Sunday, August 12, 2012

Fordlandia: Ford's Utopian Amazon Community

I just finished reading Greg Grandin's book, Fordlandia, The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City.  Grandin is a good writer and he brings to life the story of Ford's attempt to build a model Midwestern town in the Amazon jungle.  The rationale that Henry Ford gave to the world for investing in this ill-fated adventure was that he needed a steady supply of latex rubber. The real reasons, as Grandin makes clear, were far more complex.

In the 1920's, Henry Ford was hailed as one of the most influential businessmen in the country. He not only had created the Model T and the assembly line that built it, but he believed that a robust consumer economy depended upon a middle class that earned enough to have buying power.  His Five Dollar workday was one of the major factors in building such a market of consumers.

Ford's massive operations, first at Highland Park and then at the River Rouge plant in Detroit, were models of efficiency. They were also models of how workers could be turned into cogs in a vast and dehumanizing industrial machine.  Fordism, as it was called, was represented by the stopwatch and the check list. No detail was too mundane to not be improved and made more efficient. His vast industrial operations and those of other large corporations drew people to the cities seeking jobs with steady wages. Industrializing America was the nemesis of Rural America.

Ford was born and raised on a farm and he hated it. As soon as he could, he escaped to Detroit to find work in machine shops and later the Detroit Edison before turning his creative hand to automobiles. But as Ford's empire grew, his nostalgia for a simpler past also grew more important to him. To capture this disappearing America, Ford began collecting old machinery, tools, steam engines, pots and pans, sewing machines - anything that represented the past. He kept all his treasure in one of his warehouses at the Highland Park plant. Later, he started collecting whole buildings: Edison's Menlo Park Laboratory, the Wright Brothers bicycle shop, homes of poets, country churches and schools - even his own family's farmhouse.  He needed a place to put all this stuff. In 1929, he built Greenfield Village and the adjoining museum to house his collections.

Similarly, Ford began to build communities from scratch that were models of his vision of the right balance between industry and agriculture. Several of these were in Michigan's Upper Peninsula where lumbering and the sawmill provided the balancing arms of his vision. He thought he could use the same model to improve the Tennessee Valley, and he envisioned dams and hydroelectric stations that would supply him with power -- built next to new, idyllic communities that had the most modern schools, hospitals, and sewage plants. His dream for transforming the Tennessee Valley was thwarted by local and national politicians.  Ironically, it would be those same politicians who later created Ford's vision themselves during the Great Depression with the formation of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

When latex shortages threatened the automobile industry, Ford decided he could kill two birds with one stone by building a model community in Brazil to tap and export latex rubber. The work began in 1928. By 1945, after building Fordlandia and later Belterra, the failed venture was handed over to the Brazilian government and Ford Motor Company left the Amazon forever.  Grandin's book does a great job of explaining the missteps, naiveté, and bad luck that plagued the operation from beginning to end.

Ford was not the first, nor probably the last, to dream of creating his own vision of what a community should look like. Almost all of these visionary industrial communities have ended in failure. One of the most extensive was Pullman, Illinois. George Pullman built this model community to house his workers for his new railroad car workers. The town lasted barely ten years before it was brought down by labor strife. Like Fordlandia, one man's vision of what should happen was a far cry from what did happen.

Grandin, in his epilogue, sums up the issues well:

"Ford, the man who in the early 1910s helped unleash the power of industrialism to revolutionize human relations, spent most of the rest of his life trying to put the genie back in the bottle, to contain the disruption he himself let loose, only to be continually, inevitably thwarted. Born more from political frustration at home than from the need to acquire control over yet another raw material abroad, Fordlandia represents in crystalline form the utopianism that powered Fordism -- and by extension Americanism. It reveals the faith that a drive towards greater efficiency could be controlled and managed in such a way as to bring balance to the world and that technology itself, without the need for government planning, could solve whatever social problems arose from progress's advance. Fordlandia is a parable of arrogance. The arrogance, though, is not that Henry Ford thought he could tame the Amazon but that he believed that the forces of capitalism, once released, could still be controlled." 

Arrogance, naiveté, hubris, utopianism -- you might think we would know better by now. But in some way, I admire Ford's efforts even as I cringe at the outcomes. Ford was a complex man who could easily be both admired and despised. He legitimately earned both.  But to give up on building dreams such as those that Ford dreamed is perhaps to give up on dreaming at all. If I had the choice, I would take the dreamer.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Curiosity: The Rover

"The top of the atmosphere down to the surface... it takes us seven minutes. It takes fourteen minutes or so for the signal from the spacecraft to make it to earth - that's how far Mars is away from us. So when we first get word that we've touched the top of the atmosphere, the vehicle has been alive or dead on the surface for at least seven minutes."

- Adam Steltzner, EDL Engineer

By now, we all know that the new Mars Rover, Curiosity, is safely on the surface of the Red Planet. But I think it is worth taking a minute to marvel at the complexity of simply getting something the size of a small car successfully onto the surface of Mars.

It begins with a launch vehicle to get the massive payload off the earth's surface and into a trajectory to intersect with a planet over 350 million miles away. It continues with getting the probe into orbit and then, most amazing of all, landing something this big as gently as you might have your car lowered to the service shop floor after an oil change. And the kicker in all this: it has to be done automatically with no intervention from earth. The distances involved are just too large to have any real-time control.

NASA and Cal-Tech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the nerve center for this adventure. They produced a wonderful simulation video of what was involved in getting Curiosity onto the surface.  You can watch it here:

Why spend a billion dollars to put a one-ton rover on the surface of Mars? The name says it all - Curiosity. When we stop being curious, we stop living. We stop being the best we can be as humans.  Curiosity is going to bring us many more surprises in the coming weeks and months.  The payback will be worth the money.

So here's to the engineers!  Let's take a moment to stop and think about what they just did.  Simply amazing!