Henry Ford is famous for founding the Ford Motor Company in 1903. He built the Model T and changed America from a horse-and-buggy country to a nation of paved roads and honking cars. Yet most people don’t realize that Henry also transformed American agriculture with his work with soybeans.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s many farmers lost their farms or left crops to rot because they cost too much to harvest. Henry thought this was a waste, so he began to look for ways that common crops could be used in industry. He built a laboratory at Greenfield Village, and studied the chemical makeup of every fruit, grain and vegetable. After two years, Henry found the: the soybean! It was the perfect crop to use in his factories because it was packed with oil and protein.
The oil made a paint that was glossier, less expensive, and dried to a harder finish than other coatings. By 1934, every new Ford boasted a coat of soybean paint. The soy protein, mixed with a chemical resin, created a sturdy plastic. Soon cars had soybean plastic gearshift knobs, light switches and horn buttons. Ford claimed that every car contained a bushel of soybeans.
But Henry wanted a car that was all soybeans. To do this he had to make large plastic panels, which took longer to perfect. The first panels cracked. But eventually Henry had a plastic trunk lid attached to his car so he could show people how sturdy it was. He even hit it with an ax and didn’t make a dent.
Henry affixed fourteen plastic panels to a steel frame, and showed off his new car on August 13, 1941. Unfortunately the car was never manufactured. Four months later America entered World War II. The soybean plastic car rolled into storage, its steel frame recycled in the war effort. Henry died shortly after the war, and no one continued his work on the plastic car.
But his soybean research did spark a movement to use soy in manufacturing, which made soybeans the second largest crop grown in America. Furniture, flooring, candy, crayons, and all kinds of food contain soy. And even though we don’t drive soybean plastic cars yet, there are still plenty of beans in every Ford. All their seats are stuffed with soybean plastic foam.
See Henry’s car here.
Henry Ford (July 30, 1863 – April 7, 1947) was an American captain of industry and a business magnate, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, and the sponsor of the development of the assembly line technique of mass production.
By Hartsook, photographer via Wikimedia Commons
The world's first car made of what was called agricultral plastic is shown in February 1942. The plastic was a strong material combining soy beans, wheat and corn. Although the car never caught on, it was lighter and therefore more fuel efficient than the standard metal body. Wikimedia Commons
Despite the practical benefits of a car made out of food products (fuel efficiency and the conservation of steel that was scarce during World War II), the idea was the source of a lot of good-natured humor. From the Collections of The Henry Ford
Peggy Thomas is the author of such award-winning titles as Farmer George Plants a Nation, and For the Birds, the life of Roger Tory Peterson. Her newest book is Full of Beans: The Story of How Henry Ford Grew a Car, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham.
For more information about Peggy, check out her website: www.peggythomaswrites.com
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