In the 1920s the US industrialist wanted to found a city based on the values that made his company a success while, of course, producing cheap rubber. The jungle city that bore his name ended up one of his biggest failures
In 1928, northern Brazil was captivated by an enticing bit of news. The regions residents were about to receive a new visitor, a man who came with the promise of reviving their ailing economy and introducing them to a whole new way of life Henry Ford.
Local papers began raving about their future neighbour. Speculation ran wild: some columnists opined that Ford would be building a new railroad to the coast, or a new factory for his cars. Above all, they just wanted to know when he would be arriving.
Officially, Fords interest in Brazil was a business venture: the monopoly on Sri Lankan rubber maintained by Britain was driving up costs for his new Model A cars, so he wanted to find a cheap source of latex that would allow the Ford Motor Company to produce its own tyres, to cut costs.
But Fords vision ran much deeper. His goal was not simply to ship latex back to the companys Dearborn HQ it was to build his vision of the ideal city. A city that would fuse the same concepts that Ford had championed throughout his career, and bring a better future to a forgotten part of the planet. And that city would bear his name: Fordlandia.
It is difficult to overstate the reputation Henry Ford had built for himself by that time whether in Brazil, America, or anywhere else on the planet. In his day, Fords name was every bit as evocative of the glimmering promise of technological revolution as Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg perhaps even more so.
Within a decade of its founding in Dearborn, Michigan in 1903, the Ford Motor Company had revolutionised car production by introducing the assembly line isolating tasks within the complex process of car assembly, allowing new models of his flagship vehicle, the Model T, to be cranked out faster than ever before, making the company a global success.
Yet Fords greatest innovation was arguably not mechanical, but social. He took pride in the fair treatment of his staff, and in 1914, to great fanfare, he proclaimed that all Ford workers would receive a daily salary of $5 (the equivalent of $120 (90) today).
Ford believed fair treatment would make his workers more responsible citizens and, in the process, solidify a client base for manufacturers. The Rev Samuel Marquis, one the heads of Fords employee relations office, once proclaimed that Fords cars were the by-products of his real business, which is the making of men.
But some of Fords social ideas were highly sinister most notoriously his anti-semitism, which featured prominently in a newspaper he himself printed, the Dearborn Independent.
He became increasingly convinced that his role in advancing society had to go beyond the factory floor, and encompass entire cities. While he succeeded in bringing some of his smaller urban planning concepts to life, his much larger project, a massive manufacturing city to be built in northern Alabama 75 miles long, with power supplied by damming the Tennessee river never got off the ground.
Eventually, Ford settled on a location for his ideal city that was a good deal further south than Alabama: the Amazon.
A work of civilisation
By the 1920s, the Amazon basin lay in shambles. At the end of the previous century, the region had benefitted from a monopoly on global rubber production, skyrocketing demands, and easy transportation via the navigable waters of the Amazon river.
Cities along the river had swelled with new residents seeking their fortunes, and had lined their streets with opulent new buildings. Belem, at the mouth of the river, became the busiest port in Brazil; upriver, Manaus became world famous for its decadent Amazon Theatre.