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Originally published Sunday, June 30, 2013 at 5:04 AM

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Henry Ford: industrial radical, entrepreneur, idea man

In “I Invented the Modern Age,” Richard Snow tells the story of the industrial radical Henry Ford, concentrating on the creative half of the business titan’s career.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford’

by Richard Snow

Scribner, 384 pp., $30

A century ago, the Ford Model T changed America. Its creator, Henry Ford, was a kind of industrial radical and for several decades was the most famous businessman in the country.

In “I Invented the Modern Age,” Richard Snow, a former editor of American Heritage magazine, focuses on the first half of Ford’s career — the creative half. Here is Ford the obsessive tinkerer who fathered the Ford Model T, which was in production from 1908 to 1927.

The “Tin Lizzie” was the first car mass-produced for the people, and it demanded a lot of its drivers. For example, it had no gas gauge. Writes Snow, “You dipped the stick into the tank and checked how many inches came up damp.” Early Model Ts had to be cranked to start. Then again, they were also the first mass-produced cars with an engine block made from one piece of steel.

The Ford Motor Co. was the industrial Microsoft of its day. At one point the minority shareholders of the vastly profitable enterprise took its creator to court, demanding that he pay dividends rather than use their profits to lower the price of the car. The court ruled for the shareholders. Ford bought them out.

Ford was the only holdout against patent attorney George Selden, who had never made a car, but had filed a patent and began demanding royalties of the companies that did make cars. Selden beat the companies in district court, and they started paying — except Ford. He took it to appeals court and won.

The high point of the Ford story is the $5, eight-hour day, which Ford declared in 1914. It was double the pay for a working day that was one hour shorter. It is usually said that Ford doubled his workers’ pay so they could to buy the product they produced, but that wasn’t the reason. It was to stop so many from quitting because of the monotony of the assembly line. It was also showmanship and some paternalistic idealism.

Ford’s later career is riddled with bad decisions. He hung on to the Model T too long, and on to company power too long, ignoring the sensible counsel of his son, Edsel. Ford drove away his top managers, one of whom, William Knudsen, became president of Chevrolet. In the 1930s he employed the thuggish Harry Bennett to enforce conformity and stamp out unionism. And in the 1920s Ford put out a newspaper that ranted against the Jews, kept it going under protest from the Ford dealers, and shut it down only when one of its targets sued the paper for libel.

Snow’s book wraps up at the end of the production of the Model T in 1927. His interest is in the entrepreneur and idea man, impatient with drudgery and eager to make the future happen. His book is a fine picture of that man: nervous, driven, firing on all cylinders.

In company meetings, Snow writes, “Sometimes in the middle — or at the beginning — of one, he’d spring up as if he had to go to the bathroom, or mumble that he’d forgotten to check something, always giving the impression that he’d be right back. He never came back.”

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.

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