This quotation is frequently attributed to the American inventor Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” However, little evidence exists which demonstrates that Ford actually uttered this markedly cynical consumer insight. Additionally, it is not essential whether this epigraph is a misquotation, mimesis, apocryphal statement or a welcomed addition to America’s vast and ever-growing folkloric chronicle. Nonetheless, this is a statement which we should still accept. Harmonious and in line with Henry Ford’s public persona, it appropriately captures the spirit, outlook and philosophy of the American inventor, philanthropist and industrialist.
Henry Ford started out as an itinerant agricultural mechanic and later became one of America’s wealthiest individuals. Though he often viewed America in a positive, yet occasionally uncertain light, Ford, like other famous ‘witticists’ such as Will Rogers, felt that he was ready to take America’s pulse. He believed that its citizens were ready to accept change, pulling them in to become part of his vision. Consequently, the hard-nosed designer and visionary was associated with often folksy and endless platitudes, also offering little or no sympathy for individuals, family members, business partners and friends that did not share his mentality.
With a positive, “go-get-them” outlook, Ford championed the average man and woman as the foundations that made America great. While often hidebound and reluctant at first, Americans would eventually accept change. For example, pre-automotive America had limited transportation infrastructure. With the exception of individuals who needed to travel, the leisure class or citizens transported to meet national emergencies such as war, commerce or natural disasters, most Americans did not travel frequently nor did they want to. They did not envision the radical changes made upon common transportation methods exemplified by trains and water transport. Therefore, the epigraph perfectly captures Ford’s take on America: A nation inspired from birth to go faster, to do more, and succeed when earlier generations did not, could not or were not allowed by circumstances to do so.
Ford was known to be cantankerous and he often proved to be an unsentimental business man, husband and father. Yet his love for the American heritage, tradition and craft was always evident. This is especially exemplified by his collection of Americana. Ford and his agents eagerly collected entire villages of pre-industrial modes of habitation, transportation, and manufacture. This is paradoxical because his inventions and production of the auto forever changed the America he professed to love even as he helped destroy it. Perhaps then, this is a clue as to why this quote has often been attributed to him. It has a contemptuous tone but it also understands the average American’s willingness to embrace change. At the same time, it also reflects their reluctance to surrender to the idea that technology can serve as new foundations for tradition and established practices. It is clear that Ford recognized this potential. Americans were always on the move, if not physically then spiritually. For the Americans who were walking and climbing in difficult and lengthy terrain, who would not wish for a magical deux ex machina to rescue him or her from such toil? Ford provided the American masses from nearly every economic strata with the means to realize the dream of almost instantaneous travel. His “horseless carriages”, compared to the limited means of transport before his inventions, forever changed the ways in which Americans traveled.
Hopefully, further evidence will be found which attests that this quote was indeed said by Ford. Whether this will be found or not, associating Ford with these apocryphal lines does not diminish his character, as these words truly captures the spirit, outlook and philosophy of one of America’s most controversial individuals.