Vision and innovation: Lessons from Henry Ford

Great innovators come up with the ideas that have changed the world. Michigan’s Henry Ford is a prime example of this fact.

One of the most important goals of Michigan State University Extension’s 4-H State Science Team is to help build critical thinking, problem solving and decision-making skills in youth. Overall, the goal is to build capacity, resiliency and positive youth development. In turn, efficacy is developed, equipping youth to handle almost any of life’s most difficult challenges. Ultimately communities across America benefit as practical (e.g., transportation), as well as important humanitarian issues (e.g., hunger) are met and addressed.

So how do great innovators come up with the ideas that have changed the world? Michigan’s own Henry Ford comes to mind. In a series of lessons by The Henry Ford (widely referred to as “The Henry Ford Museum”) the question, “How do people solve problems?” is posed. These lessons portray Ford as an exceptional visionary – a problem solver. Ford saw that while city life at the turn of the 20th century was bustling, their means of transportation – walking, using horses, streetcars and trains – were not as efficient as they could be.

Farm life required hard labor and lots of land for growing crops and raising animals. It was not always easy for farm families to travel long distances to visit town or relatives. Only very wealthy people owned expensive, “experimental” automobiles at the turn of the 20th century. Last, Ford had experience building automobiles because he enjoyed tinkering with engines. From these factors came Ford’s vision – or innovation - to build and market a simple, strong, reliable, affordable car for the masses. He specifically wanted to help farm families to become less isolated.

The Henry Ford explains that Ford had distinct characteristics similar to other innovators: he had interests and skills that helped him solve problems. He was curious, a problem solver, liked working with his hands and wasn’t afraid to break the rules. Ford surrounded himself with people who complimented his strengths. He persevered and took risks to solve problems. He founded two companies that went out of business before he was successful with his third company, the Ford Motor Company. Ford built and drove race cars, risking his life to attract attention and get supporters for Ford Motor Company.

Interestingly enough, Henry Ford experimented with materials science and engineering, specifically in plastics developed from agricultural products – especially soybeans. In fact, in order to learn more about how he could use soybean-based plastics in cars (as car horns, paint, etc.), Ford became friends with George Washington Carver.

In 1942, Ford patented an automobile made almost entirely of plastic, weighing 30 percent less than a steel car, and was reputed to be able to withstand blows ten times greater than could steel. Aside from this, Ford experimented with alternative fuel sources, including grain alcohol (ethanol) and corn instead of gasoline.

As both a champion for the middle class, and an industrialist, Ford was ahead of his time. But more than this, Ford was a farmer, scientist and engineer who revolutionized transportation and American industry. As owner of the Ford Motor Company, Ford became one of the richest and best-known people in the world, using his innovation and vision to put Detroit, and Michigan, on the world map.

Henry Ford serves as an example of the visionaries in Michigan’s powerhouse of progress and innovation that inspired the world — it’s in the Great Lakes State’s DNA. Michigan’s youth, as yet untapped potential, are what the Michigan State University Extension 4-H Science Team plans to use as the brightest – and most hopeful – building blocks for the future.

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