Henry Ford was born 150 years ago, July 30, 1863. He is remembered now for building a great many automobiles, for saying that history was "bunk" and for a strenuous anti-Semitic campaign that did his Ford Motor Co. incalculable harm (and whose effects the company has successfully worked to ameliorate almost since the day he died, in 1947).
But there is much more to his legacy than that - a legacy that takes on added resonance with the bankruptcy of Detroit, where it was largely forged.
Late in Ford's life, Will Rogers dropped his friendly folksiness to say, "It will take a hundred years to tell whether you have helped us or hurt us. But you certainly didn't leave us where you found us."
Just where that might have been was articulated by Ford himself to a high school boy who was interviewing him.
The carmaker was speaking nostalgically about the virtues of the farm and the one-room schoolhouse, and the boy found this pretty stodgy.
"But sir, these are different times, this is the modern age and - " Ford cut him off.
"Young man," he snapped, "I invented the modern age."
You'll notice he didn't say, "I built a hell of a lot of cars." He was claiming authorship of the world he and the boy inhabited, and, despite its grandiosity, his boast is hard to gainsay.
Yet the very scope of the changes he worked on American society may make them less obvious to us: They are as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, and thus as transparent.
Ford was born on a prosperous farmstead a few miles outside of Detroit. He would love the American farm all his days, save for one thing: He detested farming. From his childhood on, he sought ways to shift labor from humans to machines. Unlike most farm boys, he had a strong dislike of horses, and by the time he was in his teens, he was in thrall to the idea of a self- propelled vehicle.
When he was 17, he went into Detroit, then a vigorous young industrial city with a thousand machine shops. Those shops were his college, and he proved a brilliant student.
He returned to the farm only briefly, in 1888, to marry a woman named Clara Bryant, a most fortunate choice as she proved steadfast, brave and so convinced of her husband's genius that he came to call her "the believer."
She needed to be when her husband made it clear that he was going to spend his future making gasoline-powered vehicles. As he said about his goal years later: "There was no demand for the automobile. There never is for a new product."
This defies the bromide about necessity being the mother of invention.
Ford thought it was the other way around, and who can say he's wrong? People didn't know they needed an iPhone until they got their hands on one.
He built his first car in 1896, and it ran, and he founded a company, almost immediately withdrew from it, then bankrupted a second one.
He wasn't ready yet to manufacture what he was beginning to envision: a car as dependable as the $5,000 juggernauts the infant auto industry was turning out in the early years of the last century, yet so inexpensive that farmers and shop clerks could own it.
The way to do that, he said, "is to make one automobile like another automobile, to make them all alike, to make them come through the factory just alike - just as one pin is like another when it comes from a pin factory, or one match like another when it comes from a match factory."
When he founded his third company - the one that would last - he set about finding ways to do that.
The result, in 1908, was the Model T, as ugly and dependable as a cast-iron stove. It was an instant success, and, as its high body negotiated the impossible roads of the day, it set about changing the way people lived.