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Ford, Henry (1863-1947)

Ford, Henry (1863-1947)

As founder of the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford epitomized the can-do optimism of the industrial age. His homespun, folksy persona charmed Americans and redefined an alternate image of the wealthy industrialist. His Model T automobile, rolled out of his Michigan headquarters in 1908, was the first car to capture the national imagination and the first to sell in mass quantities. Upon doubling his workers' wages in 1914, Ford became an overnight celebrity.

Though he earned his fame as a wealthy industrialist, Ford grew up on a modest family farm. Born July 30, 1863, in Dearborn, Michigan, he spent his early years doing chores and tinkering with watches and steam engines. At age seventeen, he left home to take a job in Detroit for a manufacturer of railroad boxcars. For the next twenty years, he worked at a succession of technical jobs, eventually landing the position of chief engineer at a power company. All the while, he tinkered in his off-hours with homemade steam and, ultimately, gasoline powered engines and vehicles.

In 1899, at age thirty-eight, Ford quit the power company and, with some partners, founded his first automobile manufacturing enterprise. While this attempt failed, as did a second, his third try, the Ford Motor Company, founded in 1903, grew into one of the largest, wealthiest companies of the century. The introduction of the Model T in 1908 revolutionized the young industry. Ford quite intentionally set out to, in his words, "build a motor car for the great multitude." Ford continually reduced the retail price, bragging "Every time I reduce the charge for our car by one dollar, I get a thousand new buyers." Each price decrease was heralded by national press coverage. The first car aimed at the middle class, the Model T was an immediate best-seller—so much so that building enough cars to meet public demand became a significant challenge.

Ford worked with his team to develop a number of refinements to the production process, culminating, in 1913, with an assembly line, where each worker had one small task to repeatedly perform and remained in place while an automated belt rolled the cars past. These improvements cut production time by 90 percent. Ford's competitors were forced to adopt the same methods, and the assembly line became a standard fixture of manufacturing operations.

Previously, craftsmen had worked on a job from beginning to end, but the division of labor necessary to boost efficiency on an assembly line required the breaking of the production process into a series of repetitive, boring, less-skilled tasks. The implementation of the assembly line increased worker turnover and absenteeism. Soon the Ford Motor Company was spending $3 million a year training new workers to replace those who had quit. In response, Ford raised the daily wage of his laborers from $2.35 to $5.

While the success of the Model T gained Ford some renown as a successful inventor and industrialist, the "five-dollar day," as it became known, heralded his arrival as a national celebrity. All the newspapers of the day reported it, many editorializing for or against.

Becoming a household name, Ford was asked to opine on all manner of popular issues and eagerly did so with a commonsensical folk wisdom that endeared him to many. Ford's populist pronouncements, such as "the right price is the lowest price an article can be steadily sold for and the right wage is the highest wage the purchaser can steadily pay," set him in stark contrast to the monopolistic robber barons of the previous era such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. The left-wing magazine The Nation marveled that this "simple mechanic" didn't need "combination or manipulation or oppression or extortion" to dominate his market but instead "distanced his competitors by no other art than that of turning out his product by more perfect or more economical methods than they have been able to devise or execute."

Ford basked in the favorable attention lavished on him, but he was unprepared for the increased scrutiny he received in the public eye. In 1915 the national press ridiculed him when, in an effort to avoid war with Germany, he chartered an ocean liner to take himself and his "delegates" to Europe to mediate and negotiate for peace. In 1918 he was chastened by the personal attacks he and his family endured as a result of his narrowly unsuccessful run for the Senate. In 1919 Ford sued the Chicago Tribune when it labeled him "ignorant." In the ensuing trial and surrounding media circus, the Tribune's lawyer proceeded to humiliate Ford by exposing his utter lack of historical knowledge.

Ford nonetheless became a folk hero to the public in the 1910s and 1920s. He was a man of little formal education who, through his own wits, became one of the richest men in the country, yet continued to espouse populist values, paying his workers well and lowering the price of his cars nearly every year. A 1923 Collier's poll showed him far ahead of Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover, and everyone else in a theoretical presidential race. It has since become routine to accept populist political and social wisdom from wealthy titans of industry such as Lee Iacocca and Ross Perot.

Ford, the farmer, tinkerer, inventor, industrialist, and populist social critic, died in 1947. The automobile had long since become an American icon, as had the man himself.

—Steven Kotok

Further Reading:

Collier, Peter, and Chris Horowitz. The Fords: An American Epic. New York, Summit Books, 1987.

Lewis, David L. The Public Image of Henry Ford. Detroit, Wayne State University Press. 1976.

Nevins, Allan. Ford: The Times, the Man, the Company. New York, Scribners, 1954.

Sward, Keith. The Legend of Henry Ford. New York, Russell & Russell, 1968.

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