Thursday, January 15, 2015

Celtic Corner - January 2015


Some more stories about the Irish Immigrants

          Legend has it that auto baron Henry Ford had a unique way of firing people. An employee would leave on a Friday and return on Monday to find his office cleaned out and a notice that he was no longer employed by the company.

          Three things are known for certain about Henry Ford: He revolutionized the automobile worldwide; he brought into being something called the production line, which revolutionized industry; and he changed the way America lived. Before Ford, there was the horse and buggy. After Ford, there was the motorcar.

          Members of the Ford family started to come from County Cork to Dearborn, Michigan in 1832. William, Henry’s father and a host of uncles and aunts arrived in the area in the 1840’s, driven from Ireland by the potato famine.

          Michigan was a good place to emigrate to. At the time, anyone could buy an acre of land for the munificent sum of ten shillings, about $1.20 in American money. The immigrants bought every square inch of soil they could afford and then set about farming it. At harvest time, the produce was sold in Detroit, which was not so far away that it couldn’t be reached by horse drawn carts.

Henry, born two years before the Civil War ended, worked on his family’s land. But when he was sixteen, he took a part time job at a machine shop, where he could exercise his interest in inventing and how mechanical things work.

          He then went to work for the Detroit Edison Company and by the time he was thirty had worked his way up to being chief and was responsible for that city’s electricity.

          The job allowed him a lot of free time. While he had to be on call twenty four hours a day, circumstances rarely required his presence. He was able to bury himself in his shop where in 1893 he constructed a gasoline engine that was an improvement over those that then existed. Three years later he invented an ungainly, spidery looking thing with four wheels that was part bicycle, part car. He called it the “quadricycle” or “horseless carriage”.

          Over the next few years, he improved the horseless carriage and in 1903 he felt he had developed a marketable car. With just $28,000 Ford incorporated the Henry Ford Company.

          His company was a success (he publicized it by racing his cars; he himself drove a “999” to a world record, covering a mile in 39.4 seconds) and was almost immediately pounced on by the Licensed Auto Manufacturers, who said he couldn’t use the gasoline engine, which they claimed had been patented in 1895. Ford disagreed, saying his engine was different from the original. They went to court and in 1909 Ford lost. But in 1911 he won an appeal.

          In 1908 Ford told the world that he would build a car for the masses and he did. The Model T sold more than fifteen million vehicles and Ford captured half the world market.

          At the core of his success was not just the car, which was well made, but the value consumers’ received for their money. In 1908 the Model T cost $950, but because of Ford’s innovations on the production line and because of his willingness to pay his workers double what other auto manufacturers did and thus encourage them to greater productivity, in 1927 he was able to produce a Model T that sold for less than $300.

          To get supplies for his cars, Ford bought the producers-the mines, forest, glassworks, rubber plantations of the raw materials needed, as well as ships and trains to transport the materials. His cash flow was so great that he could finance these purchases himself.

          While Ford had a passion for building cars and other mechanical items, he had a deep interest in other activities as well. One was country dancing, which he remembered fondly form his youth. In fact he had met his wife, Clara (whom he married in 1888), at a square dance. In 1900 he set about to bring country dancing back into public consciousness.

          He also brought it back into the consciousness of his employees whether they liked it or not. Here, his dictatorial side showed. He made learning square dancing mandatory for his executives actually curtaining off a large area in one of

the laboratories to serve as a dance studio.

          He also had members of his company research county dancing thoroughly to make sure the steps were correct and he ultimately wrote a book on the subject entitle Good Morning-After a Sleep of Twenty Years, Old Fashioned Dancing Is Being Revived by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford. Ultimately, Ford would push and support country dancing to the point where it became part of the curricula of many colleges.

          Though Ford’s car and production line achievement helped eliminate the old ways things were done and the way people lived, he never lost a liking of things from yesteryear. To help preserve those traditions, he built Greenfield Village near Detroit, which sought to reproduce things the way they had been when he was a boy.

          And his admiration for Thomas Alva Edison (he once wrote in one of his notebooks, “God needed Edison”) was reflected in his Greenfield Village duplication of the Menlo Park, New Jersey laboratories where Edison had invented so much. Ford had worked for Edison and regarded him as his mentor. Early on, when he had been working on the gasoline engine, Edison had encouraged him to continue rather than get involved with steam or some other fuel system.

          In the 1930s the fortunes of the Ford Motor company declined. The successor to the Model T, the Model A, did not sell as well and across the 1930s the graph line showing the company’s sales continued downward. But when World War II came along and with it the demand for thousands of new vehicles, Ford rebounded.

          Ford was a tough man, but the great sadness in his life, the one thing he could never put behind him, was the death of his son Edsel of cancer in 1943. It is said the heart went out of him not only for business but for life itself. Two years after this, he handed the reins (or steering wheel) of the company to his grandson Henry II.

          He died four years after Edsel and gave his shares of the company to the Ford Foundation, instantly making it a leading philanthropic organization.


Athbhliain faoi mhaise dhuit! = Happy New Year!

Pronounce it something like: /ah-vleen fwee vosh-ah ghwitch


Frank Darcy