized the Ford organization to solicit intervention from the United States government was for the protection of migratory birds. An excellent law had been drawn up for establishing reserves, but it risked getting bogged down in Congress where they could never find the time to pass it. Of course: birds don't vote! So I asked every one of Ford's six thousand agents, spread all over the USA, to send a telegram to their representatives in Congress. That was when Washington began to take the problem seriously . . . The law was approved. You must understand that I never wanted to use the Ford Motor Company for political ends: each of us has a right to his own opinions and the company mustn't interfere with them. On that occasion the end justified the means, I think, and it was the only exception.

SPOKESMAN: But Mr. Ford, enlighten me please: you are the man who changed the image of our planet through industrial organization, motorization . . . What have little birdies got to do with that?

HENRY FORD: What? You're another one who thinks that the big factories have wiped out trees, flowers, birds, greenery? Quite the contrary! It's only when we learn how to exploit cars and industry as effectively as possible that we will have the time to enjoy nature! My position is very simple: the more time and energy we waste, the less is left to enjoy life. I don't consider the cars that bear my name as mere cars: I hope they will serve to demonstrate the effectiveness of my philosophy . . .

SPOKESMAN: You mean that you invented and manufactured and sold automobiles so that people could get away from the factories of Detroit and go and hear the birds singing in the woods?

HENRY FORD: One of the people I most admired was a man who dedicated his life to watching and describing birds, John Burroughs. He was a sworn enemy of the automobile and all technical progress! But I managed to make him change his mind . . . The happiest memories of my life go back to the weeks spent together on a vacation I organized with Burroughs himself, and my other mentors and closest friends, the great Edison, and Firestone, the tyre man . . . We travelled in a caravan of cars, across the Adirondack Mountains, and the Alleghenys, sleeping under canvas, gazing at the sunsets, the dawns over waterfalls . . .

SPOKESMAN: But don't you think that an image like this . . . in relation to what people know about you . . . Fordism . . . is, how can I put it?, misleading . . . doesn't it shirk everything essential?

HENRY FORD: No, no, this is what is essential. American history is a history of journeys between boundless horizons, a history of means of transportation: the horse, the wagons of the pioneers, the railroads . . . But only the automobile has given Americans America. Only with the automobile have they become masters of the length and breadth of the country, each individual master of his own means of transport, master of his time, in the midst of this immensity of space . . .

SPOKESMAN: I must confess that the idea we had for your monument . . . was a little different . . . a backdrop of factories . . . of assembly lines . . . Henry Ford, the creator of the modern factory, of mass production . . . The first automobile for the common man: the famous Model T . . .

HENRY FORD: If it's an epigraph you're after, sculpt out the text of the announcement I used to launch the Model T on the market, in 1908. Not that I ever needed any advertising for my cars, mind! I always maintained that advertising was pointless, a good product doesn't need it, it is its own advertisement! But that leaflet expressed the ideas I wanted to get across. It's in advertising as education that I believe! Read it, read it.

'I shall build an automobile for the masses. It will be large enough for a family, but small enough to satisfy the needs of the individual. It will be built with the best materials and by the best men available on the market, following the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be priced so low that no man with a decent salary shall be unable to possess it and enjoy together with his family the blessing of a few hours' pleasure in God's great open spaces.'

SPOKESMAN: The Model T . . . For almost twenty years the factories of Detroit produced this car and no other . . . You spoke of the needs of individuals . . . But you're quoted as making this joke: 'Every client can have his car in his favourite colour, so long as it's black.' Did you really say this, Mr. Ford?

HENRY FORD: Sure, I said it and I wrote it too. How do you think I managed to get my prices down, to put my cars within the reach of everyone's pocket? Do you think I could have done that if I'd introduced new models every year, like ladies' bonnets? Fashion is one of the forms of waste I most detest. My idea was a car whose every component could be replaced, so that it need never grow old. It was the only way I could transform the car from being a luxury item, a prestige accessory, to an essential product everyone must have, one whose worth lies in its utility . . .

SPOKESMAN: That marked a big change in industrial practices. From then on the efforts of world industry have aimed to satisfy the common consumer, and to increase the demand for consumer goods. That is precisely why industry has tended to design products with built-in obsolescence, things to be thrown out as soon as possible, so that other products can be sold . . . The system you introduced had consequences which run contrary to your basic ideas: things are produced that soon wear out, or go out of fashion, so as to leave room for other products that are no better than the first but seem newer, products whose fortunes depend entirely on advertising.

HENRY FORD: That wasn't what I wanted. Change only makes sense before you have reached that unique optimum method of production that must exist for every product, the way that will guarantee the maximum economy with the highest yield. There is one method and only one method for making everything in the best possible way. Once you've got there, why change?

SPOKESMAN: So your idea is for a world where all cars are the same?

HENRY FORD: No two things are the same in nature. And the idea that all men are the same and equal is mistaken and disastrous. I've never worshipped equality, but I didn't make a monster out of it either. Even if we do all we can to manufacture identical cars, made of identical components, so much so that any component can be taken from one car and mounted on another, the sameness is no more than apparent. Once you've put it on the road, every Ford handles a little differently from other Fords, and after he's tried a car a good driver will be able to distinguish it from all the others, all he has to do is sit at the wheel, turn the ignition key . . .

SPOKESMAN: But this world you've helped create . . . weren't you ever afraid that it might be terribly uniform, monotonous?

HENRY FORD: It's poverty that's monotonous. It's the waste of energy and lives. The people who stood in line outside our hiring office were Italians, Greeks, Poles, Ukrainians, emigrants from all the provinces of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, crowds of them, speaking incomprehensible languages and dialects. They were nobodies, without trade or home. I made honourable men of them, I gave them all a useful job, a salary that made them independent, I turned them into men capable of running their own lives. I made them learn English and the values of our moral code: this was the only condition I imposed; if they didn't like it they were free to go. But I never turned away those who were willing to learn. They became American citizens, they and their families, on a par with those born to families here for generations. I don't care what a man has been: I don't ask him about his past, nor where he's come from, nor what he's achieved. I don't care if he's been to Harvard and I don't care if he's been to Sing Sing! I only want to know what he can do, what he can become!

SPOKESMAN: Right . . . become by conforming to a model . . .

HENRY FORD: I know what you're trying to say. I have always taken human diversity as my starting point. Physical strength, speed of movement, capacity to react to new situations are all qualities that vary from one individual to the next. My idea was this: to organize the work in my factories so that those who were unskilled or disabled could yield as much as the most skilled worker. I had each department's tasks classified according to whether they demanded unusual vigour, or normal strength and stature, or whether they might be carried out by people whose speed and physical capacities were below the average. It turned out that there were 2,637 jobs that could be entrusted to workers with only one leg (mimes mechanical operations pretending to have only one leg), 670 that could go to people with no legs (mimes as above), 715 for those with only one arm (mimes as above), 2 for those with no arms (mimes as above) and 10 jobs that could be done by the blind. A blind man given the job of counting bolts in the warehouse proved capable of doing the work of three workers with good eyes (mimes). Is this what you call conforming? I'm telling you I did everything I could to help each man overcome his handicap. Even the sick could work and earn their keep in my hospitals. In their beds. Screwing nuts on small bolts. It helped keep up morale too. They got better faster.

SPOKESMAN: But work on the assembly line . . . Being forced to concentrate your attention on repetitive movements, follow a rhythm that never changes, imposed by machines . . . What could be more mortifying for the creative spirit . . . for the most elementary freedom of having control over the movements of your own body, over the expense of your own energy in line with your own rhythm, your own breathing . . . Always to perform only one operation, one movement, always made in the same way . . . Isn't it a terrifying prospect?

HENRY FORD: For me, yes. Terrifying. For me it would be inconceivable always to do the same thing all day every day. But not everyone is like me. The great majority of men have no desire to do creative work, to have to think, decide. They simply want a job that allows them to apply the minimum amount of mental and physical strength. And for this great majority, mechanical repetition, participation in a task that has already been organized down to the last detail, guarantees perfect inner calm. Of course, they mustn't be restless types. Are you restless? Me, yes, extremely. Well then, I won't use you for a routine job. But most of the jobs in a big factory are routine and as such suitable to the great majority of the workforce.

SPOKESMAN: They are like that because you wanted them to be like that . . . both jobs and people . . .

HENRY FORD: We managed to organize the work in the way that was easiest for those who had to do it, and most profitable. I say we the 'creative' ones, if you want to call us that, we the restless ones, we who can't relax until we have found the best way of doing things . . . You know where I got the idea of the conveyor that brings the component to the worker without him having to move toward the component? In the meat-canning factories of Chicago, watching the quartered cattle hung on trolleys moving along elevated rails, to be sprinkled with salt, cut up, pulped, minced . . . The quartered cattle passing by, dangling . . . the cloud of salt grains . . . the knife blades sawing back and forth . . . and I saw the chassis of the Model T running along at hand height while the workers tightened the bolts . . .

SPOKESMAN: So creativity is reserved to the few . . . those who design . . . who take decisions . . .

HENRY FORD: No! It is extended! How many artists, real artists, were there in the past? Today we are the artists, we who experiment with production and the men who produce! In the past creative tasks were restricted to putting together colours or notes or words on a painting, a score, a page . . . And for whom in the end? For a handful of world weary idlers who hang around the galleries and concert halls! We are the real artists, we who invent the work that millions of people count on!

SPOKESMAN: But professional skill has disappeared from manual work!

HENRY FORD: Oh enough! You lot are always harping on the same note. Quite the contrary. Professional skill has triumphed, in automobile manufacture and the organization of labour, and this way it's been put at the service of those who are not skilled who can now achieve the same yields as the more talented! You know how many parts go to make up a Ford? Including screws and bolts, about five thousand: big parts, medium-sized parts, small parts and some no bigger than the cogs in a clock. Workers used to have to walk across the shop floor to look for each part, walk to take them to the part to be assembled, walk to look for a spanner, a screwdriver, a welding torch . . . The day was frittered away with this back and forth . . . Then they always ended up banging into each other, tripping over themselves, crowding each other, bunching . . . Was this the human, creative way to work you people like so much? I wanted to organize things so that workers didn't have to run back and forth through the workshops. Was that an inhuman idea? I wanted to organize things so that workers didn't have to lift and carry weights. Was that an inhuman idea? I arranged men and tools in the order of the jobs to be done, I used trolleys on rails or hanging cables, so that arm movements were kept to a minimum. Save ten thousand people just ten steps a day and you've saved sixty miles of pointless movements and ill-spent energy.

SPOKESMAN: To sum up: you wish to save your workers unnecessary movements in the building of automobiles which allow us all to live in continual movement . . .

HENRY FORD: It's time-saving, my dear fellow, in both cases. There is no contradiction! The first advertisement I used to persuade Americans to buy themselves a car was based on the old proverb 'Time is money!' It's the same at work: for each operation the worker must have the right time: not a second too little and not a second too much! And the worker's entire day must be based on the same principles: he must live near the factory so as not to lose time travelling. That's why I came to the conclusion that medium-size factories were better than enormous ones . . . and meant you could avoid big urban conurbations, slums, dirt, delinquency, vice . . .

SPOKESMAN: And yet Detroit . . . The masses who gathered in the Mid-West to look for work in Ford factories . . .

HENRY FORD: Right, I was the only one able to offer high, ever increasing salaries, in a period when no other factory owners would even consider it . . . It was hard work arguing for my idea and imposing it on the whole American economy: the idea that it's higher salaries, not higher profits that get the market moving. And to give higher salaries you have to save on the system of production. That is the only saving that's really worth making: saving not to accumulate but to increase salaries, that is purchasing power, that is abundance. The secret of abundance lies in an equilibrium between prices and quality. And it's only on abundance that you can build, not on shortages: I was the first to understand that. If a capitalist works in the hope that one day he'll be able to live off the revenue, he's a bad capitalist. I never felt I possessed anything myself, but that I was managing my property by putting the best means of production at the service of others.

SPOKESMAN: But the unions saw things differently. And for years you didn't want to have anything to do with unions . . . As late as 1937 you were paying teams of bouncers and professional boxers to stop strikes by force . . .

HENRY FORD: There were some troublemakers who wanted to stir up conflicts between Ford and the workers, conflicts for which there could be no logical reason. I had worked out everything in such a way that the workers' interests and the company's interests were the same thing! These people came up with arguments that had nothing to do with my principles, nor with the principles that arise from the laws of nature. There is a work morality, a morality of service that cannot be overturned, because it is a law of nature. Nature says: work! prosperity and happiness can only be achieved through honest toil!

SPOKESMAN: But what people called Fordism, or at least your more popular ideas about society -- stable jobs, safe salaries, a certain level of affluence -- generated new aspirations in the workers' minds. Were you aware of that, Mr. Ford? Out of a shapeless, unstable mass, you helped to create a workforce with something to defend, a workforce with dignity and with an awareness of its own value, and hence a group that demanded security, guarantees, contractual power, the right to decide its own destiny. It was what they call an irreversible process, that your paternalism could no longer either contain or control . . .

HENRY FORD: I always look to the future, but in order to simplify things, not complicate them. Yet all those engaged in planning the future, proposing reforms, seem to want nothing better than to complicate things over and over. They're all the same: reformers, theorists, politicians, even presidents: Wilson, Roosevelt. . . Again and again I found myself fighting a lone battle against a pointlessly complicated world: politics, finance, wars . . .

SPOKESMAN: You're not going to deny that wars brought certain advantages to your business . . .

HENRY FORD: Those advantages weren't part of my plans. I've always been a pacifist, no one can ever deny that. I was always against American intervention, in the First World War and in the Second. In 1915 I organized the Peace Ship, I crossed the Atlantic to Norway together with influential people from the Church, the universities and the newspapers to ask the European powers to break off hostilities. They didn't listen to me. Then my own country joined the war too. Even the Ford Company started working for the war. So I announced that I wouldn't touch a cent of the profits on war contracts.

SPOKESMAN: You promised to return those profits to the State, but it doesn't seem you ever did that . . .

HENRY FORD: After the war I had to face an extremely critical financial situation. The banks . . .

SPOKESMAN: The banks were always another of your betes noires . . .

HENRY FORD: The financial system is another pointless complication which hinders manufacturing rather than helping it. As I see it money should always come after work, as the result of work, not before. As long as I steered clear of the financial markets everything went well: I came through the Crash of 1929 because my shares weren't quoted on the stock exchange. My goal in my work is simplicity . . .

SPOKESMAN: But you played a very important role in setting up this economic system you say you don't approve of. Don't you think that rather than being inspired by simplicity, your considerations are somewhat simplistic?

HENRY FORD: When it comes to business I always relied on simple American ideas. Wall Street is another world to me . . . a foreign world . . . oriental . . .

SPOKESMAN: Just a minute, Mr. Ford . . . No doubt you have every reason to be annoyed with Wall Street. . . That's one thing, but to identify the financial world and all your enemies with people of a particular origin, a particular religion . . . to write anti-Semitic articles in your papers . . . to collect them in a book . . . to support that fanatic who was soon to seize power in Germany, these . . .

HENRY FORD: My ideas were misunderstood . . . I had nothing to do with the obscenities that were to happen in Europe . . . I was speaking for the good of America and for their good too, these people who are different from us, and who, if they wanted to take part in our community, should have appreciated what the real American principles were . . . those principles I am proud to have run my company on.

SPOKESMAN: You achieved an enormous amount in the area of manufacturing, Mr. Ford . . . And you theorized a great deal too . . . But while things always behaved as you forecast and planned, men didn't, there was always something in the human being that escaped you, that fell short of your expectations . . . Is that right?

HENRY FORD: My ambition wasn't just to make things. Iron, laminates, steel, they're not enough. Things aren't an end in themselves. What I was thinking of was a model of humanity. I didn't just manufacture goods. I wanted to manufacture men!

SPOKESMAN: Could you explain a bit more clearly what you mean by that, Mr. Ford? May I sit down? Could I light a cigarette? Would you like one?

HENRY FORD: Nooooo! You can't smoke here! Cigarettes are a vice and an aberration! Cigarettes are prohibited in Ford factories! I dedicated years of energy to the anti-smoking campaign! Even Edison said I was right!

SPOKESMAN: But Edison smoked!

HENRY FORD: Only cigars. I can forgive a cigar or two. Likewise a pipe. They are part of the American tradition. But not cigarettes! Statistics show that the worst criminals are cigarette smokers. Cigarettes lead straight to the gutter! I published a book against cigarettes!

SPOKESMAN: Don't you think that, as well as cigarettes, you might also have concerned yourself with the effects of rhythms of work on health? Or of the pollution your factories generate? Or of the stench of the exhaust emissions your cars produce!

HENRY FORD: My factories are always clean, well-lit and well-ventilated. And I can demonstrate that when it came to hygiene no one took as much care as I did. But now I'm talking about the moral aspect, the mind. For my plan I needed sober, hard-working, good-living men, with happy family lives, with clean and orderly homes!

SPOKESMAN: Is that why you set up a group of inspectors to enquire into the private lives of your employees? To stick their noses into the love affairs and sex lives of other men and women?

HENRY FORD: An employee who lives in an appropriate way will work in an appropriate way. I chose my personnel on the basis not just of their performance at work, but their morality at home too. And if I preferred to employ married men, good fathers and home-makers rather than libertines, drunkards and gamblers, there were reasons of efficiency for doing so. As far as women are concerned, I am happy to give them factory employment if they have to support their children, but if they have a husband in work then their place is in the home!

SPOKESMAN: Yet your first opponents were the pious puritans who fought against the spread of the motor car because they saw it as a danger to the family! Preachers and moralists thundered against it as something lovers could use to meet far from their parents' watchful eyes; something that encouraged families to gad about on Sundays instead of going to church; something people would mortgage their houses and dig into their sacred savings to buy; they said the car prompted an otherwise thrifty people to desire long trips and vacations; the car generated envy amongst the poor and stirred up revolutions . . .

HENRY FORD: The reactionaries are like the Bolsheviks: they can't see reality, they don't know what people need for the elementary functions of human life. I always acted in line with an idea too, I had my model. But my ideas are always applicable.

SPOKESMAN: Of course, the Bolsheviks . . . What do you think of the fact that right from the beginning Soviet communism took Fordism as its model? Lenin and Stalin admired your organization of production and to a certain extent became disciples of your theories. They too wanted the whole of society to organize itself along the lines of industrial productivity, they too wanted to have their factories and workers operate as in Detroit, they too wanted to produce a disciplined and puritanical workforce . . .

HENRY FORD: But they were unable to give their workers what I gave mine. Their austerity, like that of the reactionaries, prolonged shortages; my austerity brought abundance. But I'm not interested in what they did: my idea was an American idea, developed in relation to America, animated by the spirit of pioneers who weren't afraid of hard work and were able to adapt to the new, who were frugal and austere but wanted to enjoy the things of this world . . .

SPOKESMAN: But the America of the pioneers is gone. Wiped out by Henry Ford's Detroit . . .

HENRY FORD: I come from that old America. My father had a farm, in Michigan. I began to experiment with my inventions on the farm, financed by my father; I wanted to build practical transport vehicles for agriculture. The car was born in the country. I kept my love for the America of my childhood and my parents. As soon as I realized it was disappearing, I started buying and collecting old farm tools, ploughs, millwheels, carriages, buggies, sleds, furniture from the old wooden houses that were going to ruin . . .

SPOKESMAN: So, just as ecology originates in the culture that produced pollution, so antique dealing originates from the same culture that imposed the new things that have replaced the old . . .

HENRY FORD: I bought a traditional old tavern in Sudbury, Massachusetts, together with its swing sign and veranda . . . I even had them rebuild the unsurfaced track the wagon trails used when they headed West . . .

SPOKESMAN: Is it true that in order to bring back the atmosphere of the time of horses and stagecoaches around that old tavern, you had the highway diverted, the very highway your Ford cars were roaring along at top speed?

HENRY FORD: There's room for everything in this America of ours, don't you think? The American countryside mustn't be allowed to disappear. I was always opposed to the exodus of farmers from the country. I designed a hydroelectric station on the Tennessee to supply low cost energy to farmers. I would have given them electrical appliances, fertilizers, and they would have stayed away from the city. But neither government nor farmers would hear of it. They never understand simple ideas: there are three elementary functions in human life: farming, manufacturing and transportation. Every problem hangs on the way we grow things, the way we produce things, the way we transport things, and I always proposed the simplest solutions. The farmers' work was pointlessly complicated. Only five per cent of their energy was being spent to good use.

SPOKESMAN: So you don't feel nostalgic for that life?

HENRY FORD: If you think I miss things from the past, then you haven't understood me at all. I don't care one bit about the past! I don't believe in the experience of history! Really, filling people's heads with culture from the past is the most pointless thing you can do.

SPOKESMAN: But the past means experience . . . In the life of peoples and individuals . . .

HENRY FORD: Even individual experience serves no other purpose than to perpetuate memories of failures. The 'experts' in the factory only know how to tell you that you can't do this, that that has already been tried but doesn't work. . . If I had listened to the experts, I would never have achieved any of what I did achieve, I would have been daunted from day one, I would never have managed to put together an internal combustion engine. At the time the experts thought electricity was the solution to everything, that engines should be electric too. They were all fascinated by Edison, rightly so, and so was I. And I went to ask him if he thought I was crazy, as people were saying, because I'd set my stubborn mind to getting an engine rolling that went 'brum brum'. Then, the man himself, Edison, the great Edison, said to me: 'Young man, I'll tell you what I think. I've worked with electricity all my life. Well, electrical cars will never be able to range very far from their supply stations. No good imagining they can carry batteries of accumulators around with them: they're too heavy. And steam cars aren't ideal either: they'll always need a boiler and fire and what it takes to fuel it. But the automobile you've found is self-sufficient: no fire, no boiler, no smoke, no steam; it carries its power house around with it. That's what we were waiting for, young man. You're on the right track! Keep at it, don't lose heart! If you manage to invent a lightweight engine that fuels itself, without the need to charge itself up like a battery, you'll have a great future!'

That's what the great Edison said to me. The king of electricity was the only one who realized that I was doing something electricity could never do. No, being an expert doesn't count, what you've done doesn't count. It's what you can do and what you want to do that counts! The ideas you have for the future!

SPOKESMAN: Today your future is already the past . . . and it conditions the present for everyone . . . Tell me, when you look around today, do you see the future you wanted? I mean the future you saw when you started, when you were a young country boy in Michigan, shutting yourself away in your father's farm shed, trying out different cylinders and pistons and transmission belts and differential gears . . . Tell me, Mr. Ford, do you remember what you wanted then?



HENRY FORD: Yes, I wanted lightness, a light engine for a light vehicle, like the small gig I kept trying to fix up with a steam boiler . . . I've always looked for lightness, reducing the waste of materials and effort . . . I spent my days shut up in the garage workshop . . . From outside I caught the smell of hay . . . the whistle of the thrush from the old elm near the pond . . . a butterfly came in through the window, drawn to the glow of the boiler, it beat its wings around it, then the thump of the piston sent it flying away, silent, light . . .


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