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Henry Ford and Karl Benz, Stories of Innovation That Changed History

Henry Ford and the couple Karl and Bertha Benz have contributed to making the history of humanity profoundly affected by the mobility

Karl Friedrich Benz (left) and the motorcar, and Henry Ford with the car.

Karl Benz and his wife Bertha, and Henry Ford are important examples of what innovation really means: not to claim to know everything, because absolute knowledge leads to arrogant behaviors that prevent us to think to the unknown. It is really free to innovate whoever is considering the option of abandoning received knowledge, as Benz and Ford did many years ago

Interviewed by Oriana Fallaci (Interview with History, Rizzoli, 1974), Indira Gandhi said: Just when you think you’ve achieved something, you realize you’ve achieved nothing. And still, you have to go forward just the same – toward a dream so distant that your road has neither beginning nor end.

Henry Ford and the couple Karl and Bertha Benz have contributed to making the history of humanity profoundly affected by the mobility and freedom of movement of people, goods, and ideas. It happens that the innovator is inclined to believe she possesses so much knowledge that she feels free to run at maximum speed. To claim to know everything, however, does not make us free. On the contrary, absolute knowledge leads to arrogant behaviors that prevent one from thinking about the ‘unknown unknowns’, thus depriving the subject of the freedom to explore unknown lands. It is really free to innovate whoever is considering the option of abandoning received knowledge.

The trade-off and interweaving between reflexive knowledge and exploratory freedom are featured prominently in the theatre of innovation. Let’s take a look at the performance of the starring couple Karl and Bertha Benz. Engineer and engine designer, Karl Friedrich Benz (1844-1929) is considered the inventor of the first practical motorcar. In a field test during a public demonstration, the car crashed into a wall. Descending Benz increasingly down into the knowledge well, the subsequent tests gave better results. However, to transform the prototypes into a marketable product, freedom from what is already known of his wife Bertha (1849-1944) made its way.  In virtue of her entrepreneurial mindset, Berta took a pioneering journey, together with her two young children, on the car designed by her husband, driving for over 100 km from her home to her mother’s house. Bertha’s freedom of action was a source of vicissitudes that extended the journey until late at night, as well as of inventive intuitions that improved the performance of the car. The advertising impact of that event marked the beginning of a success story – the first commercial production of motor vehicles with the internal combustion engine – which stretches up to the present day: that of Mercedes-Benz.

Camillo Olivetti and Guglielmo Marconi, from one side, and Henry Ford, from another perspective, wove two different webs that were both so innovative that they had a significant effect on the lifestyles of millions of people. Olivetti and Marconi gave impetus to the social and collaborative behavior of today’s ‘digerati’, the generation of the New Millennium sailing on the open (so far) waters of the Internet Ocean. Henry Ford’s web resulted in the exaltation of the self-centered conduct of car owners.

Henry Ford had no intention whatsoever of complying with the wishes of people who demanded carriages and coaches. Rather than submitting to the demands of customers and attempting the impossible task of breeding horses capable of pulling gigs, carriages, and coaches at 60 miles per hour, he reflected on the meaning of transport. At that time, the road network connecting villages, towns and cities was designed to be used by horses and carriages, with paved, rutted roads. There were blacksmiths’ workshops, post houses, and hotels for weary travelers and exhausted horses. The ‘how’ that occupied his mind was a vehicle so innovative that it would require a new road network, fundamentally different from that developed for the coach and horses. So it was – some might find it surprising – that our man started to look carefully at spider’s webs. Of the various forms, these took – spiral, funnel-shaped, tubular and leaf-shaped – it was the tangled ones that attracted his attention most. It was the tangle of interests that Henry was questioning in his project to find a solution to his problem. This project revolutionized the concept of ‘with what’: no longer the horse-drawn carriage, but the automobile.

Ford, who was passionate about mechanics and clocks, was no expert when it came to carriages and horses, but even if he had been he would have cast that experience aside. His fervent desire was to immerse himself in the infancy of a new world. As the Spanish philosopher George Santayana might have said, a real innovator is an eternal child who does not cling to accumulated experience. It is in this spirit, liberated from the dross of the status quo, that Henry prepares to weave his web. At first, the result is small and fragile, as we find from an article in the New York Times of 22 June 1902.1 The columnist wrote: ‘Five or six years ago . . . there were fewer than fifty motor vehicles of various patterns (types, models) in the whole of what is now Greater New York’, commenting somewhat skeptically that it would not be easy to persuade people accustomed to travelling by horse and carriage to change to the car. A mere two decades later, however, Ford’s web had spread beyond expectations.

Not only was the industrial landscape affected; the relationship of the driver of a car with the land was also different. A car could, at the same time, travel 15 times farther than a horse-drawn carriage. Ford’s web effectively reduced distances and created new links between markets, traders, producers, suppliers, and customers. The world encompassed in that web became simultaneously larger and smaller: larger because it included more people, and smaller because it brought together individuals, families, and companies hitherto geographically far apart.

Life and death: horse-drawn coaches and carriages were the prey that became trapped and perished in Henry Ford’s web. From this same web a new social class was born: middle-class car owners, from the first decade of the twentieth century onwards, showed greater interest in material goods and confirmed the destiny of mass production as depicted by the Ford Model-T – a mass-produced car that was simple in design, reliable and affordable.

The reader may also refer to Piero Formica Stories of Innovation for the Millennial Generation: The Lynceus Long View, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 

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