Henry Ford was rich and famous. It is not hard to understand why. After all, he converted the automobile from an expensive novelty into a vehicle affordable for the middle class and in the process sparked Americans’ enduring love affair with their cars. His introduction of the assembly line that churned out the celebrated model T revolutionized transportation. Ford had no formal education but he was a whiz when it came to tinkering with machinery. He had become infatuated with the “horseless carriage” at the age of twelve when he saw a primitive version and within two decades while working as an engineer in the Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit he had built a self-propelled “Ford Quadricycle.” At the age of thirty-six he resigned and founded the “Detroit Automobile Company,” later to become the “Ford Motor Company.”
Ford’s interests extended beyond automobiles. He was a sort of environmentalist ahead of his time. From scraps of the wood used in his cars, Ford formulated charcoal briquets and partnered with Thomas Edison to research botanicals that could produce rubber in America. He believed that plants were capable of furnishing useful materials and he became particularly interested in soybeans.
Ford had grown up on a farm and early in his career had developed an interest in what he called "chemurgy," the science that looked for ways to find new industrial uses for crops. By the 1930s Fords' researchers had determined that the soybean was an excellent candidate for such uses because it produced a versatile oil and a protein that could be turned into fibrous materials. Soybean processing was an established practice in China at the time and Ford sent his representatives to study the Chinese methods. They learned how the oil and the protein were isolated and also reported that the Chinese workers wore minimal clothing. This aspect of the technology did not appeal to Ford but it may have given him the idea of making fabrics out of soybeans which he did manage to do. On special occasions Henry would be seen sporting his suit made completely out of soybean fibers.
On a more practical basis, Ford’s researchers found ways to use soybean oil in the enamel paint for cars and soybean meal was moulded to make horn buttons, gearshift knobs, door handles and even acceleration pedals! Robert Boyer, Ford's main soy researcher, even developed plastic sheets made from soybeans that would replace steel. He installed a soy trunk lid on one of Henry's personal automobiles and the magnate delighted in assembling skeptics and smashing the car with an axe. He invited them to do the same to their car. None took up that challenge.
Then the war came and automobile construction was practically stopped as car factories cranked out military equipment. The war also triggered a great deal of research into plastics and by the time it ended plastics from petroleum had become commonplace. They were easier to produce than soy products and of course at the time nobody worried about running out of petroleum or the environmental consequences of the new technologies. But given the current climate, we may yet see the rebirth of the soybean car and suit.
Although Henry Ford is revered as an American icon, he had one very large skeleton in his closet. He was a flagrant anti-Semite, writing in one article in 1922 that “if fans wish to know the trouble with American baseball they have it in three words-too much Jew.” The Dearborn Independent, a newspaper Ford owned, published a series of articles on “The International Jew: The World’s Problem.” It is no wonder the Nazis loved Ford. In 1938 he was awarded Germany’s Grand Cross of the German Eagle, a medal given to foreigners sympathetic to Nazism. He seems to have recanted his views in a 1942 letter to the Anti-Defamation League in which he stated that "My sincere hope that now in this country and throughout the world when the war is finished, hatred of the Jews and hatred against any other racial or religious groups shall cease for all time." That hope has not materialized.