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How Henry Ford’s Invention Inadvertently Caused the Depression

In early 20th century America the vast majority of people living in rural areas eked out a living in agriculture. Farms were small, often sharecropped. The planting and harvesting was labor intensive and horses provided the only source of energy for mechanized tilling. The vagaries of weather and drought have always made farming difficult. Crops were mainly grown for consumption by the farmer’s family, with any extra produce bartered for needed goods.

We are all aware of the history of Henry Ford and his invention of the production line to mass-produce Model-T’s. Ford did not invent the automobile, he simply invented a method to produce cars in mass volumes and make them available for virtually anyone wishing to purchase a horse-less carriage. He also revolutionized the agriculture business with totally unforeseen consequences.

The Ford Motor Company was always seeking new avenues of distribution and business opportunities. Ford had grown up in then-rural Michigan and was immersed in the farm world of the age. In the 1920’s Ford introduced the first mass-produced farm tractor, the Fordson. The machine sold for under $400 and revolutionized farming. It quickly became cheaper and less costly to own and maintain a Fordson tractor than a horse.

Farmers quickly gravitated to the Fordson tractor. Crop yield per acre expanded exponentially. Farmers produced so much crop yield per acre that by the middle of the 1920’s we were growing far more food than the country could consume. Prices plummeted. The need for day laborers declined precipitously and rural unemployment exploded.

The collapse of crop prices, unemployment, and the Great Plains drought were significant contributors to the start of the Great Depression. The Fordson was an amazing improvement in the productivity and ability of farmers to lead more comfortable lifestyles. However, the “Law of Unintended Consequences” reared its ugly head in this instance. The creative disruption caused by this product was thrust on a market that could not adjust efficiently or quickly to its significance.

We have a seemingly similar situation occurring today. We constantly read headlines about the dying manufacturing sector in the United States. Politicians love to visit deserted factories and decry the decline of manufacturing in a wide range of formerly profitable industries. And yet, manufacturing in America is setting records for volumes produced, shipped and invoiced. How can this dichotomy exist?

As with the Fordson tractors 1920’s introduction to farmers, today’s manufacturing has evolved dramatically and created disruptive technologies. Robots, software, customized computer models, computer assisted design and modern communications mean that we produce ever more sophisticated products, in greater volumes, and at lower prices, while needing fewer workers per unit of production. The workers that are needed today require better education, and skills than the production line workers of yore.

When I was growing up in an industrial area of America in the 1960’s many of my contemporaries went to work with their fathers at the local mill or factory. These were overwhelmingly union jobs. Each of my buddies at that time thought they would be employed for life like their fathers had been. It has worked out that none are where they started, not one.

The displacement is as painful today as it was on the farm of the 1920’s. However, the benefits to society accruing from modern manufacturing technologies and systems, just like the advances in farming owing to mechanization, cannot be denied. Only the Luddites of the 19th century and there modern adherents believe life is not more comfortable today and more people have more access to more goods and services at lower prices that at any time in history.

Change is hard and often inconvenient. We live during an age of massive change unlike any time in history. The understanding of and acceptance of modern realities insure that most people will benefit from advances in technology. Those that do not want to change and accept the new order of things will be left behind.

Henry Ford did not sell the Fordson tractor to instigate the Great Depression. The product was a small, inadvertent contributing factor. The inability of markets of that day to allocate resources and find markets for the massive increases in crops harvested was a systemic failure. Today, we manufacture products that are consumed quickly and create the thirst for more inventions and technologically advances. We are all better off as a result.

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