Sat, Oct

What if Ford hadn’t succeeded?

Henry Ford’s vision was that automobiles would help to end the inherent isolation of rural, farm living.

Trust me – this month’s multi-part topic of Ford’s history had been scheduled long before the Ford Expedition became famous in Ghana for all sorts of reasons. But it sure does help for all of us to recall our experience of this iconic American brand, fifth largest in the world by sales volume. Where did it all begin?  

Shortly before midnight on a March evening in 1896, just a few months shy of his 33rd birthday, Henry Ford witnessed another inventor driving a gas-powered vehicle in Detroit, Michigan. Charles Brady King – a Cornell-trained engineer – was named the next day in the local newspapers for being the first in Detroit to design, build and drive a self-propelled automobile. 

Ford didn’t have to read the articles for a detailed account of the event—he saw the test run in person, pedalling on his bicycle behind King’s vehicle as it motored down Detroit’s cobblestone streets. 

Almost everyone knows Henry Ford encountered plenty of obstacles as he rose from obscurity to become one of the most influential American innovators of the 20th century. 

Still, it’s hard to picture the pioneer of America’s transportation revolution pedalling behind another inventor’s car, just another cyclist in the crowd trying to glimpse an internal-combustion automobile (the very machine Ford himself was working feverishly to build). 

Anyone who has chronicled the life of Henry Ford, from biographers to documentary filmmakers, points to Ford’s first ride in his Quadricycle as a triumphant moment for the inventor. More than just about any other event in Ford’s life, this moment marks the beginning of his ascent as an innovator. 

Imagine Ford on that morning in 1896: Back from his maiden voyage in his first hand-built automobile, he had no time to celebrate. First, he rushed to repair the shed, then he dashed off to his “day job” as an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company. 

He was scrambling to pay for the parts he needed for his Quadricycle, so much so that his wife Clara “wondered many times if she would live to see the bank account restored.” 

A late bloomer

At age 33, Henry Ford was far from achieving the kind of success he admired in one of his heroes, Thomas Edison. Edison was 22 when he received the first of his 1,093 U.S. patents, and by the time he was in his early 30’s, he’d invented the phonograph and a long-lasting practical light bulb in his Menlo Park Laboratory.

Henry Ford helps to dispel the myth that innovators make their mark on the world when they are young. Certainly this is true for some, including modern-day icons like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. 

But genius flourishes well past the age of 20, as has been noted in the New York Times, that Nobel Prize winners typically make significant breakthroughs in their 30’s.

Looking back through time, historians document many signature achievements in Henry Ford’s life that mark him as one of America’s greatest innovators. 

Inventors vs. innovators

Ford’s vision for building an affordable,  self-propelled vehicle was partly fuelled by his desire to relieve the burden of hard farm labour, particularly ploughing the fields, which was the life of his father and might have been his if he hadn’t followed his dreams. 

He also hoped automobiles would help to end the inherent isolation of rural, farm living. 

As those who study the lives of innovators know, there is an important distinction between invention and innovation. “An invention is something that is new and interesting. 

An innovation is something new and interesting that gets widely adopted. If you can’t get it widely adopted, it may be cool, but it’s not an innovation because it’s not really affecting the lives of very many people.”

When we step into the mindset of an innovator, we can now imagine Ford’s pursuit of King and his vehicle through the cobblestone streets of Detroit in a very different light. 

We don’t see him as a wannabe inventor chasing after another inventor’s success. We see him as an innovator who knew that what might look like failure to some is really innovation about to bloom.

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