Learn about Life in the 1920s

Suggestions for Future Inventions

Henry Ford, in an interview with M. K. Wisehart, author of "The Marvels of Science," tells of some of the inventions that we ought to expect during the years now coming. Mr. Wisehart, at the conclusion of his report of this interview, which he contributes to Modern Mechanics (Minneapolis), quotes also Thomas Edison to a similar effect, believing that both these men have in mind especially the increase and development of purely automatic machinery and the practical elimination of hand-labor. He writes:

"Thousands of new machines will be patented by tomorrow's inventors. What will these be? What are our greatest needs today? Recently, in Dearborn, Michigan, I had an opportunity to put questions of this sort to Henry Ford. The answers he gave me are stimulating and informative to a high degree. To begin with, let me explain the point of view from which Mr. Ford discusses what is to come.
" 'We already live in a comfortable age,' he said, 'but it is not as comfortable as it is going to be. We have made a beginning. Many things remain to be done.
'"It is sometimes said in criticism that ours is a machine age. It certainly is. But those who imply that men have been made machines, and that life has been mechanized, are reactionary in their thinking. The machine appears only through man's mastery of it. It has been invented and adopted and used by men, first, to save the dignity of their homes by centralizing work in factories, and second, to save time.
'"Those who assume that we have now reached the true industrial age are doubtless in line for a surprize.
"'What we have to show as yet for the hundreds of generations of labor that have preceded us is far too little. The real industrial age which we are yet to enter will be less noisy, more beautiful, more just, more conducive to higher levels of living for all, than is the present stage.'
'"Just what inventions would you say we are most in need of to-day to further this ideal industrial age?' I asked. Mr. Ford did not answer this question directly. Rather, he pointed out the needs of today and tomorrow by discussing the opportunities for inventiveness which confront our generation, and he spoke as tho much might be expected from the young mind, the unconventional mind.
'" If the young man of to-day wants to tie up with something that has a great future, he will go digging after the airplane,' said Mr. Ford. ' He will need lots of help. The first thing he ought to do is to find out what has been done to bring the airplane to its present phase. The fact is that to-day there is no such thing in existence as an airplane engine.'
"'Just what do you mean by that?' I asked.
"'Boys who are thinking about airplanes now do so without even knowing what kind of engine the airplane ought to have. It reminds me of the time when I was starting in. I was then thinking in terms of steam, because steam was in use in locomotives. It was only after much experimenting that I turned to the gas-engine. It's perfectly natural that boys should think that airplanes must be run with gas-engines. They think so because automobiles are run by gas-engines. But some day a boy will come along who will discover that gas-engines are not the thing at all.
"' What we now call airplane engines are really automobile engines in all their fundamental principles. Some of our experiments here at Dearborn may help discover what an airplane engine should be like. At present, we are giving our attention to the Diesel engine, the outlook is fairly promising.'

"'No one knows just what the airplane engine of the future will be like, but you can be pretty sure it will have four characteristics: first, slow speed; second, reliability; third, perfect balance; fourth, it will use a fuel that will be four or five times more powerful than our present fuel. By the time the engine that will meet these requirements is ready, we may have a type of plane that can come down and make a landing at a speed considerably less than sixty miles an hour.'
"What will this fuel be? Whence will it come? He foresees no shortage of fuel for our internal-combustion engines in the future.
"'We can get fuel from fruit,' he says, 'from that sumach by the roadside, or from apples, weeds, sawdust—almost anything! There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There is enough alcohol in one year's yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the field for a hundred years.'
"And it remains for some one to find how this fuel can be produced commercially—better fuel at a cheaper price than that we now know!
'"In all probability,' said Mr. Ford, 'American cities will in the future be heated by electricity. This means that our houses must be built different—better! We must find out how they can best be insulated. Then they will be cooler in summer and more evenly heated in winter.
"'Why not convert coal into electric power by burning it underground and sending it to the city from the mine without ever bringing it to the surface? That's what they'll do in the future.'"

Mr. Ford, as reported by Mr. Wisehart, says that a big opportunity for inventing something that meets the needs of the time confronts every man who has a job that is too hard for him. "If I had a job that seemed too hard for me," he said, ''I would set to work to find out how to make it easy. A serious attempt to take the drudgery out of a job will start a man to creating something. Remember that individually men invent but little. We accomplish most by combining new ways, principles, and devices previously discovered." He went on:

"What has already been done is not necessarily the best that can be done. From where we are, we are going ahead. Many changes are just around the corner. Think of the waste in time, money, and effort involved in cooking in thousands of different homes in a single community! Let a young man turn his attention to inventing a kind of kitchen that can feed a hundred people! The day is coming when cooking will no longer be done for individual families. In years to come we shall undoubtedly use rubber for floors and thousands of other purposes for which we do not consider it today. In Switzerland, it is now being used for roads. Will the roads of the future be built of rubber? That question is worth thinking about."

Mr. Wisehart says he remembers when, early in his experience as a newspaper reporter, Thomas A. Edison talked with him about inventions and needs of the day much as Mr. Ford did recently. In one respect these two men take an identical attitude when discussing this subject. Both refuse to be didactic and to name the one thing of which the world is most in need. The simple truth of the matter is that there are too many needs today for any one to be said to overtop all the rest. Mr. Wisehart goes on:

"And yet, my impression is that both have something in particular in mind—and that has to do with the development of full automatic-machines. Hear what Mr. Edison has to say on this subject.
"'Machines of a semiautomatic character have given us most of the great conveniences of our new industrial age, including the eight-hour day. The time has come when we are ready for the full automatic machine, which is in use only to a limited extent.'
"Mr. Edison sees no reason why any handwork should be necessary in the manufacture of a garment. Why should not a machine be designed to take in cloth at one end and drop out the finished coat or trousers at the other?
"And he speaks of the principle of the Jacquard loom, a great mechanical principle, as yet limited in application mainly to the manufacture of silk and to the player-piano. This he calls the great 'reserve' principle of the future- -'the principle which brings into action the various parts of a machine in accordance with a perforated pattern traced on a steel card or as on the paper roll of a player-piano.' As a means of control, this principle can be applied to any machine.
'"The full automatic machines now in use give us an indication of some of the savings that we may expect,' says Mr. Edison. "Full automatic machines are now making screws and all kinds of small parts. These machines require very little attention, if any at all, one man being sufficient to attend a dozen of them. Hence, the costs of screws and small parts are very low.
"'We have the Naval Academy and the Military Academy to develop sailors and soldiers. Why should we not have a government school of automatic-machine designers? Our delay in adopting full automatic machinery is due to a lack of men who can design it.'"

Source: Literary Digest - December 7, 1929