Aspire | Action | Acquire
Aspire | Action | Acquire

Billion dollar thinking

In 1919, the automobile pioneer, Henry Ford, brought a defamation claim against the Chicago Tribune newspaper for an editorial describing him as an ignorant idealist and anarchist. A myth about the Chicago Tribune case is that Ford responded to questioning intended to belittle his intelligence that buttons on his desk, presumably a telephone switchboard, would connect him with the brightest minds in the country. There is no mention of this account on the Tribune’s website or in a transcript of the court case in Henry and Edsel, a biography of Henry and his son. 

Ford grew up on a farm in Dearborn Michigan. It is true that he didn’t have the education of, say, Sam Walton of Wal-Mart who also grew up on a farm and was university educated. Henry Ford, however, was no less inquisitive than Sam Walton or Walt Disney who too up on a farm and completed several college courses. A voracious want to acquire knowledge is published characteristic of billionaires post the gilded age. That want to acquire knowledge should not automatically be confused with attaining formal educational qualifications.

After completing eight years of basic education in a single room school in Dearborn, Ford left for Detroit to take up a three-year machining apprenticeship at the age of sixteen; which he apparently completed well ahead of time while also working nights doing watch repairs in a jewellery shop. Not long after graduating from his apprenticeship, Ford returned to the farm and set up a workshop doing engine repairs for the Westinghouse Company.  This was well before Stanford University educated billionaire founders of the Hewlett Packard Company, William Hewlett and David Packard, gained notoriety for originating the Silicon Valley model of garage-based start-ups in the late 1930s.

Pitted commercially against the likes of Alfred Sloan, who organizationally shaped General Motors, Henry Ford did more than revolutionise automobile production. His name became synonymous with mass-production and commonly referred to as “Fordism”. By comparison, Sloan, who graduated from MIT where a management school is named in his honour, was installed in the role by Pierre S du Pont of the DuPont Company. Du Pont, whom is credited for fathering the modern corporation, used his investment in General Motors to displace its innovation focused founder, William C Durant.

The du Pont family differentiate themselves in respect of education. Dating back to its patriarch, Éleuthère Irénée du Pont who arrived from Paris in 1800 having studied chemistry, successive generations have attended American universities. Most commonly Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  In 1909, Coleman du Pont, Pierre S’s cousin, offered MIT $500,000 for the purpose of relocating its campus to Cambridge. This was after an offer by Andrew Carnegie was turned down for making his donation conditional upon co-funding being found. Coleman du Pont anonymously donated the land and George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak, largely financed MIT’s construction costs.

In the du Pont family’s hometown of Delaware, the childless Pierre S. made substantial donations to education. Time magazine reported in January 1927 that Pierre personally spent five million dollars to purchase sites and construct Delaware schools. He also served as vice-president of the State Board of Education and contributed some two million dollars to a then local college which became the University of Delaware. A building at the University of Delaware is named after Pierre S du Pont. Not since Carnegie, had a titan of modern industry done so much for education.