The Triumph of an Idea/A Lone Pioneer
A LONE PIONEER
Half a century has passed since Henry Ford's attention was attracted to a contrivance called "a silent gas engine." A German named Otto was the inventor, and a description of the primitive affair in an English magazine caught the eye of the Michigan farm boy, who had now become a machinist in Detroit. He got a chance to repair an Otto engine at the Eagle Iron Works in 1885. The dissection of that single-cylinder machine, run by illuminating gas, marked the start of patient investigations which were to launch the era of motor transport. It marked, also, the beginning of the fifty years which we of today appraise as the period most productive of scientific achievement in the world's history.
Along with the gasoline engine, the automobile and good roads, our generation has seen the conquest of the air, the development of radio and motion pictures, the increase of safeguards for sea travel, the perfection of farming machinery, the upheaval of autocratic governments, and, perhaps most important of all, the spread of education through which the minds and hearts of men are diverted into new channels of thought and feeling. Progress in invention and industry has withstood wars and panics, has defied the periodic hysterias afflicting humanity in their wake.
In the foreground of this progress has evolved the Ford idea, at first an enthusiast's dream in a scoffing world, slowly proving its soundness by years of painstaking research, growing into a vast manufacturing structure, and finally typifying the motor age as a corner stone of our modern industrial system.
Looking backward to the year 1885, one finds it difficult to realize the changes that have come about in the half century. Kings then ruled by "divine right" over a large portion of the earth. Queen Victoria was in her forty-eighth year on the British throne, Alexander III had been Russia's czar for half a decade, a Manchu emperor reigned in China, the Hapsburgs overlorded Austria, Wilhelm II had yet three years to fret before becoming the German Kaiser. In the United States the first term of Presidentwas just beginning. General died in that summer. was three years old, Benito Mussolini a year younger. was running "the Greatest Show on Earth." The Nestor of the stage was Edwin Booth, and among the bright stars were Lester Wallack, Sir Henry Irving, Joseph Jefferson, Sarah Bernhardt, Helena Modjeska, William H. Crane, and John Drew, while the younger actors behind the footlights included Richard Mansfield, Ada Rehan, Eleonora Duse, Kate Claxton, and Lily Langtry.
Hadfield's invention of manganese steel and Parsons's steam turbine were the wonders of the past twelve-month. Only sixteen years earlier the last spike of the first transcontinental railway had been driven into a Utah desert, and twenty-one years had gone since the development of the open-hearth process, the birth of the age of steel.
The incandescent electric light was but six years old. For household and street lighting, illuminating gas had been one of the wonders of modern ingenuity until Thomas A. Edison, in 1879, completed the long series of experiments which resulted in his vacuum bulb containing a filament that emitted, when electrified, a light brighter and more serviceable than any hitherto known. Edison's interminably careful methods were exemplified by this most famous of his inventions. He spent years trying out materials for a filament, discarding platinum because of its cost, and almost abandoning carbon because it blew itself to pieces if electrified in contact with air. On discovering that the carbon would burn in a vacuum without destroying itself, he had the problem well-nigh solved. There yet remained a vast amount of detail, however, before perfection could be reached. Hundreds of materials were used for filament before the inventor decided that bamboo was the best. Thereupon he sent men all over the world to find the most superior bamboo. The Japanese variety was chosen after the search had cost $100,000. For years that fiber was used satisfactorily, until it was supplanted by a more economical filament made by squirting a solution of cellulose through glass jets into alcohol. When the alcohol coagulates, the hardened cellulose is carbonized by heat. There can be no doubt that prior to the motor age Edison's incandescent lamp was the invention which most vitally affected the everyday life of the everyday man.
In the autumn of 1885 the first electric street railway in the United States was opened in Baltimore. Even this visible marvel in transportation was regarded by the public as an achievement of limited possibilities. The idea that a horseless vehicle with no tracks beneath it would ever travel over the open road was too much for the imagination of all save a few dreamers. The "horseless carriage," of which visionaries had talked for hundreds of years, was still as distant, so far as the average man could see, as it had been when Leonardo da Vinci invented the wheelbarrow.
But Henry Ford and the other creative scientists of the day were not average men. In Ford's mind the engine that would be strong enough and light enough to propel a vehicle for passengers or freight was imminent. He was not the only inventor who worked toward the goal; but he was a lone pioneer, for only in the vaguest way did he know what the others were doing in the early stages of his experiments. Of course, as he learned in later years about the discoveries of chemists and mechanics here and abroad, he studied their findings, accepted the principles that proved valuable, and rejected ideas that failed to accord with his own conclusions. He gave credit where credit was due, never hesitating to acknowledge the achievement of a competitor. That he succeeded beyond his rivals was due to an open mind as well as to untiring persistence.
When Ford began to tinker with the Otto engine, not a yard of good road, as we understand the term today, had been laid in America. Desultory efforts to improve city streets included the building of a short asphalted pavement in Newark, N. J., in 1870. Two years afterward a brick surface was used in Charleston, W. Va., and in 1879 a part of Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington, D. C., was bedded with asphalt. Bicyclists became vocal in their demand for better roads in 1880, but in the ensuing decade the public officials who interested themselves in road improvements were rarities. The subject was regarded with the same skepticism which greeted any other innovation. It was not until 1892 that modern concrete was used for one side of a square in Beliefontaine, Ohio, and only in 1908 was the first mile of rural concrete built in Wayne County, Michigan. Incidentally, Henry Ford was a member of the county's Board of Road Commissioners in 1906-07.
But that is getting ahead of our story. When Ford developed his first definite plan of building an automobile, he thought of a car which would run on the rough roads of Detroit and its vicinity. If he visioned a six-lane concrete highway, he was dreaming as far into the future as Jules Verne dreamed when he forecast the undersea boat.
The idea of gas engines was old, but Otto's effort to put one on the market was the first sign that anybody considered them of practical use. Ford studied the contraption at odd moments in the next two years, mostly at night in his home shop, when he had finished a day's work on his regular job. He read everything within reach on scientific topics, including the tale of Gottlieb Daimler's petroleum-burning engine which was attached to a bicycle, causing great astonishment among the inhabitants of Mannheim, Germany. Doubtless he scanned, without much attention, the newspaper columns of 1886 chronicling the Chicago anarchist riots, Steve Brodie's leap from the Brooklyn Bridge, the Charleston earthquake, and the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, and in the next year the theater fires of Paris and Exeter with their hundreds of victims, and the drowning of nearly a million Chinese in the Hoang-ho River floods. It is not recorded whether he heard until afterward that Panhard and Levassor bought the French rights of Daimler's invention and in 1887 actually built a motorcar, which was an object of mirth rather than serious interest among the Parisians.
About the time this equipage was clattering over the boulevards, Ford built an engine on the Otto four-cylinder plan, with a one-inch bore and a three-inch stroke, operated by gasoline, and somewhat lighter in weight than the original. Soon afterward he returned to his father's farm, rigged up a workshop for further experiments, and married Miss Clara J. Bryant. They began their life together in a small cottage, a few months before his twenty-fifth birthday, in 1888. When he was not cutting timber, he worked on gas engines.
In the year 1888 the first pneumatic tire was produced by Dunlap, and New York had its famous March blizzard, which could not have held much interest to the young inventor, reared in a region of heavy snows. Probably he gave not a thought to the tragedy of the Austrian Crown Prince Rudolph, whose death by suicide or murder has been a historic puzzle from that day to this. Certainly he did not know that the next year, 1889, was distinguished by the birth of Richard E. Byrd, explorer and flyer, though he may have given passing notice to the inauguration of President Benjamin Harrison, the Johnstown flood, the opening of Oklahoma for settlement, and the admission of four new states: the Dakotas, Washington, and Montana. In 1890 he started to construct a double-cylinder engine, after having built various experimental engines, and decided that for transportation a single-cylinder was impracticable because its flywheel weighed too much.
At first he planned to put the double-cylinder engine on a bicycle, but figured out that with the gas tank and necessary controls it was too heavy. Moving his workshop to the shed in the backyard of a modest city house, when he accepted a $45-a-month job as engineer and machinist with the Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit, he continued experimenting in his "leisure" hours. He has said that in the years of testing and planning he was never doubtful of succeeding, and that his young wife was even more confident in the future of the gasoline-driven automobile. He called her "The Believer."
In the two-year interval before he completed his first car, minor inventions pointing toward the automobile were reported, but none that appreciably influenced Ford's activities. He stuck to his last and knew little of what was happening outside his daily routine. In the year 1890 the new states of Idaho and Wyoming were admitted into the Union, the People's party held its first convention in Kansas City, the McKinley tariff law went into effect, Chief Sitting Bull was killed in the Sioux war, and the Kingdom of the Netherlands acquired a ten-year-old queen, Wilhelmina. In 1891 a bomb thrower blew himself to pieces when trying to kill Russell Sage in New York, and his identity as a New Englander named Norcross was established through a button, the only whole thing left intact about him after the explosion. Another happening of that year was New Jersey's establishment of the first Highway Department in the country.
Random discussions of good roads had gained sufficient headway by this time to attract the attention of railway operators. One rail executive was quoted as declining to deliver material to a road contractor on the ground that he did not wish to encourage such competition. Perhaps he had just heard that in 1892 the Massachusetts Legislature voted to initiate the country's second Highway Department, an example soon followed by six other states.In the early spring of 1893, a few weeks after Grover Cleveland started his second term in the White House, a motorcar moved through a Detroit street with Henry Ford on its single seat. He had built the automobile in the previous autumn, but months of testing were needed to make it run satisfactorily. It looked like an old-fashioned buggy. In his autobiography, My Life and Work, the inventor has described the car as follows:
There were two cylinders with a two-and-a-half-inch bore and a six-inch stroke set side by side and over the rear axle. I made them out of the exhaust pipe of a steam engine that I had bought. They developed about four horsepower. The power was transmitted from the motor to the counter- shaft by a belt and from the countershaft to the rear wheel by a chain. The car would hold two people, the seat being suspended on posts and the body on elliptical springs. There were two speeds one of ten and the other of twenty miles an hour obtained by shifting the belt, which was done by a clutch lever in front of the driving seat. Thrown for- ward, the lever put in the high speed; thrown back, the low speed; with the lever upright the engine could run free. To start the car it was necessary to turn the motor over by hand with the clutch free. To stop the car one simply released the clutch and applied the foot brake. There was no reverse, and speeds other than those of the belt were obtained by the throttle. I bought the ironwork for the frame of the carriage and also the seat and the springs. The wheels were twenty-eight-inch wire bicycle wheels with rubber tires. The balance wheel I had cast from a pattern that I made, and all of the more delicate mechanism I made my- self. One of the features that I discovered necessary was a compensating gear that permitted the same power to be applied to each of the rear wheels when turning corners. The machine altogether weighed about five hundred pounds. A tank under the seat held three gallons of gasoline which was fed to the motor through a small pipe and a mixing valve. The ignition was by electric spark. The original machine was air-cooled or, to be more accurate, the motor simply was not cooled at all. I found that on a run of an hour or more the motor heated up, and so I very shortly put a water jacket around the cylinders and piped it to a tank in the rear of the car over the cylinders.
An April rain had soothed Ford's neighbors to sleep when he bounced out of his yard on the eventful night in 1893, but such were the noises of his strange vehicle that the inhabitants were aroused forthwith. Faces appeared at all the windows roundabout. Mrs. Ford stood on the front steps, watching her husband as he vanished jolting and clattering into the farther reaches of Bagley Avenue.
For a long time the gasoline buggy was the only automobile in Detroit. The police and the owners of frightened horses viewed it with suspicion. Wherever it appeared, traffic was blocked and curious pedestrians gathered to ask questions. The owner was obliged to tether the car to a lamp-post if he left it unattended, for somebody was always ready to take a chance at running it. At last he had to get a special permit from the mayor, thus acquiring, as he has related, "the dis- tinction of being the only licensed chauffeur in America."
For the first performances of his automobile Henry Ford happened to choose an eventful year. History, both scientific and political, was busy in the making through 1893. Edison invented his motion-picture ma- chine. A peculiarly fitting coincidence of the year was the establishment of the Federal Office of Road Inquiry by Congressional order. Few if any of the Solons in Washington knew Henry Ford. None of them, in all probability, believed in horseless vehicles, nor indeed were the lawmakers of the nation or the states destined to show any faith in useful motor transport during that decade. The Federal Office of Road Inquiry and the new State Highway departments were due to the bicycle craze rather than the coming of motors. However, the movement for good roads began to find support at just the right time to aid in developing the motorcar, Toward the end of the year there was another spurt of concrete paving in Bellefontaine, the Ohio town which was for a long time the only community interested in the sort of road surface the whole country would eventually demand.
The year's record of notable events included the deaths of ex-President Rutherford B. Hayes, James G. Blaine, and Edwin Booth. Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr., of Chicago was assassinated. Two kings who now occupy their thrones were born, Carol of Rumania and Prajadhipok of Siam, and the motion-picture star, Mary Pickford. The World's Fair was opened in Chicago that year.
With omens of progress on all sides, Ford probably regarded the depression of '93, if he thought about it at all, as a passing phase which would be superseded by better and better times. In the miracle story of the Ford car optimism has been the keynote, from the gasoline buggy to the V-8. No panic could be so fearsome, no depression so disastrous, no war so terrible, that the Ford forecast failed to register a tide of rising prosperity. And behind the optimism was a continuing faith that the power of machinery and engineering must relieve mankind of drudgery and afford time for the enjoyment of life. While Henry Ford had not formulated in the two-cylinder epoch all his economic theories of later years, he was committed from boyhood to a supreme belief in the adequacy of science for maintaining the world's progress. The only delay in moving forward, as he demonstrated in his early experiments, was the caution which must temper a true scientist's enthusiasm.
With such caution, but with a background of complete confidence, he proceeded to build engine after engine, car after car; eagerly though he sought to improve his product, he threw away no old ideas until study and tests proved the value of the new. His gasoline buggy of 1893 was as carefully planned and built, in view o the experience then available, as the more elaborate automobiles of later decades.
He ran this first car a thousand miles, sold it for two hundred dollars, because he needed the money, and after a few years bought it back to keep as a curk).