Exceptional museum

It took me about a year to get around to it, but yesterday I finally visited the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. There's a lot I could say about it, but if I had to sum it up in a word, that word would be "INSPIRING."

Truly, Henry Ford was an inspirational genius on a number of levels. It's one thing to read about the Model T, but seeing the whole process, seeing the history of the evolution in his mechanical thinking, seeing the assembly line system laid out in visual terms, this was a remarkable experience. (If you're planning a trip there, be sure to budget an entire day at least, as it's huge.)

They assemble a Model T from parts there every day, and here's a picture I took showing a disassembled Model T suspended from the ceiling to the floor:


The techniques Henry Ford developed revolutionized industry, and put America on the map as the world's leading manufacturing country. The whole thing made my head spin, and when I came home I was reminded of what Barack Obama showed the other day that he still has not learned -- that "American Exceptionalism" (despite the left having made it into a politically loaded term) is not an argument, but a statement of fact. Henry Ford is a reason why.

But yet...

And I hate to say "but yet" -- but yet I have to. I really don't mean to sound like a politically correct whiner or anything, but I'm a bit touchy where it comes to bigotry, and whether he deserves it or not, Henry Ford occupies an undeniable place as one of the more notorious anti-Semites in history. Because I've read a book on the subject, what I know about the man kept creeping into my mind and spoiling (at least making me question) my nice thoughts about Henry Ford. Unwanted or inappropriate thoughts have a way of doing that sometimes. For nearly a decade, Ford was the publisher of The Dearborn Independent, an anti-Semitic newspaper with a circulation second only to the New York Post. It featured in excerpts a book length diatribe called "The International Jew" -- which influenced Adolf Hitler's thinking, and which was widely read in Nazi Germany and is a bestseller in the Mideast today.

Henry Ford's millions made it possible, and by any standard, that is a bad thing. Yet Henry Ford repudiated anti-Semitism, denounced Nazi ideology, and closed down the Dearborn Independent in 1927. The trouble is, the words live forever; every dishonest word of The International Jew is freely available online.

What does it mean to repudiate something? I was once a Marxist, but I have long since repudiated those beliefs, and no one who knows me would call me a Marxist today. (It would be laughable.) Yet I'm not sure that's a good analogy, because when I was a Marxist I was a stupid teenager, and in no position to influence millions of people. In terms of scale, Ford's anti-Semitism dwarfs my Marxism. Certainly, it is to his credit that he repudiated it, but simply because of the scale involved, there's an indelible stain that cannot be washed out, and will never go away. However, in fairness to Ford, he never advocated genocide (and anti-Semitism was far more acceptable in his day than it is now), and I don't think it is completely fair to judge him by post-Holocaust standards. Blaming Ford for the crimes of Hitler is like blaming Marx for the crimes of Stalin.

The difference, though, is that Marx never repudiated Marxism, and thus his words can always be cited as his; Ford expressly repudiated the words that bore his name.

It did not surprise me that nowhere in the Museum did I find any mention of the Dearborn Independent, or the International Jew. Whether or not they "should," who knows? I could see how a thoughtful argument could be advanced both ways (and I realize that ignorant people can be misled), but I tend to come down on the side of full disclosure. I don't think it's an accident that dishonest trash like "The International Jew" (and its closely related Czarist precursor, "Protocols of the Elders of Zion") is not considered to be part of serious thought here in the United States, but is taken seriously only in countries that don't have the First Amendment, where the governments don't allow critical scrutiny under the bright light of free speech.

To return to the subject of technology, Megan McArdle was probably speaking quite literally yesterday when she observed (while blogging from an airplane) what Glenn Reynolds quoted: that "the future has rotten battery life." At least I hope she didn't mean the future of free speech, though recent events make me wonder.

As I was reminded yesterday at the museum, rotten battery life is not a new subject. Electric cars were considered a viable enough alternative that Henry Ford's wife drove one. In the early days of the automobile, they were considered an especially good choice as an urban car for doctors and for women, because they didn't have to be hand-cranked. Range was limited, though.

The cars were advertised as reliably getting 80 miles (130 km) between battery recharging, although in one test a Detroit Electric ran 211.3 miles (340.1 km) on a single charge. Top speed was only about 20 miles per hour (32 km/h), but this was considered adequate for driving within city or town limits at the time.
Obviously, today's electric cars can go faster, but the distance they'll go on a single charge does not seem to have changed that dramatically:
Cars that can travel 111 miles on a single charge will be sold for between $23,000 and $26,000. Longer distance cars that can travel 200 miles will cost $33,000. The company hopes to sell 40,000 autos next year and 270,000 the year after, in the United States, Asia and Europe.
Some things never change. And rotten battery life seems to be one of them. Here's a picture I took of the original Detroit Electric car (the one that got 80 miles on a single charge):


Not a bad looking car. I'd actually consider driving one today if I could get my hands on it. However, if I wanted to really feel independent, I'd prefer something I could drive longer distances, and faster. The Ford Model A, with its new electric starter, led to the demise of the early electric car, as it undercut the advantage of the latter.

Back in the 1990s, this 1928 Model A was driven from Tierra del Fuego to Dearborn by Hector Quevedo Abarzua and his son Hugo Quevedo Liberona:


That's a very old car to have made a drive of 22,000 miles, and it's a testament to Henry Ford and to American Exceptionalism.

But would an electric car have made it?

If you needed to plug in your car and recharge it every 100 miles, that would require 220 stops, and I'm not sure there are places that even have electricity every 100 miles between here and Tierra del Fuego, much less car charging stations.

I'd love to see American Exceptionalism extend rotten battery life. But until then, I'd rather drive a Model A.

posted by Eric on 09.04.09 at 02:37 PM


In Henry Ford's time, the automobile was seen as replacing the horse, and its purpose was to get you from home to the nearest train station, and points between. The electric car made perfect sense for that purpose, and it does today, if you can use it for that purpose. Unfortunately, after a century in which the long-distance car has replaced the rail system, there aren't many who can use it that way.

ebt   ·  September 4, 2009 4:00 PM

Maybe a bit off topic, but last week my son and I went to the Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg museum in Auburn In.

Well worth the trip.

Maybe a tie in. E.L. Cord was accused of stock market manipulation and under later regulations would probably have gone to jail. But, he left the world some beautiful cars. American exceptionalism.

Last thought I promise. Fred Duesenberg who designed the duesenberg engine and the supercharger for it never graduated high school.

Mark_0454   ·  September 6, 2009 7:28 PM

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