Henry Ford - Quote: "History Is Bunk"
    By Patrick Lockerby | May 30th 2011 04:36 PM | 12 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Henry Ford - Quote: "History Is Bunk"

    It isn't an urban myth: Henry Ford really did say: "History is bunk."

    It is somewhat ironic that Henry Ford's words - "history is bunk" - are now a part of the historic record.  What is not clear from most writings about Henry Ford is the context in which he gave his views of history.  I hope to remedy that defect somewhat.

    "Understanding Henry Ford is more than a puzzle; it is a pursuit."
    The Detroit Saturday Night, cited by -
    Henry A. Wise Wood, The New York Times, May 17, 1916

    History is a contest of evidence, much like a legal case.  Discovering facts is somewhat like archaeology: you need to dig.  A senior archaeologist at a 'dig' once told me that most Roman remains in Britain have no historical value.  This counter-intuitive fact is based in sound logic: we already have more than enough evidence that the Romans were in Britain.  In the same vein, most information about Henry Ford's views on history are of no historical value: we already know that he did not place any value whatsoever on historical studies.  What we don't know is why.

    Much of the information on the web about Henry Ford's view of history is bunk.  A majority of sites claim that he never said: "History is bunk.", but rather, he actually said: "History is more or less bunk."  As I said before: that is bunk.  Henry Ford actually said both of those things about history, and many more besides.  He also said: "History is myth."  He said that to Henry A. Wise Wood, of which, more below.  As to the "history is more or less bunk", he is quoted as using those exact words in the Crawfordsville Review, June 6, 1916.  It was long after that, in 1921 that he made the widely cited statement: "History is bunk."

    History is bunk - New York Times, Oct 28 1921

    In archaeology and library research you can make a claim based on the easy pickings that lie on the surface or you can break into a sweat as you dig deeper.  But it is not enough to dig deep.  You must sift every spadeful, and sift it fine.  Truth is most often found in the tiniest of grains: it is easy to miss if you don't focus intently.
    ... truth eludes us if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit. And even while it eludes us, the illusion still lingers of knowing it and leads to many misunderstandings.

    Alexander Solzhenitsyn - address at Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises,
    Thursday, June 8, 1978

    History is myth - New York Times May 15 1916

    Henry Ford was a master of the debate-stifling Ford flurry - a technique known in modern times as the Gish gallop.  The technique is simple: make as many "statements of fact" as possible in the time or space allowed and then claim victory in the debate for every point not refuted.  Henry A. Wise Wood, a noted historian and author of books such as Money Hunger, reported an interview with Henry Ford which shows Ford to have been something of a conspiracy theorist and wingnut.

    History Is Myth, Two Bankers Invented This War, Flags Are Fatal
    and Preparedness Talk Is Eastern Scare Gas.

    New York. May 15, 1916-To the Editor of The New York Times:
    On May 8. while in Detroit for the purpose of speaking on preparedness, I spent several hours with Henry Ford. I found Mr. Ford eager to talk about national defense, but unwilling to discuss it.  While volleying his assertions with great rapidity, he refused to pause long enough to permit any one of them to be examined and dealt with. To facts which I submitted he responded with a brief word of dismissal or with a sweeping denial that they were facts: sometimes with the remark that he could not consider them because he himself did not know them to be facts.
    When In our " discussion " or a nation's need for defensive strength history was appealed to, Mr. Ford replied that he did not believe in history, that history was of the past and had no bearing upon the present and that, there being nothing to be learned from it, history need not be studied nor considered. The American Revolution he refused to have touched upon, saying that the Revolution was " tradition," that he did not believe In tradition.

    New York Times - May 15 1916
    The interview should be understood in the context that Henry A. Wise Wood supported a strong military and a preparedness for war based on his expertise in historical studies, whereas Henry Ford opposed such preparedness based on - well,we don't really know.

    From what is reported of this interview, Henry Ford seems to have had a very shallow understanding of history and a lack of trust in the little he did understand.  Small wonder that he failed to research the prior art of farming mechanization and claimed - in a New York Times interview June 19 1915 - that he invented 'an automobile tractor'.

    Greeks flew kites?

    The news article in which Henry Ford is quoted as saying "History is bunk" offers an intriguing puzzle to the modern reader.  What did Henry Ford mean when he said: "History is bunk.  What difference does it make how many times the Greeks flew their kites?"  It appears that Mr Ford was wrongly crediting the Ancient Greeks with having flown kites.  But what was it in then-current topics that raised the issue of kites?

    During Henry Ford's lifetime, heavier-than-air flight went from being a dream to a reality.  Experiments in flight began with gliders and kites. In January 1903, William A. Eddy - an expert in the science of kites - successfully replicated an experiment by Alexander Graham Bell.  Eddy confirmed Bell's assertion that a heavier-than-air machine in the form of a box kite could carry the weight of a man and an engine.

    In December 1903 the Wright brothers made history - but not much of a stir in the newspapers - when their 'untethered box kite' flew at Kitty Hawk.   Most reports of this success did not make the front pages.

    The Clinton Morning Age Dec 17 1903 - Flying machine proves a success

    Whether on the front page or an inside page, common to all reports is the description of the Wright brothers' machine as a kite.

    A flying machine that flies - The Evening News, Dec 18 1903

    By 1921, when Henry Ford made his remarks about 'Greeks flying kites', the word 'kite' was in popular use as a slang term for any kind of airplane.  In that context, according to myth, Daedalus and Icarus 'flew kites'.  Maybe Henry Ford was right in this one instance: what has a Greek myth to do with the science of flight?  I would go so far as to side with Henry Ford and say of the science of flight that a history is bunk if it mentions Daedalus but not William Abner Eddy.

    William Abner Eddy - the scientific kite flier.


    In December 1903 the Wright brothers made history - but not much of a stir in the newspapers - when their 'untethered box kite' flew at Kitty Hawk.
    That's right. I checked my CD collection of the front pages of the NY times for Dec 17 and 18, 1903 and found no mention of the Wright brothers.
    Enrico: thanks for the confirmation. 

    btw: 'The Evening News' front page headline was about the execution of Bert Ross at San Quentin.  Editors get to decide what is and isn't worthy of the front page.  What's going to sell more papers - a story about a flying lump of wood or a story about a hanging?  Decisions, decisions!  :-)
    I whole-heartedly AGREE with Mr. Ford . Always will !!

    See also Aldous Huxley "Brave New World"; for the completely uninitiated, this is an early sci-fi novel, set in a dystopian future, where human life has been sanitised almost to the point of sterilisation, and the sayings of "Our Ford" have been elevated to quasi-Scriptural status.

    "You all remember, I suppose, that beautiful and inspired saying of Our Ford's: History is Bunk." World Controller, Mustapha Mond.

    I recently read that this novel, written in c.1930, was Number 3 in the list of the most-complained about books stocked by American libraries in 2010. A cantankerous octogenarian, still. I heartily recoommend it.

    I whole-heartedly DISAGREE with Mr Ford. Always will !!

    (Ignoring the main issue, that those who do not learn from History are doomed to repeat it, which is particularly pertinent given the current worldwide economic crisis and the concurrent resurgence in right-wing extremism in Europe, combined with an ostrich-based attitude on the other side of the Atlantic...)

    Mechanised car production is more or less bunk. Less infernal combustion engines would now be less bunk than more.

    If we are to stabilise or reduce global CO2 emissions, while still trying to meet basic human needs and allow some breathing-space for Nature, then History may well provide more pointers than Science. (I am particularly thinking of traditional, localised, peasant methods of food and alcohol production, vernacular architectural tecniques and traditional energy production, but suspect that these represent just the tip of the proverbial floating mass of solidified water...)

    Our ancestors survived. Will the same be said of us?

    Our ancestors survived. The study of how they did so (aka History) is NOT bunk.

    Our ancestors survived. The study of how they did so (aka History) is NOT bunk.

    Agreed!  And the history of human survival is often a history of advances in science and technology.  Where would we be now if Noah hadn't spent his early life studying zoology and marine architecture?  ;-)
    There is a fair degree of bunk in recorded history. But that is what makes it rather fascinating. Turns out alot of the "facts" I knew where wrong.

    Turns out a lot of the "facts" I knew where wrong.

    Tony: the web, like many a book of 'facts', is filled with the products of shallow historical research.

    Who devised the atomic theory?  Not Dalton.
    Who invented vaccination?  Not Edward Jenner.
    Who devised the theory of evolution?  Not Darwin.
    Who first claimed that Earth orbits the Sun?  Not Galileo.

    Who first claimed that surface station temperature records were unreliable? Not Watts.

    I have an article in progress on the history of these bits of science.

    Teaser, the unreliability of temperature records:

    Anthony Watts,, 2007.

    G. S. Callender, 1938, The Artificial Production of Carbon Dioxide and its Influence on Temperature:
    In all I have examined about two hundred records, but a small proportion of these have been found to be defective ...
    ... this is a matter which is open to controversy ...

    Hi Patrick,

    By "his early life", in reference to Noah, I presume you're referring to the first half a millenium or so.

    He did live to be 950 ;-)

    But he also illustrates, for me, the value of ancient history to the present. Noah, Deucalion, and an even earlier protagonist from Gilgamesh, whose name escapes me, all to some extent represent folk-tales which have clearly served as a warning to future generations of the power of the sea. There is a strong possibility that some of these are based on folk memories of events such as the flooding of the Maditerranean basin, the Black Sea basin, or the Thira explosion and subsequent tsunami.

    In the aftermath of the recent Japanese tsunami, I do think that we need to be careful to acknowledge that there may be quite a lot of baby in this particular bathwater...

    Rereading my post above, it's a little to strong on rhetoric.

    My current view is that, to borrow the title of a record from last week "The future is medieval"; - that is, it seems that there is a pressing need to decarbonise the current economic model. This will necessarily involve people becoming more self-sufficient in their own local area. Almost every technique of construction, food and alcohol production and energy production which existed before the Industrial Revolution is predicated on local self-sufficiency.

    For example, I am sat typing this inside a room whose walls are constructed of heavy beams of local oak, in-filled with a mixture of local mud, with a dash of lime, mixed with the bedding materials of the beasts of burden used to raise the oak beams into place. This has been somewhat enriched by donkey droppings.

    Overall, then, I think that this room is probably a carbon sink. Certainly, none of these building materials, with the possible exception of the lime was moved more than 2 or 3 miles to reach the building site. But then, I have to admit that I'm guessing, because it all happened about 300 years ago, and unlike Noah...

    I am also slightly unsure about the actual date of construction, but it is certainly over 200 years old, and the original materials are still doing their job, and unlike any modern alternative, are actually sequestering carbon. (About 5% of carbon dioxide emissions are due to cement or plaster production.)

    So, as many people are now looking for low-carbon solutions to various problems, I think there is a lot of sense in investigating the lifestyles and techniques of pre-industrial peoples; including, but not confined to, pre-industrial Europeans.

    Another example; I often stay in a village in England which was, like many or most villages in England, until the 20th Century, entirely self-sufficient in both beer and cider. The apples arrived in the village, as Newton observed, by gravity; as did the water used to brew the local ale. Nowadays, these two commodities arrive from hundreds or thousands of miles away, transported by the good graces of Mr Ford's successors.

    Transporting water by road is bunk.

    So my argument is not, I strongly suspect, with you Patrick, but rather with a whole modern tendency to look for "new" solutions, new technological fixes. Before the arrival of Mr Ford's contraption, many millions of brilliant minds had spent countless years pondering how to achieve the greatest human happiness with the minimum possible human effort. Many of their solutions seem to me to be very practical, achievable, necessarily low-carbon, and well worth a second look.

    Hi Patrick,

    (Reposting another chewed one)

    By "his early life", I presume you mean the first 500 years or so. Noah lived to 950.

    And is an interesting example of the theme that history is not bunk; the Noah story, and various flood stories such as the one in the Epic of Gilgamesh and Deucalion all seem to serve as warnings of the power of the sea; Very possibly, these are exampes of oral folk traditions passed down from the witnesses of catastrophic flooding events such as the flood of the Med basin, the Black Sea basin, or the eruption and subsequent tsunami of the Thira volcano. In the light of recent events in Japan, I'd suggest there is quite a lot of baby in with this bathwater...

    Rereading my earlier post, it's a little too long on rhetoric and short on substance. Two pertinent examples:

    I sit typing this inside a room constructed over 200 years ago, without any industrial materials. The walls are made of large oak beams, which are infilled with straw woven into a lattice of laths, over which the filler used is a mixture of local mud, with a dash of lime some broken down straw and some further organic substances, of probable equine origin.

    The lime may have arrived from some distance. But the oak will be very local, as will the straw. The mud will have been moved a matter of metres, and the broken down straw and the donkey droppings will have been produced probably overnight by the traction animals. The net effect of this is a room, and a house, that probably actually sequesters carbon. Given that 5% of current carbon emissions are due to the production of cement and plaster, and that house building is thus a contributing cause of AGW...

    Another case: I have been researching the alcohol in one small English village. At some length ;-#

    Until modern times, the village was fairly self-sufficient in both beer and cider. The apples for cider making were essentially produced by solar power and arrived in the village, as Newton noted, by gravity; as did the water used for brewing.

    The post-industrial method of keeping the said village afloat is different. Beer and cider both now arrive due to the good graces of Mr Ford's successors, from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Instead of being packaged in reusable glass demijohns or barrels, they now come in tiny little litre containers. Transporting water around the place by road is bunk.

    Countless millions of pre-industrial people have already put an an unimaginable amount of time and thought into how to best achieve the greatest human happiness from the minimum expenditure of work and energy. If you must rely on either doing the work yourself by muscle power, or on persuading some damned mule to do it for you, you are going to look quite hard for the low-energy alternative.

    To pinch a line from a popular beat combo - the Kaiser Chiefs - actually a title of last week's album - "The future is medieval". Haven't heard the record, and I'd have to qualify that by adding that damn the feudal system, crusades, witch-hunts, etc, but even so, I do strongly suspect that in pre-industrial processes and practices we have a rich trove of wit and wisdom to mine for low-energy solutions to the problem of decarbonising our current way of life, while still maintaining a life worth living and meeting human needs.

    Pardon my going on like this. I strongly suspect that my argument is not at all with you, but with Mr Ford and his model of develoment...

    (Looking forward to your next on sea ice)


    Please real free to delete either of the above

    idunno:  why would I want to delete your ramblings, much of which I agree with?

    Not entirely relevant, but if history is '1066 and all that', then ...
    Much of the history of the USA's separation of church and state can be traced back to before the Norman conquest of 1066.  It is notable that most of the oldest and most strongly built buildings in England were built for a state religion and its administrators.  One of Britain's oldest churches is Minster Abbey on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent.  Often, but wrongly, cited as a Norman Abbey it was completed about 664 - 675 CE.  The first Abbess was the queen of Kent: Queen Sexburga.  From that time through to the reign of Elizabeth 1st, most people still lived in rural areas in houses made of mud and timber.  Until communism was invented, the serfs didn't resent living in squalor, but they did engage in wars to determine which kind of clergy could tell them what to think, take money from them, and live in the best accommodations.

    I guess I can ramble as well as you can.  ;-)
    Hi Patrick,

    "I guess I can ramble as well as you can. ;-)"

    Really, Patrick, don't flatter yourself.

    What a shame that the Founding Fathers thought so little of St Sexburga who, served perhaps with mayo, lettuce and lingerie, sounds like the perfect incarnation of the American dream.