Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 199:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 199.

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 Eagle Boat.

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 line.

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 into it.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Hounshell, D.A., Ford Eagle Boats and Mass Production during World War I. Military Enterprise and Technological Change (M.R. Smith, ed.). Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1987.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H. Lienhard.

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