Flashback Friday: the Ford myth vs the Dodge Brothers reality

Henry Ford famously increased his pay to a high $5 per day, saying everyone should be able to buy the cars they made. …

But did he actually do it? It turns out that Henry Ford only paid a small number of people that high wage; the rest of his employees had to make do with below-industry-standard pay, horrific working conditions, and a gang of company-paid thugs whose duties ranged from ruthlessly beating anyone who thought they should have higher pay or safer work, and literally tossing injured employees out the back door.

Dodge Brothers cars
Tom Buss photo

The Dodge Brothers were not happy about Henry Ford’s methods. In their own factory, which originally made parts largely for Ford (whose car they largely redesigned so it would not flop like the first two Ford cars had), they treated (and paid) people far better. Indeed, Dodge Brothers was likely the best of the mass-production automakers to work for.

Some of the differences between the two automakers were quite stark. Henry Ford believed injured workers should be disposed of immediately; he needed a long line of new applicants at the door to take their place, which is why he promised a wage nearly no employees could earn (among other things, they had to have a great deal of tenure at the company; attend the correct church without fail; and have a family). The Dodges had a fully staffed medical area for injured workers, with doctors and nurses. They also provided a free $200 insurance policy to any employee who worked for at least a year; and, for the next five years, they added $100 per year to the value of the policy. (With $5 per day seen as a high salary, a $200 would last a widow for a decent time; the maximum policy of $800 was far more generous.)

The Dodges provided beer on hot days; Ford’s Sociological Department provided spying and general thuggery. Robert Lacey’s 1986 book on Ford described a Dodge Brothers employee who left for the $5 per day wage; he came back quickly, returning to the Dodges’ $3, calling Ford a “hell on earth that turned human beings into driven robots.” He also claimed that Ford “exploited its employees more ruthlessly than any of the other automobile firms, dominating their lives in ways that deprived them of privacy and individuality.”

The differences went to the basic philosophy of the people involved. The Dodges were by all accounts a happy, fun-loving pair, partying hard and working hard—and doing it all together, as one unit. Henry Ford pined for the good old days which had never existed, reassembling certain parts of them later on in his life at a car-free park which is still a major regional attraction; he shamelessly kissed up to the super-celebrity (and actual genius) Thomas Edison, the first to create power stations and the inventor of parallel circuits and R&D; and, most harmfully, spread his ideas about an imaginary evil Jewish conspiracy. Adolph Hitler, during Ford’s lifetime, credited Henry Ford with his entire scheme of blaming Jews for all the world’s ills, and for his “final solution”—one which Ford himself advocated through his publications.

Today’s Ford is not the one run by Henry Ford, any more than today’s Dodge is the one run by the Dodge Brothers, who died far too young during a flu epidemic. But it’s interesting to dredge the propaganda out of the way and look at the reality of how they began, and to wonder if any of those threads kept on going over time.

Source: Motales, “Dodge Brothers vs. Ford: Opposite Employers

9 thoughts on “Flashback Friday: the Ford myth vs the Dodge Brothers reality”

  1. Thanks for the history. I kinda had an idea but didn’t know all the details here. Glad to hear about the Dodge Bros legacy.

    Regarding Ford kissing up to: “… super-celebrity (and actual genius) Thomas Edison” .. I disagree with characterizing Edison as an actual genus. In fact the more one reads about him, especially compared with his one-time employee and friend turned bitter rival, Nikola Tesla, the less one thinks of Edison as an actual genius. Edison was a tinkerer whose inventions came about by pure trail and error. However he didn’t understand how things worked and because of that had very flawed reasoning. Think of AC vs DC for transmission. Edison was absolutely dead wrong here even though he prevailed at the time where as Tesla was absolutely correct, proven later after his demise.

    This false attribute of “genius” extends into his other work outside electricity, such as the movie camera and how he took sole credit for the actual work on the design and engineering, despite only conceiving of the idea then throwing the actual work to his lab assistants to figure out. He had NO idea how the physics and optics of the lens worked, in fact he never did for anything including electricity, and it was all implemented by lab assistants; and despite other independent inventors coming up with their own lens and camera design without copying his, he decided to exercise his monopoly granted to him by patents prompting the movie industry to move out west to escape the reach of the Federal gov

    • Your “research” into Edison appears to have come from watching TV shows from the last 20 years.

      Edison was indeed a genius. Do you take away from him the invention of the phonograph? The vacuum light bulb, which required knowledge of chemistry? The invention of fuses, the parallel circuit, and such? That’s not tinkering. Even knowing how to send 16 messages on the same telegraph line, as he did, required knowledge of physics beyond most professors of that era.

      Nikola Tesla called Edison a genius and said it was all the more remarkable because Edison did not have Tesla’s “cat-like reflexes” or superb education. (See his autobiography.)

      Lens optics? Of course Edison didn’t know about that. His idea was that if you had a moving shutter and moving celluloid film, a new invention, you could make images move. He wasn’t a machinist. If every invention has to require making every part of the model, nobody invents anything today. I doubt if the inventors of the transistor built them.

      AC vs DC – well, duh. We all know Edison was wrong. So what? You can’t be wrong? I’m sure the great scientist John Maxwell got a few things wrong, too. And Michael Faraday, surely. Tesla certainly got things wrong. I guess because you can’t transmit energy over miles of distance, Tesla was nothing but a fool and a tinkerer.

      You know nothing about Edison other than weird and recent Tesla propaganda.

      • You’re right I shouldn’t have characterized him as merely a tinkerer and I’ll give him the incandescent light bulb and phonograph, but I stand by what I mentioned about my disdain in regards to the camera, patents and lack of acknowledgement. My first research into his work began because of my own interest and proximate involvement with IP lawyers in sofware engineering a while back, where patent trolling and patent abuse is rife which necessitous a subsequent but very ugly defensive patent portfolio buildup. Well from my own research Edison was perhaps the godfather of all patent trolls with his Motion Pictures Camera association or trust. The reason why I mention his own lack of knowledge about much of the working details of his own supposed invetnion on the camera was because first, is you look at the original patent on the Kinetoscope, you’ll see that he is listed as sole original inventor. This is blatantly false. He traveled to Europe to gain knowledge from protoypes and only subsequently filed patents after working on one here, but there is NO acknowledgement of prior art, when in fact there was very real demonstrable prior art not just of various part of the Kinetoscope he claimed to be the sole inventor of, such as the work by Étienne Marey for the actual original work of the core device (chronographic gun) to shine light onto a film to record frames, a few years prior (again NO acknowledgement of prior art, which should’ve been done but that would’ve required differentation technically, at least by modern law to grant a patent) and other people, such as Louis Le Prince’s full working prototype of the same motion picture camera years prior to Edison’s claimed invention. Le Prince had a full motion picture camera shot on Eastman film in October 1888, years prior to Edison’s filing of the Kinetographic Camera in August 1897.

        Again there was no acknowledgement of reliance of other people’s work, no disclosure of prior art, claim of being SOLE inventor on the original patents e.g. starting with US589168A then him and his Motion Motion company amassing hundreds if not thousands of patents and abusing the patent system. Historians debate and you can read wikipedia for theories why he strangely didn’t file any patents in Europe– my take –and one that is supported by actually examining all prior art that is unacknowledged in Edison’s invention of the Kinetoscope and subsequent work– is that he knew he took most of the original ideas there (see previous) and claimed it for himself in the US. The motion picture industry moving out west from New York, New Jersey area to California to escape his maniacal patent abuse (or maybe theft to begin with) is a very real fact.

        • You seem to think that at that point, Edison was writing his own patent applications. In point of fact he was quite public about attributing prior influences in public, if not in the patent application itself (which, again, I’d be pretty sure he signed but didn’t actually write, because he was at that point in his career). I’m pretty sure people didn’t have to list patents on all parts they used, or things would get very complicated. He still invented the idea of the kinetescope even if he used someone else’s lamp and directed machinists on what to do instead of doing it himself. The motion picture industry left not because of his patent abuse, as the inventor – if that was a problem they would have sued – but so they could infringe on his patents. I guess all those companies that made incandescent light bulbs illegally instead of paying royalties were also ok?

          And you give him credit for the light bulb and phonograph, two revolutionary inventions, but it’s all garbage because you dislike one patent application from moving pictures. Fuses, which were not tinkering but were based on the same knowledge of melting points as the light bulb – indeed, great knowledge, to have correct fuses (though they were terribly crude). The parallel circuit, there’s no known precedent for that as far as I know. That required a good deal of physics knowledge given the time. Efficient generators (which “experts” of the time said couldn’t be done). Chemical electric meters.

          The man did end up hiring many helpers for calculations, experimentation, and research as time went on. His first inventions were done on a very bare staff.

          As for the reason Edison got paranoid with patents, and ran the industries himself to his own detriment – there were two reasons. The main one is because he was pretty constantly cheated by others, both his bosses when he worked for others, and patent infringers, many of whom were quite bold. Yes, he got paranoid about that, and decided he had to run his own business to avoid being cheated. Nikola Tesla was far better off; his first and second employers were both fairly honest, and while the first was cheap, the second (Westinghouse) was honest and provided him with the resources he needed.

          Westinghouse was an inventor in his own right, the man who saved thousands of lives per year, and many more serious injuries with the railroad air brake. He sold to a pretty limited clientele which probably saved him from the chaos in Edison’s life.

          I guess my main point here is that much has been made of Edison as an evil plutocrat, which is about as far from the truth as it gets. Tesla was not a self-made man nor quite the genius he’s now made out to be. He was one of many great scientists and inventors, which does include Edison, from a very productive time. As Tesla said, he stood on Edison’s shoulders, because he was younger; he came into the industry when Edison had already created it from nothing. There were no central generating stations before Edison created them, inventing everything needed for the purpose as he went along and then pushing against the sellers of arc lights and dangerous gas-lighting companies (the people whom gaslighting is named for, who said electricity was generous and gas was safe).

          Sadly for whatever reason, starting around 20 years ago, there has been a campaign to glorify Tesla, who in fiction really created long-distance energy transfer, short-distance matter transfer, time travel, miracle walkie-talkies, and so on. His actual accomplishments were strong but not quite as extensive as Edison’s – for Heaven’s sake, the man invented a new kind of Portland cement and built houses and the first poured concrete road out of them. So they had to invent a rivalry between the two (Edison of course considered Westinghouse, not Tesla, to be a rival) and make Edison out to be a bumbler who stole others’ inventions; in one detective series, pictured as having an office behind rows of people actually doing his work for him (you can see his actual offices, if you like. One was a desk in a library; the others were unoccupied as he was generally out in the labs but certainly not protected by rows of workers). There is literally no historical support, physical or otherwise, for the current story. It’s like making Henry Ford out to be a saint and turning the Dodge Brothers into villains to avoid unwanted comparisons.

          If someone moves to another state to avoid patent infringement suits, have you considered they might be the criminals?

  2. Brilliant men are not always warm, fuzzy, empathetic human beings. They’re driven to success, and many times they achieve it at the expense of their personal relationships and family life. I have no doubt Edison was brilliant and a good businessman. Whether he was a kind, benevolent character is really the only thing up for debate. He did a lot of good in his day, and he created a lot of jobs and opportunity. He certainly raised the American standard of living. Rather than judge him on subjective opinion about his character, we should probably just stick to what isn’t in doubt: that we remember his name for all that he accomplished and where that took us.

    • True. I think he was mainly obsessed by the process of invention. He didn’t like, and wasn’t good at, business. Edison’s Open Door, by his private secretary, sheds light on why he wouldn’t work for anyone else, how he ended up being cheated out of the light-and-power business, and how he ended up in control of the phonograph business which he clearly was lousy at running. He wasn’t a better or worse boss than most except for his close associates, who tended to self-select and were rewarded reasonably well for their devotion.

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