Evidently fired up by Ford’s success story, former American Heritage editor-in-chief Snow (A Measureless Peril: America in the Fight for the Atlantic, the Longest Battle of World War II, 2010, etc.) conveys his interest by delving deeply into the details of Ford’s mechanical genius.
How did he construct the simple, durable, cheap automobiles that were to transform American life for just about everybody in the first decades of the 20th century? Snow reminds readers constantly that Ford was a farmer’s son whose interest in machinery was stoked by his abhorrence for intensive farm labor and by his hope to make it less cumbersome and more efficient. Inculcated with the teachings of the McGuffey readers (stressing “truth, honesty, fair-dealing, initiative, invention, self-reliance”), Ford honed his skills in Detroit by repairing everything from watches to locomotive wheels, apprenticing in steam, electricity and gas engines, studying them all until he constructed his first gas engine in the kitchen of his first home in 1893. The horseless carriage was a burning ambition for many inventors and did exist in many forms around that time, though Ford’s gas engine earned accolades from Thomas Edison, who recognized the limits of electricity and the value of Ford’s self-contained combustion unit. Where he spun his genius was in keeping the evolving automobile available to the Everyman, rather than just as a toy for the elite. Snow frequently separates the facts from the apocryphal—e.g., that sales of Model As did not go anywhere until after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 showed the world the tremendous use of automobiles and “the soundness of Henry Ford’s idea,” and that the $5-a-day wage was not Ford’s original notion but his vice president’s.
Stylistically, Snow mimics the marvelously folksy, protean temperament of his subject, dwelling on Ford’s early mechanical inventions rather than his latter problematic prickliness, and everywhere portraying a compelling character.