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63 of 66 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The life of the mechanical, marketing, and industrial genius who changed America forever
While the name of Henry Ford is still synonymous with automobiles and assembly lines, he does not fill the popular culture as he did even as late as the 1970s. This excellent book is not only a biography of the man, it discusses the cultural icon and how it was made and remade. We see a mechanical genius who "read machines as other men read books" and watch his fabulous...
Published on November 4, 2005 by Craig Matteson

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Never Quite Comes Together
This is a competent biography of Henry Ford, whose Model T changed the American landscape. It was enjoyable and I learned a lot about the man I did not know before, but I have to confess the book itself was somewhat disjointed.

Watts uses each chapter to detail one aspect of Ford's life, which may seem valid enough. But here the resulting picture is...
Published 7 months ago by Brian Lewis


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63 of 66 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The life of the mechanical, marketing, and industrial genius who changed America forever, November 4, 2005
While the name of Henry Ford is still synonymous with automobiles and assembly lines, he does not fill the popular culture as he did even as late as the 1970s. This excellent book is not only a biography of the man, it discusses the cultural icon and how it was made and remade. We see a mechanical genius who "read machines as other men read books" and watch his fabulous success with the Model-T and the Highland Park plant.

Steven Watts has organized this book so that it flows more or less chronologically in the broad sweep, but each chapter is really a different topic that exemplifies a certain stage in Henry Ford's life. Within each chapter, the author feels free to swing into the past and recapitulate events that he has discussed previously but now fleshes out or to take us into the future to see how a certain aspect of his life played out in Ford's later life.

One of the important reasons to read these kinds of histories is that without them our past becomes flattened and we lose the sense of what happened when and why. We tend to remember a couple of events that we think are important because we remember them, but we have no context and often jumble their actual historical context and meaning. For example, the famous $5 a day is easy to misunderstand unless you also add in Ford's starting an organization that worked with his workers and their families (or intruded on them, depending on your position) to make sure they were using all that money properly. Also, not every worker was eligible for that wage. Single women without dependents could not sign up for that program.

Ford also was a master of publicity. He kept himself in the limelight, partly as a way of not having to pay for advertising. However, he also was jealous of anyone in his company who got attention in the press. More than a few found their careers ended when Ford felt they were stepping into his limelight.

One of the areas where Ford hurt himself was in the kind of bullying yes men he hired to run his company for him. And for all his talk of progressive values and consumerism, he still treated his workers as cogs in the machine, to be used and disposed of as needed. He felt that their pay was sufficient to warrant his freedom to do with his company as he wished without further regard to how it affected the lives of the tens of thousands who depended on his company for their living. After all, it was Henry's company, and he simply hired them to do a job. If they couldn't do the job because they were sick or old or if he had to retool or anything else, they were out the door and left to their own devices. During the depression, they drove the men even harder to produce. Even talking on the job was grounds for dismissal. If you had time to talk, you weren't working hard enough or paying enough attention to your task.

Another problem we have with historical figures is that we tend to assign one judgment to an entire life. All of us have many aspects to our life, the difference was the scale of Henry Ford's life. There is the boy who had no use for school, but loved tinkering with machines and engines. Then there is the skilled and valuable employee who came to the attention of Thomas Edision; Ford's idol. You then have to look at the various car companies he started with investors, much to their consternation. Ford never took orders or took other's desires or wishes into much consideration (except for his wife, Clara). When he was a huge success with the Model-T some of the investors wanted dividends paid out rather than letting the company horde the cash. The Dodge brothers actually sued him, and won. It wasn't long until Ford bought all of them out, secretly of course.

It is unfathomable today that one man would own something as large as the Ford Motor Company was back then and build something as gargantuan as the River Rouge plant. When that plant was built it marked a turning point in Ford's life, and not all for the better. He had always had a strained relationship with his son, Edsel. Even when Henry put Edsel in charge of the company, it was Henry who retained all the power. He kept complaining that Edsel was too soft. Later in life, he said he was trying to get Edsel to get mad. However, it is unfair to ask a son to fight his father. And how can anyone fight a Henry Ford. One time, the Rouge Plant needed more steel making capacity and Edsel authorized the building of new furnaces. Rather than immediately countermanding the authorization, as he had so many of Edsel's decisions, he purposefully waited until they were built and running to give the order to tear them down.

Yet, when Edsel became ill and died in 1943 at the age of 49, it was a crushing blow for Henry. His relationship with his son was one of the great failures in his life.

There is so much to talk about in discussing this very complex colossus. There is the building of Greenfield Village, his dabbling in farming and his views of putting industrial plants in rural areas so men could make money in the factories during the winter, but farm during the summer. His views on education, his revival of old fashioned ballroom dancing that became a national craze, his fighting the unions until his wife Clara told him she would leave him if he didn't agree to the settlement, and so much more.

However, I do wish the author hadn't resorted to calling so many of Ford's attitudes and values Victorian and letting that pass for an explanation. It is really a quite meaningless label. Everyone thinks they know what it means, but few will agree on much except sexual repression, and that is really a mischaracterization as well. And someone as American as Henry Ford a Victorian? No, there is a lot more to the origins of those values than that easy bumper sticker of a term.

Also, there is never a discussion of the tycoon's wealth in detail. If you are going to use the term tycoon in the title, you really should devote a couple of pages describing how large the fortune became and what happened to it rather than simply describing the accumulation and charity as parts of other anecdotes, but hese are just quibbles. This is a very good book and I hope everyone reads it. There is no better single example than Henry Ford to understand how America moved from a nation of farmers to an industrial giant.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A VERY WELL BALANCED FORD BIOGRAPHY, September 11, 2005
Of the countless Ford Biographies out here, this is perhaps one of the more balanced. The author has done his research and has presented his material in a manner which is not only quite readable, but quite informative. I do like the way Prof. Watts has given us numerous examples of his sources, i.e. different publications, speeches, news paper articles, etc. The author has given us both the good and the bad of Henry Ford, and we find that the subject of the book, Henry Ford, is much like all of us...both good and bad. I did enjoy and appreciate the fact that the author does not seem to have a particular social or political ax to grind, but rather gives us the facts and gives credit to the reader's ability to make up his or her own mind. This is refreshing. Far enough time has passed so that now historians can make some judements and obervations as to the overall impact and ramifications of the actions taken during the Ford years, by both Ford and his contemporaries, have upon our society today. Not until recently have historians been able to do this. Mr. Watts has done a wonderful job of this. Recommend this one highly. Thank you Prof. Watts for some obvious hard work.
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Transformation Of America And The Fall Of Henry Ford, September 2, 2005
Mr. Watts has written a superb account of the genius of Henry Ford in his creation, building, and marketing of the Model T automobile. He singlehandedly created the car industry, it numerous suppliers and spin-off beneficiaries (new roads, diners, motels, et al). He paid his workers a credible salary so that they could afford his car but crushed labor unions who challenged his total control.

Unfortunately, this was his zenith of creativity. As he aged, he refused to change with the passage of time and stayed stuck with his outdated concepts. He remained a control freak for the rest of his life which stunted the growth of his children and of the Ford Motor Company. His anti-Semitism colored his isolationist views and led to his endorsement of the "America First" movement for neutrality during World War II.

Mr Watts tells his sad tale with the right mixture of admiration for his professional contributions and disdain for his personal failings. He places Henry Ford within the culture of his times and how he altered Americvan society. For the reader desiring further information, Robert Lacy's "Ford: The Men and The Machine" (1986) portrays the story of the Ford family until the mid-1980's.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A multifaceted look at an American icon, August 17, 2005
By 
Bookreporter (New York, New York) - See all my reviews
The name of Henry Ford surely stands high on anyone's list of the most influential Americans who have ever lived. He never held public office --- on the one occasion when he tried, he was defeated --- he hated public speaking and all his voluminous writings were ghostwritten by aides. Yet almost 60 years after his death in 1947, Ford's name is still instantly recognizable to just about everyone. He was the man who put America on four wheels, and America has stayed on those wheels ever since.

Much of the vast literature about Ford has a partisan slant, either glorifying or condemning him. Steven Watts, a history professor at the University of Missouri, has tried in this book to find a middle ground. His verdict acknowledges Ford's genius at industrial organization and celebrates the populist rural idealism that motivated him, but faults him for inability to change with the times, unwillingness to let others make decisions, and general anti-intellectual stubbornness. Ford's brilliant ideas and his childish follies thread through the book like Wagnerian leitmotifs, reflecting on and influencing each other.

Watts's subtitle is important. At every stage of Ford's career Watts tries to relate him to the wider currents of American experience, showing how in his early years he understood what sort of country he was inhabiting and capitalized on that knowledge -- but then foolishly refused to change his ways as the social and political ground shifted, allowing his great company to slide into a long decline.

This sociological slant gives THE PEOPLE'S TYCOON considerable depth, but it also makes the book a bit ponderous and slow-moving. Watts has mined the vast Ford archives in Dearborn, Michigan, deeply --- too deeply, in fact. When Ford does or says something that elicits press reaction, Watts is not content to cite one or two comments; he gives us five or six, all saying roughly the same thing in different words. We hear from newspapers in places like Keokuk, Iowa, and South Haven, Michigan.

Watts gives Ford credit for treating his workers well early on --- but then details his relentless campaign against unionization in the later years. Ford's invention of the famous Model T, a lightweight and low-priced car for the average American, is duly praised, but Watts then shows how Ford stubbornly clung to it long after the need for a newer, sportier model was obvious.

One of this book's strongest points lies in its portrait gallery of the people around Henry Ford --- those who dealt with labor relations, wrote his speeches, kept his plants running efficiently, handled business details with which he was impatient. They are a colorful crew --- some brilliant, some unsavory. If you do not know the names of Alexander Malcolmson, James Couzens, Samuel Marquis, Charles Sorenson, William Cameron or Harry Bennett, you will know them well after reading this book. They did a lot of important things for Ford --- but it was always Ford himself who had the final say. Watts shows in detail how Ford insisted on total control, even over things he knew little or nothing about, and how he exploited the techniques of publicity-seeking in support of his ideas.

The low points of Ford's career are not slighted by Watts. He gives detailed accounts of Ford's involvement in the quixotic "peace ship" venture that sought to avert World War I, explores the strong possibility that he fathered an illegitimate son, gives astonishing details of Ford's open anti-Semitism, and explores his late-life interest in things like soybean culture and folk dancing. Toward the end of Ford's life, as his mind darkened and his power waned, Watts finds a telling descriptive phrase: Henry Ford was "the King Lear of the automotive world."

Perhaps the saddest chapter in Ford's life was his cruel treatment of his son Edsel, whom he installed as a figurehead "president" and then proceeded to checkmate and undermine at every turn.

Yet the man was indisputably a genius, and Watts gives him full credit for inventions and ideas that changed the auto industry and hence the very life of the United States. His father was a farmer, but William Ford despaired of making a farmer out of his son. "Henry is more of a tinkerer," he said, speaking profound truth without knowing it.

It takes a little patience to get through the thickets of detail with which Watts has surrounded his subject in this book, but the effort is worth making. Ford was a complex and many-sided man --- one of his associates said he had "a twenty-five track mind" --- and his celebrity was such that his pronouncements on all sorts of non-automotive subjects were lapped up by an eager public (yes, he did indeed say that "history is bunk").

In Watts's view, Ford's major failing was an inability to change with changing times. This book is valuable because it gives the reader a chance to examine all the evidence and decide who the real Henry Ford was --- the industrial genius or the public bumbler.

--- Reviewed by Robert Finn [...]
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thorough biography of complex, confounding Henry Ford, November 29, 2005
Henry Ford did not invent the automobile, but he invented something bigger - twentieth century America. It is no exaggeration to say that without Ford's system of production, without his understanding of the mass market, without his Model T, that century would have been a very different phenomenon. Ford epitomized the contradictions, complexities and confusion of that America. Self-taught and utterly confident in what he knew, he despised what he did not know. A radical who created an industrial cornucopia for workers by introducing the five-dollar daily wage, he was an industrial tyrant who hired organized criminal gangs to intimidate labor union organizers. We strongly recommend this thorough biography. Author Steven Watts offers a new way of looking at the facts, and at Ford - and does so with engaging style.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful Biography, May 8, 2006
By 
David Montgomery (Beaufort, North Carolina) - See all my reviews
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The People's Tycoon is an insightful and well-balanced biography of Henry Ford, the man who helped usher in the new mass consumer society along with the concept of mass production which produced his famed Model T. This car became a symbol of the ordinary person's ability to partake in this new era of plenty and opportunity. Henry Ford, a leader of this vision, is presented with both his accomplishments as well as the contradictions behind the man and the changes he wrought as well as some of his darker qualities. Watts succeeds fairly well in presenting Ford as the people's tycoon.

Henry Ford's early business ventures in the rising automobile industry were unsuccessful, but Ford had a knack for taking the pulse of the American people and learning how to exploit the benefits of grabbing headlines and advertising, an example being his early interest in automobile racing. But Ford's populist streak led to a vision that became central to the man and his life's work; that vision was producing an affordable car that could be purchased by the average American. This also led to the concept of mass production, which would help lower the cost for the consumer.

Of course this wasn't the product of one man, many people played important roles in the success of the Ford Motor Company. That's another strength of this book in that we get to see who some of these players were in this rising business. Ford seemed to have a genuine appreciation of ordinary people as he disdained the elite, both in the financial and academic sense, and this concern for the worker seemed to be exhibited when he implemented the new $5 dollar workday for employees. His company was also the sponsor of a sociological department that helped steer employees into better habits of learning how to spend their money wisely and even in how to live better lives. This in some ways had noble qualities, but also had the tendency to become too intrusive.

The success of the Ford vision and its results with the Model T can not be denied, but you can't help but notice the contradictions in what Ford believed in and how his work was changing the rural landscape he so loved. America was changing rapidly from an agricultural and rural society to an urban culture driven by a desire for better opportunities, greater material wealth and other general changes in the"old values". By Ford's late career, he was evincing this nostalgia for the past with the creation of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, where various aspects of America's past he considered important were collected and opened to the public, all in the face of major cultural changes his company was partly responsible for.

Ford wanted to help the ordinary American, and Watts's presentation makes him out to be a true Populist. Ford also displayed an inherent nativism in the face of major global changes during both World War I and World War II. His attempt to settle the First World War with his Peace Ship was perhaps so naive as to border on the absurd. As Watts mentioned, Ford wasn't the academic type, rather he acted from instinct and intuition. Ford could be both visionary and backwards. His ideas (and some quite out there) and views on many topics are at least mentioned to some degree on varied topics including agriculture, war, education, FDR and the New Deal, reincarnation, dieting and more.

Ford possessed traits that made him less respectable. For all his belief in the ordinary American, his nativist streak revealed deep and abiding prejudice against Jews, which he associated with the same Wall Street financiers he so loathed. The use of his own newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, got him into a lot of trouble with his views on the Jewish people. The disputes with labor which led to a bloody confrontation known as the battle of the overpass was a major blot on Ford's reputation. Ford's own business habits of pitting influential men in his company against others and his use of Harry Bennett and his thugs was less than admirable. Perhaps most regrettable was his treatment of his son Edsel, who had taken over the presidency of the company, but in name only.

Edsel's decisions were being constantly obstructed by his father. Edsel bore all this with a resigned acceptance, never forcefully confronting his father. Henry Ford doesn't come off looking good at all in this episode, and nor should he. Edsel died in 1943, and as Watts stated, Ford lost a part of himself after this tragic event. Henry Ford probably realized that his own actions had contributed to Edsel's death. The last years of this former titan in American industry and American culture are indeed quite sad to read about.

I've left out a lot, but this is an unusually well written and good, balanced view of Ford the man, what he accomplished in his field and how he played a role in the changing nature of American society. Personally, I would have liked to have known a little more about some of the ordinary workers of the Ford Motor Company and their thoughts on their employer. Ford is portrayed as a folk hero for many average Americans. Watts continually evokes his actions and beliefs in the Populist mold. But Ford's many different facets are given rightful attention that will make you both acknowledge his achievements, yet loathe some of his other qualities. A good book.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well-written, admirably broad, but lacking in depth, August 18, 2009
By 
Judge Knott "judge_knott" (Upper West Side, NY, NY) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century (Paperback)
I recently read several biographies of Henry Ford. Appropriately, perhaps, most of them seemed like they had been written on an assembly line. In other words, the same old facts--well-known since the 1950's at least--get presented in the same chronological sweep. For example: young Henry Ford was an indifferent student at his school, but loved to tinker with and repair mechanical objects. Later: Henry Ford believed in paying his workers well, so that in return they could purchase his Model T automobiles. There are dozens of these chestnuts, and braided together they do indeed create a fascinating portrait.

Here's the problem: Henry Ford lived an amazing and complex life in an amazing and complex period in American history and world history. So a biography clocking in at fewer than a few thousand pages can only give--in my judgment--a quick glance at deeply involved and ambiguous situations and conditions. For example: how did Henry Ford evolve, if at all, on his stance on workers who wanted to unionize? Who influenced him? How? When? What were the results of his shift, short-term and long-term? To plumb that question exhaustively, or even reasonably thoroughly, would take at least 50 pages. Another: analyzed coldly, what were Henry Ford's mechanical and engineering talents as compared to the many other founders of American automobile-manufacturing firms in the first 25 years of the 20th century? Again--this question, were it to be answered thoroughly, would require an enormous chapter, if not a book in itself.

I find "The People's Tycoon" to be a solid survey of Henry Ford's life, but in my judgment it is not deep. It is, nonetheless, a well-written, smart, detail-rich, easy-to-read study brimming with information. If you want a single-book peek into this American icon, I would recommend it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Multifaceted, extraordinary, eye-opening, enjoyable, November 20, 2006
This review is from: The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century (Paperback)
Steven Watts' biography is much more than the life story of Henry Ford. Watts artfully weaves the story of the early 20th century in America with the emergence of Henry Ford. Early in the book Watts poses the question "Did Ford create the phenomenon of consumerism or did the onset of consumerism create the phenomenon of Henry Ford?" Although Watts never answers this rhetorical question, he provides exactly enough insight into both the times in early 20th century America and Henry Ford to help us debate the issue for a long time. An excellent read that seems to get better even months after the book is read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ford: Filled with interesting ideas that are still relevant today, August 24, 2009
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Henry Ford had so many amazing interests and his life covered such an important part of modern history. Ford wanted to see the world become industrialized because he thought it would give people more freedom from toil. He also wanted people connected to the land. He envisioned a time when people would work in factories but also work the land. He had so many progressive ideas but his motivation left me wondering what kind of person he truly was. I came away feeling he was selfish, brilliant, energetic and much engaged in the world. He did great things which were progressive but I felt his motivation was always to produce more. People were like machines to him.

I liked the way the author organized the book not by timeline but rather by events. The book had me looking at the past but also the issues of today. Ford would have had much to say about the current state of the economy, our health care issues, education, personal responsibility and so much more. The way he carried out most of his ideas did not appeal to me but the ideas were brilliant. Not only did I enjoy reading the book, I also enjoyed thinking about the issues he thought about. If you like history, politics and the story of an amazing family, this is the book for you.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Never Quite Comes Together, April 6, 2014
By 
Brian Lewis (Ridgefield, CT) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century (Paperback)
This is a competent biography of Henry Ford, whose Model T changed the American landscape. It was enjoyable and I learned a lot about the man I did not know before, but I have to confess the book itself was somewhat disjointed.

Watts uses each chapter to detail one aspect of Ford's life, which may seem valid enough. But here the resulting picture is disconcerting. Ford seems to be a different person in each chapter. He is an entrepreneuer in one chapter, then a mechanic, next a bigot, then a father, and so on.

I think biographers make a bad choice when they write in this manner. It is both even handed and false. It puts Ford's early genius on the same level with his later dementia. The author does explore the way the assembly line changed work, and how the car changed American lifestyles, but these are put on the same level as Ford's personal eccentricities.

I did enjoy the book, and I suspect most people will if they have an interest in 20th century American history, but a subject such as Ford should have been a resulted in a better book.
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The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century
The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century by Steven Watts (Paperback - October 10, 2006)
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