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Fordlandia: Henry Ford's Ill-Fated Foray Into the Brazilian Jungle

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We remember Henry Ford as the automotive magnate who perfected assembly line technology, but he also dabbled in ambitious social programs, including one in which he hired ex-convicts straight out of Sing Sing to staff his factories. Although many of these efforts were successful, Ford's ill-fated foray into the Brazilian jungle was a notable and fascinating exception.

The Plan

If you're going to make millions of cars, you're going to need an awful lot of rubber. In 1927, Ford came up with a novel plan: he'd solve his rubber problem and test out his lofty theories about social planning. If everything went well, he could craft both a utopia full of healthy, productive workers and a direct pipeline of coveted rubber to Detroit.

Ford approached the task with characteristic zeal. He talked the Brazilian government into granting him 10,000 square kilometers of land in the Amazon rainforest "“ a plot that was nearly twice as big as the state of Delaware - in exchange for a nine-percent cut of the plantation's profits. In theory, this setup seemed like one of Ford's ideas that would shake out pretty well, and in 1928, Ford sent a barge full of supplies from Michigan down to his new plantation town, which was dubbed "Fordlandia."

Growing Rubber in the Jungle

Unfortunately for Ford's stockholders, though, the captain of industry didn't always have a great eye for detail. (One famous story about Ford was that he disliked accountants so fiercely that he never had his company audited. By the end of his tenure, the Ford Motor Company allegedly had no idea exactly how much it cost to build a car.) Ford didn't check to see if the plantation was suitable for growing rubber. According to Greg Grandin, author of Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City, Ford never consulted any sort of expert on rubber cultivation; he just sent a bunch of supplies and managers into the jungle hoping to grow some rubber.


Ford was legendarily contemptuous of experts, but he could have saved some serious dough if he'd just hired a consultant to tell him that the plantation wasn't at all suitable for growing rubber. The land wasn't very fertile, but that wasn't the main problem. The real difficulty was that it's practically impossible to farm rubber in a plantation setting in the Amazon rainforest. To grow the trees on a commercial scale, you've got to pack them in fairly close together, and at that point they become incredibly susceptible to blight and insect attacks. Fordlandia's trees were no exception, and caterpillars and blight quickly decimated the fields. [Images courtesy of]

Not Exactly a Worker's Paradise

Obviously, the rubber-production part of the Fordlandia got off to a rocky start. How was the "worker's paradise" part of things going, though? Even more abysmally. The American managers and their families that Ford imported from Michigan weren't accustomed to the sweltering Brazilian heat and headed back north with an alarming frequency. The heavy machinery used on the plantation left deep ruts in the soft soil, which collected stagnant water and became breeding grounds for malaria-ridden mosquitoes.

Ford had attempted to design Fordlandia like any American town, complete with schools, restaurants, a golf course, and shops. The catch here, though, was that the indigenous Brazilians who farmed the rubber weren't used to living in a stylized American community. Worse still, the plantation's workers were expected to work a strict shift from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., whereas normal harvesting practices in the region saw workers hit the fields before dawn, take a long break, and then head out again at twilight to save themselves the misery of working in the tropical midday heat.

Food Fights

Worse still, Ford's influence extended all the way down to the residents' diets, and while the indigenous workers weren't crazy about having to eat American foods, they were livid about having to eat in a cafeteria setting rather than enjoying the homestyle meals to which they were accustomed. Eventually, the workers decided they'd had enough of the affront of cafeteria dining and rioted during a meal.

As the American managers fled to the safety of boats, the workers destroyed their mess hall and continued to riot until Brazilian soldiers came in to suppress violence.

Another sticking point for the workers was Ford's insistence that his model community be entirely free of alcohol and tobacco. Although Prohibition wasn't exactly an unqualified success at home, and although alcohol was still legal in Brazil, Ford stayed firm on his booze ban. Workers who needed a drink were forced just outside the city limits to buy a bottle of cachaca; enterprising liquor salesman could simply paddle by on the river and unload their wares.

End of the Road

Eventually, even though Henry Ford steadfastly insisted that the community could thrive and help introduce American-style industrialization to the rest of the world, it became abundantly clear that the noble Fordlandia experiment was a flop. After the perfection of synthetic rubber in 1945, Ford sold the plantation at a $20 million loss and left Brazil.

Just how much of a fiasco was the Fordlandia experiment? Although Ford spent 17 years trying to produce rubber on the plantation, no Ford car ever rolled off the assembly line with a single bit of Fordlandia's rubber in it.

Note: Server migration week continues, so forgive us for reposting a few oldies/goodies. This article was originally published in 2009.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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