Today, Henry Ford
oversteps himself. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Henry Ford worked miracles
in producing automobiles, and it did not make a
humble man of him. In his later life he failed in a
bid for a senate seat. Then he turned right around
to consider running for president.
The year after he set up his first Model-T assembly
line in 1913, German U-boats began torpedoing
Allied shipping. U-boats were a new threat that had
to be fought with new weapons. At first the Navy
did what it could with destroyers. Then it hired
civilian yacht-builders to make wooden subchasers
110 feet long. They were fast and light, and they
looked like yachts, right down to the brass trim.
Finally, the Navy decided it needed something in
between -- a 200-foot steel subchaser called an
In January 1918 the Navy hired Henry Ford to build
a hundred Eagle Boats. Ford wasn't shy about the
challenge. Six months earlier, he'd told the press
with a straight face: "I can build 1000 small
submarines ... a day."
Ford set up three side-by-side assembly lines, each
a third of a mile long. He started in May and
launched the first boat in July. After that he was
supposed to make a boat a day, but things began
going wrong. The first Eagle Boat couldn't be
commissioned for three months. A year after he'd
begun, he'd produced only 17, and their record was
checkered at best.
Ford had purposely walked around Navy expertise. He
wasn't going to be slowed by conventional
ship-building ideology. After all, how different is
a ship from a model-T?
He found there was a big difference. His first
boats leaked oil out and water in. Ford's workers
hadn't mastered ship riveting. They got into
trouble using ladders so they wouldn't have to
erect scaffolds. Ford simply didn't realize how
much specific craftsmanship was involved in
shipbuilding. The Navy cut his contract to 60
boats, and Ford delivered them over a year after
the war ended. They needed fitting and
retrofitting, and then they functioned no better
than all right. They were awkward at sea. Within
five years, three were lost in accidents. When
WW-II began, only eight of the 60 were still in
use, and then only in American coastal waters. A
German torpedo took one of them.
But WW-II was a new ballgame. Now Ford boasted that
he could build 1000 airplanes a day. He did build
bombers during the war but nothing like 1000 a day.
They, too, involved specific craftsmanship that
painstakingly had to be built into a production
Production miracles really did flow from Ford's
self-confidence. But he sometimes forgot that good
technology is a complex fabric woven into people's
hearts and imaginations -- that a good production
line has to have that inner soul of a craft woven
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds