Henry Ford? Edward Menge? Lewis Mumford? Sedgewick Seti? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The preeminent automotive industrialist Henry Ford is credited with a saying that has become very popular in the business literature:
If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
But I can find no good evidence that Ford ever said this. It’s a great line, though, and I am curious to know who came up with it.
Quote Investigator: The earliest linkage known to QI between the saying and Henry Ford appeared in “The Cruise Industry News Quarterly” in 1999. John McNeece, a cruise ship designer, speculated about the desires of Henry Ford’s potential customers. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
John McNeece: “There is a problem trying to figure out what people want by canvassing them. I mean, if Henry Ford canvassed people on whether or not he should build a motor car, they’d probably tell him what they really wanted was a faster horse.
Interestingly, the words above were not credited directly to Ford. The earliest ascription to Ford that QI has located appeared in a letter sent to the UK publication Marketing Week in 2001: 2
Being market-led implies being led by the consumer — and consumers are bad at coming up with innovations (Henry Ford’s quote: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse” springs to mind…)
Yet Henry Ford died in 1947, so the evidence connecting him to the quotation appears to be very weak. Oddly, Henry Ford’s great-grandson William Clay Ford Jr. used the remark in 2006 and indicated that the attribution was accurate.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1923 Henry Ford was interviewed in the Christian Science Monitor newspaper, and he spoke about the replacement of horses on farms by machinery. The theme of using devices with internal combustion engines to do the work of horses is related to the quotation, but this topic is still quite distinct: 3
One man with a machine which perhaps he himself has helped to build, will do in a day as much as five men now do with their teams of horses. Horses on a farm are wasteful. Why, there are lots of small farms that have four and five teams of horses that stand idle three quarters of the time eating their heads off. In a few years the horse will become obsolete except for saddle horses, though why anyone wants to ride horse back is more than I can understand.
Decades before the 1999 citation the core of the concept embodied in the saying was discussed in a scientific periodical titled “The Quarterly Review of Biology” in 1930. The author, Edward J. v. K. Menge, contrasted different methods to achieve scientific and technological progress. He contended that incremental extensions of existing ideas sometimes did not lead to significant progress. Instead, major developments occurred when new principles were discovered and applied: 4
But merely extending knowledge a step further is not developing science. Breeding homing pigeons that could cover a given space with ever increasing rapidity did not give us the laws of telegraphy, nor did breeding faster horses bring us the steam locomotive.
The quotation that is credited to Ford emphasized the futility of breeding faster horses to obtain automobiles, but this 1930 quotation pointed to the mature transportation vehicle of its era, the locomotive. This earlier saying also did not mention misguided customers, yet it is still an intriguing precursor.
In 1946 the influential historian and architecture critic Lewis Mumford published a note in The Journal of Land & Public Utility Economics in reply to an article by Lloyd Rodwin. The conflict between Mumford and Rodwin was based on different beliefs about human development. Mumford attacked Rodwin for stating that “thinking, however imaginative, must reflect continuities, not mutations, if it is to find practical expression”: 5
Does he seriously believe this? If he does, by the same token people who sought to improve transportation should have devoted themselves to breeding faster horses, rather than inventing railroads, motor cars, or airplanes. Each of those inventions was a mutation, not a continuity. Indeed, at the turning point of a civilization (which is where, it seems to me, we are today) continuities inevitably represent inertia, the dead past; and only mutations are likely to prove durable.
In 1971 a report sponsored by The Unesco Institute for Education printed an excerpt from the work of D. E. Berlyne. Once again the wrongheadedness of attempting to improve horses for future transportation was accented: 6
If somebody had been asked to do research about the year 1800 into how transportation could be improved, what would he have done? He might have looked for some improved diet that would give horses greater stamina. He might have sought some way of breeding faster horses. He might have wondered whether coaching inns could be better spaced along the highways or whether more pliable springs could be installed in stage coaches.
In 1979 the magazine Cosmic Search published a fable about the financial support of scientific research set around 1819. In the fable the character Lord Allsen was depicted negatively as someone who obtusely favored only funding research with short-term limited goals: 7
It would be a waste of the taxpayers’ money, he pointed out, to spend even one pence to find out more about what a wire would do to a compass. What was needed, he said, was more practical research like developing longer burning, brighter candles that didn’t need their wicks trimmed as often or breeding faster horses so that messages could be carried between cities more swiftly. Lord Allsen promised to do all he could to support research for better candles and faster horses.
In 1999 a biography of the housing activist Catherine Bauer was published. She was closely associated with Lewis Mumford who was one of her mentors. The book included a segment of the 1946 quotation from Mumford that was given earlier. Hence, the core saying about “breeding faster horses” continued in circulation. 8
In 1999 the saying was linked to Henry Ford in a periodical about cruise ships, and in 2001 a letter in the “Marketing Week” ascribed the statement directly to Ford as noted previously.
A 2003 business book included a version of the saying attributed to Ford. The author stated that the quote was a favorite of a person named Bob Messenger: 9
Bob’s favorite quote is something Henry Ford supposedly said: “If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have told me faster horses.”
In 2005 Tom Kelley the general manager of IDEO, an industrial design firm, published a book titled “The Ten Faces of Innovation.” Kelley described where he first saw the quotation attributed to Ford: 10
A few years ago when IDEO was working with the Mayo Clinic on innovation, we had a small office in their Department of Medicine. I happened to visit the space one day and was struck by a Henry Ford quote the team had posted on the wall. “If I had asked my customers what they wanted,” said the inventive Mr. Ford, “they’d have said a faster horse.” Ford had a point. Don’t expect customers to help you envision the future.
In 2006 William Clay ‘Bill’ Ford Jr., the great-grandson of Henry Ford, invoked the quotation during a telephone conference call. Bill Ford indicated that he believed that the phrase was properly ascribed to his famed ancestor: 11
My great-grandfather once said of the first car he ever built, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” At Ford, we’re going to figure out what people want before they even know it and then we are going to give it to them.
It is unclear what evidence Bill Ford used to decide the provenance of the saying. In December of 2006 the new CEO of Ford, Alan Mulally, used the same expression: 12
Henry Ford, according to Mulally, said that if, when he founded his company, he had asked potential customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
In 2010 a writer at Forbes included the observation in an article but expressed uncertainty about its origin: 13
It may be apocryphal, but Henry Ford supposedly said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.”
In conclusion, QI has not yet located compelling evidence that Henry Ford is responsible for this quotation. The expression of the concept underlying the saying apparently evolved over a period of decades with an initial cite by 1930. The record is still incomplete, so it is best to view this post as a snapshot of the most salient evidence known to QI. Thanks for posing this difficult question.
(Many thanks to Daniel Gackle whose email provided the stimulus for this investigation. Also, thanks to Florida International University for help verifying the Summer 1999 citation.)
Update History: On October 20, 2016 the 1999 John McNeece citation was added to the article.
- 1999 Summer, The Cruise Industry News Quarterly, Volume 9, Number 37, Article: Creating Cruise Ships with an Eye on Next Generation, Author: Greg Miller, Start Page 67, Quote Page 67, Publisher: Oivind Mathisen & Angela Reale Mathisen, New York. (Verified visually; thanks to the staff of Hubert Library of Florida International University) ↩
- 2001 January 18, Marketing Week, Innovation: ‘breaks conventions’, [Letter from David Lowings, Chief executive, 42 consulting, Maidenhead], Centaur Media plc., London. (Accessed website marketingweek.co.uk on 2011 July 28) link ↩
- 1923 July 21, Christian Science Monitor, Henry Ford Warns Americans of Co-Operative Exploitation; Says Europe is Forging Ahead, by George T. Odell, Page 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1930 September, The Quarterly Review of Biology, Biological Problems and Opinions by Edward J. v. K. Menge, Start Page 348, Quote Page 351, Column 2, Volume 5, Number 3, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. (JSTOR) link ↩
- 1946 February, The Journal of Land & Public Utility Economics, Garden Cities and the Metropolis: A Reply by Lewis Mumford, Start Page 66, Quote Page 69, Column 1, Volume 22, Number 1, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin. (JSTOR) link ↩
- 1971, The Role of Research in Educational Change, Edited by Alfred Yates, Chapter 2: Structural Aspects of Educational Research, Start Page 23, Quote Page 32, Unesco Institute for Education, Pacific Books, Palo Alto, California. (Verified on paper) [Footnote 1 states that the transportation example was taken from an earlier work: D. E. Berlyne, in “Emerging Strategies and Structures for Educational Change,” Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Publication Series No.2.] ↩
- 1979 March, Cosmic Search, A Single Vote: An Historical Fable by Sedgewick Seti, Start Page 24, Volume 1, Number 2, Cosmic-Quest Inc. [Website of North American AstroPhysical Observatory (NAAPO)] (Accessed at bigear.org on 2011 July 28) link ↩
- 1999, Houser: The Life and Work of Catherine Bauer by H. Peter Oberlander and Eva Newbrun, Page 234, UBC Press, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 2003, Connect the Dots…to Become an Impact Player by Dick Lynch, Page 158, iUniverse, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 2005, The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley with Jonathan Littman, Quote Page 37, Doubleday division of Random House Inc., New York. (Amazon Look Inside) ↩
- 2006 January 23, Transcript of Q4 2005 Ford Motor Company Earnings Conference Call, [Key Speaker: Bill Ford, Chairman & CEO, Ford Motor Company in January 2006], Congressional Quarterly Transcriptions (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2006 December 25, New Haven Register, New Ford boss taking huge flier with loans by George Will, Page A6, New Haven, Connecticut. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2010 January 6, Forbes, Listen To Competitors–Not Customers by Adam Hartung, Leadership, Forbes.com LLC, New York. (Website forbes.com accessed 2011 July 28) link ↩