Henry Ford used wireless radio to communicate within Ford Motor Company (FMC) starting after October 1, 1919. This revolutionary new means of communication captured Ford’s interest because it allowed him to transmit messages within his vast operation. By August 1920, he could convey directions from his yacht to administrators in FMC offices and production facilities in Dearborn and Northville, Michigan. By February 1922, Ford’s railroad offices and the plant in Flat Rock, Michigan were connected, and by 1925, the radio transmission equipment was on Ford’s Great Lake bulk haulers and ocean-going vessels. Historian David L. Lewis claimed that “Ford led all others in the use of intracompany radio communications” (The Public Image of Henry Ford, 311).
Ford Motor Company also used radio transmissions to reach external audiences through promotional campaigns. During 1922, FMC sales branches delivered a series of expositions that featured Ford automobiles and Fordson tractors. An article in Motor Age (August 10, 1922) described highlights of the four-month tour of western Oregon:
“The days are given over to field demonstrations of tractors, plows and implements, while at night a radio outfit that brings in the concerts from the distant cities and motion pictures from the Ford plant, keep an intensely interested crowd on the grounds until the Delco Light shuts down for the night.”
The Ford Radio and Film crew that broadcast to the Oregon crowds traveled in a well-marked vehicle, taking every opportunity available to inform passers-by of Ford’s investment in the new technology – radio – and the utility of new FMC products. Ray Johnson, who participated in the tour, recalled that he drove a vehicle during the day and then played dance music in the evenings as a member of the three-piece orchestra, “Sam Ness and his Royal Ragadours.”
Ford and Fordson Power Exposition Caravan and Radio Truck, Seaside, Oregon, 1922 . THF134998
In 1922, Intra-Ford transmissions began making public broadcasts over the Dearborn’s KDEN station (call letters WWI) at 250-watts of power, which carried a range of approximately 360 meters. The radio station building and transmission towers were located behind the Ford Engineering Laboratory, completed in 1924 at the intersection of Beech Street and Oakwood Boulevard in Dearborn.
Ford Motor Company Radio Station WWI, Dearborn, Michigan, March 1925. THF134748
Staff at the station, conveying intracompany information and compiled content for the public show which aired on Wednesday evenings.
Ford Motor Company Radio Station WWI, Dearborn, Michigan, August 1924. THF134754
The station did not grow because Ford did not want to join new radio networks. He discontinued broadcasting on WWI in early February 1926 (The Public Image of Henry Ford, 179).
Ford did not discontinue his intracompany radio communications. FMC used radio-telegraph means to communicate between the head office in Dearborn and remote locations, including, Fordlandia, a 2.5-million-acre plantation that Ford purchased in 1927 and that he planned to turn into a source of raw rubber to ease dependency on British colonies regulated by British trade policy.
Brazil and other countries in the Amazon of South American provided natural rubber to the world until the early twentieth century. The demand for tires for automobiles increased so quickly that South American harvests could not satisfy demand. Industrialists sought new sources. During the 1870s, a British man smuggled seeds out of Brazil, and by the late 1880s, British colonies, especially Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) and Malaysia, began producing natural rubber. Inexpensive labor, plus a climate suitable for production, and a growing number of trees created a viable replacement source for Brazilian rubber.
British trade policies, however, angered American industrialists who sought to establish production in other places including Africa and the Philippines. Henry Ford turned to Brazil, because of the incentives that the Brazilian government offered him. His goals to produce inexpensive rubber faced several hurdles, not the least of which was overcoming the traditional labor practices that had suited those who harvested rubber in local forests, and the length of time it took to cultivate new plants (not relying on local resources).
Ford built a production facility on the Tapajós River in Brazil. This included a radio station. The papers of E. L. Leibold, in The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center, include a map with a key that indicated the “proposed method of communication between Home Office and Ford Motor Company property on Rio Tapajos River Brazil.” The system included Western Union (WU) land wire from Detroit to New York, WU land wire and cable from New York to Para, Amazon River Cable Company river cable between Para and Santarem, and Ford Motor Company radio stations at each point between Santarem and the Ford Motor Company on Rio Tapajós. Manual relays had to occur at New York, Para, and Santarem.
Map Showing Routes of Communication between Dearborn, Michigan and Fordlandia, Brazil, circa 1928. THF134693
Ford officials studied the federal laws in Brazil that regulated radio and telegraph to ensure compliance. Construction of the power house and processing structures took time. The community and corporate facilities at Boa Vista (later Fordlandia) grew. By 1931, the power house had a generator that provided power throughout the Fordlandia complex.
Generator in Power House at Fordlandia, Brazil, 1931. THF134711
Power House and Water Tower at Fordlandia, Brazil, 1931. THF134714
Lines from the power house stretching up the hill from the river to the hospital and other buildings, including the radio power station. The setting on a higher elevation helped ensure the best reception for radio transmissions.
Sawmill and Power House at Fordlandia, Brazil, 1931.
Workers built the radio power house, which held a Delco Plant and storage batteries, and the radio transmitter station with its transmission tower. The intracompany radio station operated by 1929.
Radio Power House, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929.THF134697
Radio Transmitter House, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929.
Storage Batteries in Radio Power House, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929.
Delco Battery Charger for Radio Power House, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929.
Radio Power House Motor Generator Set, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929.
The radio power house is visible at the extreme left of a photograph showing the stone road leading to the hospital (on an even higher elevation) at Fordlandia.
Stone Road Leading to Hospital, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929. THF134709
Radio Transmitter Station, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929. THF134707
Back at FMC headquarters in Dearborn, Ford announced in late 1933 that he would sponsor a program on both NBC and CBS networks. The Waring show aired two times a week between 1934 and 1937, when Ford pulled funding. Ford also sponsored World Series broadcasts. The most important radio investment FMC made, however, was the Ford Sunday Evening Hour, launched in the fall of 1934. Eighty-six CBS stations broadcast the show. Programs included classical music and corporate messages delivered by William J. Cameron, and occasionally guest hosts. Ford Motor Company printed and sold transcripts of the weekly talks for a small fee.
On August 24, 1941 Linton Wells (1893-1976), a journalist and foreign correspondent, hosted the broadcast and presented a piece on Fordlandia.
Program, "Ford Summer Hour," Sunday, August 24, 1941. THF134690
Linton Wells was not a stranger to Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, he and his wife, Fay Gillis Wells, posed for a tintype in the village studio on 2 May 1940.
Tintype Portrait of Linton Wells and Fay Gillis Wells, Taken at the Greenfield Village Tintype Studio, circa 1940. THF134720
This radio broadcast informed American listeners of the Fordlandia project, in its 16th year in 1941. Wells summarized the products made from rubber (by way of an introduction to the importance of the subject). He described the approach Ford took to carve an American factory out of an Amazonian jungle, and the “never-say-quit” attitude that prompted Ford to re-evaluate Fordlandia, and to trade 1,375 square miles of Fordlandia for an equal amount of land on Rio Tapajós, closer to the Amazon port of Santarem. This new location became Belterra. Little did listeners know the challenges that arose as Brazilians tried to sustain their rubber production, and Ford sought to grow its own rubber supply.
By 1942, nearly 3.6 million trees were growing at Fordlandia, but the first harvest yielded only 750 tons of rubber. By 1945, FMC sold the holdings to the Brazilian government (The Public Image of Henry Ford, 165).
The Ford Evening Hour Radio broadcasts likewise ceased production in 1942 after eight years and 400 performances.
Henry Ford established the plantations of Fordlandia and Belterra in Brazil with the hope of mass producing rubber for Ford Motor Company vehicles at a fraction of the cost of American factories. Although deep in the Amazon jungle, Ford was essentially attempting to recreate his successful company town of Dearborn, Michigan for his Brazilian workers. Fordlandia came first in 1930, but was not nearly as prosperous as Ford had hoped. In 1940, Ford opened a second plantation, Belterra. Although both plantations were eventually closed, Belterra found some moderate success before Henry Ford abandoned the project. Belterra set out to solve problems created or brought harshly to light by Fordlandia. In many ways, Belterra more closely aligned with Ford’s vision, epitomizing the ideal small Midwestern town better than Fordlandia ever had.
Much has already been written about Henry Ford’s ill-fated Amazonian experiment, Fordlandia. In 1927, Ford acquired land in Northern Brazil, and envisioned creating a booming rubber plantation and town. He anticipated a new revenue stream that would produce enough rubber to make tires for 2 million tires every year. Ford knew that in order to ensure Fordlandia’s economic success, he needed a workforce that was healthy and contented with their lives. In addition to the rubber plantation, Fordlandia had a school, workers’ homes, a railroad, hospital, dance hall, golf course, community pool, sawmill, recreation center, and many other things Henry Ford viewed as cornerstones of a productive and morally righteous society. As author Greg Grandin wrote in Fordlandia, this new plantation offered Henry Ford, “a chance to join not just factory and field but industry and community in a union that would yield, in addition to great efficiency, fully realized men.” Henry Ford initially offered Brazilian workers 35 cents a day, as well as food, lodging and healthcare, well beyond the wages any laborers had been offered up until now in this part of the world. However, these amenities came with massive strings attached, such as the imposition of an American 9 am - 5 pm working schedule, and the requirement that all laborers eat food from the American Midwest. These habits were foreign to the workers and they quickly grew resentful of the behavioral restrictions imposed by Ford and rioted in December 1930. After the riot, Fordlandia was never able to fully recover, and it was clear that this experiment was not functioning effectively, efficiently or, and most important, profitably. However, Henry Ford was anything but a quitter. He had committed himself to the idea of a rubber plantation deep in the heart of the Amazon, and he was not going to give up on his dream that easy.
One popular line of inquiry received by the Benson Ford Research Center involves Henry Ford’s interest in ensuring a constant and affordable supply of rubber for Ford Motor Company by establishing rubber plantations in Brazil, first at Fordlandia, and then at Belterra. Not surprisingly, our collections hold quite a bit of related material. W.L. Reeves Blakeley led the expedition to find the site that would later become Fordlandia, and, after Ford purchased the tract of 2.5 million acres, supervised the team that did the initial clearing. The W.L. Reeves Blakeley collection at The Henry Ford contains documentation of experiments, test papers, printed material, a few tools, and plant samples—the latter of which we’ve just digitized, including this sample of “maleo caetano” collected in 1931. Visit our digital collections to see all 15 plant samples, along with additional photos of Fordlandia and Belterra.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.