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The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century Hardcover – August 9, 2005

4.1 out of 5 stars 59 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Performing the same magnificent feat for Henry Ford as he did for Walt Disney (in The Magic Kingdom), historian Watts offers a magisterial and balanced biography of one of America's business legends. As a farm boy in Michigan, Ford (1863–1947) followed the beat of his own drum, avoiding hard work but watching farm machinery with fascination. He objected to wasting physical energy when a machine could accomplish the same task in less time, and spent much of his leisure taking watches apart and rebuilding them to learn about their mechanisms. Once he moved to Detroit, Ford worked as an engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company, where he quickly became famous for his ability to patch up engines. Then, in 1898, he invented the prototype of his Model A car, secured investors to set up a business and established the first unit of what would become the Ford Motor Company. Watts deftly traces Ford's rise to fame and the innovations, such as the "five-dollar" workday, which doubled factory workers' salaries, that he brought to the workplace, while a chapter titled "Bigot" delineates his notorious anti-Semitism. Watts also brilliantly reveals the contradictions of Ford's business philosophy and his personal and work life. While Ford thought of himself as a man of the people and strove to improve working conditions and wages in his factory, for example, he opposed unions. As Watts points out, Ford embodied both the promises and pitfalls of modern American democracy: "its devotion to opportunity, openness to new ideas, [and] lack of pretension" as well as its anti-intellectualism and "faith in the redemptive power of material goods."
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

By the early nineteentwenties, half of all cars on the road were Ford Model Ts, and Henry Ford was one of the most widely quoted men in America. This sturdy biography credits Ford with having, more than anyone else, "created the American Century," spearheading a vast consumer revolution by his mastery of "the mechanisms of modern publicity." When his first attempts at auto production failed, Ford captivated the nation with a series of audacious publicity stunts. His maverick populism made him the first tycoon to be a hero to ordinary Americans, but it was a short step from his early tirades against East Coast bankers and intellectuals to the anti-Semitic crusades that now mar his legacy. Watts somewhat underplays recently discovered evidence of Ford's collaboration—through a German subsidiary—with the Nazi regime, preferring to concentrate on the man who embodied the maxim "To make a sensation, be one."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (August 9, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375407359
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375407352
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #164,636 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Craig Matteson HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on November 4, 2005
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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.
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