The fallacy of the ‘Faster Horse’ story

William and Mary Ford had five children and the holidays looming. In fact, there was to be a family get together 20 miles away to celebrate Mary’s parents 40th wedding anniversary. With this being 1868, William had a few logistical challenges.

Firstly, living in the city, he could only afford one horse. Betsy was a versatile horse that he could both ride, if travelling solo, or drive if he and Mary were going short distances. However a family of seven and their luggage was more than Betsy could manage.

Borrowing another horse was certainly an option, but required loaning a new harness set up too which added to the expense, and it was common courtesy to allow the loan horse to travel on the high central part of the road. The problem was Betsy was not a fan of being harnessed to the right and it would mean a fractious pairing with neither horse throwing their heart into the harness and William as the most experienced, would end up doing all the driving to ensure the horses remained focussed. He’d especially need to be careful given Betsy’s age. The lower horse had many more potholes and rough road to contend with and Betsy wasn’t used to this weight or distance – one trip or strain could mean she would be out of action for a long time. Or worse. He loved Betsy, she’d escorted him to wild teenage parties, then taken him on his daily commute as he started work – and on days off, they’d explored the local area; but in a city, when a horse is a necessity and you don’t have green pasture for retirement, there’s no room for sentimentality.


Henry Ford, aged five at the time, had he asked his family on that journey to dream of the perfect transport, would probably have heard dreams like:

  • William: Every time Betsy is injured I still have to pay to feed her and for someone to look after her as well as the medication – she’s more expensive than you five kids! I wish I could just unscrew her leg and replace it with a new one!
  • Mary: I wish I could have bought the cot that your baby sister settles best in; but we have to be so careful to balance the weight in the coach so as not to add strain to the horses that I’ve opted for sleepless nights instead. I wish I could just chuck everything in the coach, higgledy piggledy.
  • William: The Highway men just before our destination have a fearsome reputation.  I wish I could summon a burst of speed, or at least lock the doors so that I knew you would all be safe.
  • Mary: Could you imagine how fast we could do the 20 miles if the horses didn’t need to stop for water so often and if we didn’t have to worry about the sweat causing harness sores? I wouldn’t need to spend time cooking as well as packing, we could be there by lunchtime.
  • William: Good point. Never mind the horses! What if the driver didn’t have to worry about the weather at all? Wouldn’t it be amazing if I didn’t have to arrive covered in snow or sunburnt?
  • William: Buying a new horse is such a risk and living in the city, it isn’t an option to breed from Betsy. You just never know how their personalities will evolve. As you know, Betsy has really developed a dislike of water splashing on her. It can make her pretty unpredictable to drive sometimes.

Let’s fast forward now to 2020.

And hear all those people who sagely say; ‘well, Empathy isn’t always necessary; you know what Henry Ford said ‘if I asked people what they wanted, they’d’ve said a faster horse’.’

No. Henry didn’t say that. And if you are questioning people in the right way:

In an empathetic way.

You will never get a non-answer either.

How you interpret the conversations and how you prototype and test, will determine the success of your product derived from these conversations. Henry could have come up with a hat and cloak for the driver. He could have come up with a way of disabling highwaymen. He could have come up with a cheaper way of breeding horses in city locations. He could have pioneered some basic genetic attributes.

But he didn’t. He came up with something far more radical.

These conversations will always be worth your time. Challenge yourself to be radical – and try never to use fake news; Henry never said it.