Born July 30, 1863
Died April 7, 1947
American engineer, automobile manufacturer
"You can do anything if you have enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is the yeast that makes your hopes rise to the stars."
Henry Ford symbolized the fruits of the Industrial Revolution, a period marked by the widespread replacement of manual labor by machines, by standardizing parts and machinery and utilizing the moving assembly line to efficiently mass-produce cars. To many, he was a folk hero: from a modest beginning on a farm near Detroit, Michigan, where he attended a one-room schoolhouse, he built an enormous enterprise that was for a time the largest manufacturer of automobiles in the world. At one time, a brand-new Ford Model T cost just less than three hundred dollars, a price low enough that Ford's own workers could afford to buy one for their families. It was Henry Ford who put ordinary American workers into cars, which had previously been luxuries for the wealthy.
The moving assembly line, a highly efficient means of production in which a series of individual workers had one task to perform as each car moved down the line, came to be associated with Ford's company, and the entire process became known as the American system. It became a global model for industrialization and the economic success of the United States.
Despite his business success, Ford raised much controversy. Once praised for raising his workers' wages well above what other companies paid, he was later harshly criticized for employing company spies and armed police to prevent workers from joining the United Automobile Workers Union (UAW). He owned a newspaper that spewed religious hatred against Jews and once had words of praise for the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (1889–1945). An avowed pacifist, someone opposed to war under any circumstances, Ford once sponsored a "peace ship" that tried to negotiate an end to World War I (1914–18); but he also employed his factories full-force to produce bombers during World War II (1939–45).
Childhood and youth
Henry Ford was born in 1863, the first of six children, on his family's farm in a settlement that is now part of Dearborn, Michigan, about nine miles from Detroit. His father, William Ford, had emigrated from Ireland in 1847, part of a massive wave of Irish immigrants following a disastrous crop failure.
Young Henry attended a one-room schoolhouse in Greenfield, Michigan. The school used books written by the American educator William McGuffey (1800–1873) to teach reading. The McGuffey Readers were widely used by teachers during the nineteenth century. In the process of teaching children to read, they also imparted a moral view of life and the virtues of hard work and rugged individualism. The underlying idea was that an individual could get ahead in the world by working hard. Social or economic conditions were not an excuse. It was a philosophy that Ford absorbed, coming to believe he was living proof of the lessons in the books. Later in life he acknowledged it by building a reproduction of his childhood schoolhouse, complete with McGuffey Readers, in his museum called Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.
Despite the virtues of hard work taught by McGuffey and experienced on the family farm, the farming life did not appeal to Ford. In his autobiography, My Life and Work, published in 1922, he wrote:
There was too much hard hand labor on our own and all other farms of the time. Even when very young I suspected that much might somehow be done in a better way. That is what took me into mechanics—although my mother always said that I was born a mechanic.… My father was not entirely in sympathy with my bent toward mechanics. He thought I ought to be a farmer.
Ford's mother was right: her firstborn son had a natural inclination toward machinery and engineering. As a teenager he learned to assemble watches and a working model of a self-propelled threshing machine, which is used to separate seeds or grain from the straw, he encountered when he was twelve.
At age seventeen, Ford gave up on farming and school and walked nine miles to Detroit, where he got a job at the Michigan Car Works. But after a week, he left that job for one that paid less but enabled him to work in a machine shop. He also made extra money repairing watches in the evening. An article about the recently invented internal combustion engine so excited Ford that he changed jobs again, for a chance to work at the Dry Dock Engine Company, where he worked as an apprentice, learning the basics of the trade while on the job.
In telling the story of Henry Ford, as well as the stories of many other people in this book, we refer to prices as they were many years ago. For example, Henry Ford sold new Model T automobiles for just less than three hundred dollars in 1927. But a dollar would buy a lot more goods in 1927 than it would in 2002, as most people realize. Just how much more?
In an effort to put prices from bygone eras into perspective, this book uses a formula provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to compare prices now with prices then. The formula, and the statistics used to calculate the difference, can be found on a Web site maintained by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. The url is: http://minneapolisfed.org/research/data/us/calc/hist1800.cfm.
For about a century, the steam engine developed by James Watt (1736-1819; see entry) was the chief source of energy (besides flowing water in a river or stream) for machines in factories and for mechanical transportation like railroads and steam ships. The steam engine let steam inside a cylinder in the space under a solid tubular piece of metal called the piston. As the steam expanded, it pushed the piston up in the cylinder; as soon as the source of heat was removed, steam condensed back into liquid, forming a vacuum that sucked the piston back down. A rod attached to the upper end of the piston thus moved up and down and, through a series of gears, caused wheels to turn.
The internal combustion engine worked in the same basic way, except that it substituted an explosion of burning gasoline for the expanding steam under the piston. Gasoline, a chemical derived from crude oil, was mixed with oxygen and sprayed into the cylinder, whereupon an electric spark ignited the mixture which exploded with great force, which pushed the piston up.
Internal combustion engines promised many advantages over steam engines. For one thing, they did not require a separate fire (usually burning coal) to heat water and create steam. Gasoline carried more energy per ounce (gram) than a comparable amount of coal. And there was no need for someone to tend a coal fire; the internal combustion engine worked automatically, with a part called the spark plug repeatedly igniting the gasoline. Internal combustion engines could be made in a fairly compact size and still deliver enough power to move a carriage; it seemed ideal to bring mechanical power to personal vehicles, like automobiles.
Fulfilling a dream
Ford left the Dry Dock Engine Company when his father asked him to come back home and work on the family farm. It was during this time that he began courting Clara Bryant, the daughter of a neighboring farmer. Three years later, in April 1888, he and Clara were married. She proved to be a steadfast believer in Ford's dream throughout the difficult days when he was starting his automobile business. On November 6, 1893, the Fords' only child, Edsel, was born.
Ford's father had given his son a forty-acre plot of land, where he built a home for himself and his family. Ford also built a machine shop, and he spent his spare time drawing plans to build a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine. Karl Benz (1844–1929) of Germany had already demonstrated a car propelled by an internal combustion engine in 1885, and by the time Ford entered the business, many other auto pioneers were already turning out models of their own. Ford's main idea was to make a car so inexpensive that ordinary people could afford to buy one; whereas his early competitors viewed cars as luxury items for the wealthy.
In 1891 Ford again moved from the farm to Detroit—for good, this time—to pursue his dream of building a car with his engine design. It was a time when most people got around town by walking, riding horses, or traveling in buggies pulled by horses.
In the city, Ford got a job as a machinist, and equipped his own small machine shop in a shed behind the house in which he and his family lived on Bagley Avenue. He tested his first engine in 1893. It was a somewhat crude experiment: the spark plug, which is the part of an engine that creates a spark that causes a mixture of gasoline and oxygen to ignite, was powered by a cord connected to a socket in the house. (Later, a battery was used for this purpose.) But it worked. Ford now turned to the task that would make him famous: using the engine to propel a vehicle.
Ford's first working model
In 1896 Ford cut a hole in the wall of his shed and drove his first "car" onto the street. He called it the Quadricycle, because it had four wheels instead of two, like a bicycle. It consisted of a fuel tank with a seat bolted on top, an internal combustion engine that Ford had built, and four bicycle wheels. The Quadricycle was noisy—horses were startled by it—and uncomfortable, but it ran successfully. Ford sold the Quadricycle and used the money to develop a new and better model.
To earn a living at the time, Ford worked for the Detroit Edison Illuminating Company. There he met the famous inventor Thomas Edison (1847–1931), who admired Ford's work. Edison is said to have told Ford: "Young man, you have it, a self-contained unit carrying its own fuel. Keep at it!" Whether literally true or not, Ford became a close friend of Edison's.
Ford's bosses at Detroit Edison admired his work on cars but felt that he was spending too much time on his hobby at the expense of his job. They asked him to make a choice: a secure career as general superintendent at Detroit Edison, or making cars. For Ford, the choice was inevitable: he chose cars.
Henry Ford, car manufacturer
Ford did not invent the automobile or the internal combustion engine. He did, however, design a working self-propelled machine that used a gasoline engine. He also founded the company that still bears his name and developed new methods of manufacturing that drove down the cost of his cars so that ordinary working people could afford to own one.
His success in business did not come instantly, however. With the backing of several investors, he formed the Detroit Automobile Company in 1899; it was later renamed the Henry Ford Company. But his backers grew impatient with Ford, who insisted on constantly improving his car without manufacturing any to sell. They eventually abandoned him, and he himself left the Henry Ford Company in 1902; it later was reorganized and renamed the Cadillac Motor Car Company.
Finally, in 1903, Ford formed the Ford Motor Company. To do so, he raised $28,000 in cash from ordinary citizens,
having previously annoyed most of the wealthy individuals of Detroit who had invested in his earlier enterprises. It was during this year that Ford introduced his first model: the Model A. From a factory on Mack Avenue in Detroit, Ford produced a small volume of cars. Two or three workers produced each car from parts ordered from other firms as Ford continued to introduce new models. By 1908 the factory was turning out about one hundred cars per day, and the company investors were thrilled.
But Ford had a much larger dream: he wanted to reach a productivity level of one thousand cars per day. The big break came in 1908 with his ninth model: the Model T.
When he unveiled the Model T in October 1908, Ford declared: "I will build a motor car for the great multitude"; and so he did. Over the next nineteen years, the Ford Motor Company sold more than fifteen million cars in the United States, almost a million more in Canada, and a quarter of a million in Britain. The total production of Ford cars amounted to about half the world's cars during that period.
Ford's achievement was not just selling a lot of cars. Through constant innovation in the manufacturing process, he drove down the price of the Model T from $950 in 1908 to $280 in 1927. (In today's dollars, the price went from about $19,000 to about $3,000.) The low prices for the Model T made it possible for ordinary workers to buy one, which resulted in not only a high sales volume for the Ford Motor Company but also a profound change in the car industry. Because of Henry Ford, cars became practical for everyone, instead of a luxury reserved for the wealthy.
Henry Ford, social innovator
Six years after introducing the Model T, Ford introduced another innovation that was perhaps even more startling. In 1914 he offered to pay his workers five dollars per day—more than twice the average daily salary paid by other companies. Moreover, he reduced the working day from nine hours to eight hours, which allowed the company to run three shifts to keep up with demand for the Model T. (Adjusted for inflation, Ford's $5.00-a-day salary in 1914 was worth about $89.50 in 2002 for eight hours of work, or $11.18 an hour, still about twice the minimum wage.)
The Model T
Henry Ford's Model T was the first car produced for a mass market, and it was one of the most successful cars ever manufactured. Between 1909 and 1927, Ford produced fifteen million Model Ts; in 1914 alone, Ford produced 308,162, more than the total of all of the other 299 U.S. car manufacturers combined.
Production of the Model T symbolized advances in industrial production pioneered by Henry Ford. In 1913, after five years of producing the car, the time required to assemble a Model T had dropped from twelve hours and eight minutes to one hour and thirty-three minutes. To achieve this, Ford hired supervisors to constantly monitor every step in the process in order to increase worker productivity and drive down the production costs.
Although Henry Ford famously said that customers could buy a Model T in any color so long as it was black, in fact black was not even offered before 1913. The first Model Ts came in green, red, blue, and gray.
This action made Ford a hero to workers. Some people praised him as a great humanitarian. Others concluded that he was a madman, or worse, a socialist (one who believes in a political system where workers control businesses and the government).
Behind this action lay a character trait that helped build his company in the early years, but later radically changed the world's opinion. Ford was a stubborn man who insisted on doing things his way. His financial backers had learned that, and he continued to exercise his strong opinions on what was best, both for the Ford Motor Company and for his employees, even for the United States as a nation.
In 1918 Ford ran for the U.S. Senate at the request of President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), but he lost in a close election. The next year Ford lost a lawsuit in which stockholders had complained that he did not distribute enough of the company's profits in the form of dividends (stockholder's share of profits). The Supreme Court of Michigan ordered the company to pay shareholders $19 million in dividends. Furious, Ford threatened to quit the company and start another one. The price of shares in his company began falling, and Ford arranged for shares to be bought at greatly reduced prices. This allowed him to gain complete control of his company, and Ford was said to have danced a jig when the last stock transfer agreement was signed on July 11, 1919.
In the mid-1920s Ford's golden touch in the automobile business lost some of its power. Sales of the Model T began to fall, despite constantly declining prices. Whereas Ford had once boasted that for the Model T, "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black," in the 1920s, Ford started offering the famous Tin Lizzie (nicknamed so because it used lightweight sheet metal for the body) in green, brown, or blue, as well as black. Finally, in 1928, Ford introduced a new model, dubbed the Model A, like his company's very first offering. But the Model A never rivaled the Model T; four years after its introduction, it lost out to the new and more powerful eight-cylinder engine offered by Ford's main competitors, General Motors and Chrysler. The days when Ford dominated the automobile industry were essentially over, even though his company remained—and continues to remain in the twenty-first century—a vital competitor.
A reputation tarnished
Henry Ford became wealthy as a car maker, and he sometimes dabbled in other areas, where his reputation was severely tarnished.
In 1919, he sued the Chicago Tribune for libel (publishing false information that harmed his reputation). The paper had printed an article accusing Ford of sympathizing with Germany during World War I, even as the United States was at war with Germany. During the trial, a lawyer for the newspaper subjected Ford to a cross-examination (questions) that showed Ford had a minimal education and knew little about subjects unrelated to making cars. He won the suit, though, and was rewarded six cents.
A few years later, in 1926, he established a newspaper of his own, the Dearborn Independent in Michigan, which started printing anti-Semitic (anti-Jewish) articles so extreme that some libraries and newsstands refused to carry the paper. A Jewish lawyer from Chicago and prominent organizer of farmers, Aaron Sapiro, sued Ford for libel, claiming the newspaper hurt his reputation among farmers. Ford's defense was that he had not written articles signed by him; indeed, he said he did not even read the newspaper. Ford reached a secret settlement with Sapiro, publicly apologized for any harm he might have caused, and stopped publishing the paper.
Nevertheless, the charge of anti-Semitism stuck to Ford for many years afterward, and it was renewed in 1938 when, on his seventy-fifth birthday, Ford accepted the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest medal that Nazi Germany could bestow on a foreigner, from the government of Adolf Hitler. It was one of many awards from other countries that Ford accepted, but when Hitler's genocidal campaign (attempt to annihilate a race of people) against Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, known as the Holocaust, became known, the old articles in Ford's newspaper again became controversial, and his association with Hitler and the Nazi regime was widely condemned.
Whereas Ford was hailed as a hero in 1914 when he voluntarily raised the pay of his workers to $5.00 a day, it was a different story in 1932. With the country in economic depression, Ford decided to cut wages from $7.00 a day to $4.00, which was actually less than what other car makers were paying. Workers also complained that the company secretly investigated the private lives of its employees and fired
workers who were found to engage in activities that were unacceptable to Ford, such as smoking, drinking, and being politically active.
Ford workers tried to join the United Automobile Workers Union (UAW), but Henry Ford employed labor spies and company police in a long effort to weed out union organizers and discourage his employees from joining a union. Like many business owners, Ford did not want his hands tied on issues of how much to pay workers, or how long they should work. Long after his major competitors, General Motors and Chrysler, had signed contracts with the union, Ford resisted. It was not until 1941 that the UAW finally signed a labor contract with the Ford Motor Company. Unions, in his mind, went against his philosophy of rugged individualism, relying on the collective instead. The union's victory came only after the National Labor Relations Board ordered the company to hold an election, in which 70 percent of Ford workers voted in favor of being represented by a union.
In his later years, Ford expressed contempt for unions. "There is nothing that a union membership could do for our people," he said. But his employees, who once hailed Ford as a hero, now complained that they had to work too fast and under great tension. "We make no attempt to coddle the people who work with us. It is absolutely a give-and-take relationship," Ford declared.
Henry Ford and the Industrial Revolution
In his life, Henry Ford came to symbolize the best and worst of the Industrial Revolution, a period of fast-paced economic change that began in Great Britain in the middle of the eighteenth century. Putting his mechanical genius to work on the issue of efficient production, Ford utilized the moving assembly line, which made possible enormous savings in the cost of making a car.
On the other hand, he himself ascribed the success of his process to "the reduction of the necessity for thought on the part of the worker, and the reduction of the movement to a minimum. He [the worker on an assembly line] does as nearly as possible only one thing with only one movement.… He must have every second necessary but not a single unnecessary second." It was the very definition of drudgery, and it laid the basis for speeding up work to the limit of human endurance, a complaint often voiced by Ford's workers. But by offering his workers an unheard-of $5.00 per day in 1914, he showed the way to sharing some of the wealth generated by industrial enterprises, made his own automobiles affordable to his workers, and profoundly influenced the course of life for the working class in the United States for the rest of the twentieth century. As social commentator Will Rogers (1879–1935) said, "It will take a hundred years to tell whether he helped us or hurt us, but he certainly didn't leave us where he found us."
In 1943 Ford's son, Edsel, the president of Ford Motor Company at the time, died suddenly of pancreatic cancer. Henry Ford, at the age of eighty, immediately stepped in and resumed active leadership of the company. But by that time, the elderly Ford had already suffered two strokes; after two years he appointed his grandson, Henry Ford II, president of the company. Two years after that, on April 7, 1947, Henry Ford died at his home in Dearborn.
For More Information
Aird, Hazel B. Henry Ford: Young Man with Ideas. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.
Batchelor, Ray. Henry Ford, Mass Production, Modernism, and Design. Manchester, U.K., and New York: Manchester University Press, 1994.
Ford, Henry. My Life and Work. North Stratford, NH: Ayer Co., 1999, 1922.
Gelderman, Carol. Henry Ford: The Wayward Capitalist. New York: Dial Press, 1981.
Gourley, Catherine. Wheels of Time: A Biography of Henry Ford. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1997.
Middleton, Haydn. Henry Ford: The People's Carmaker (What's Their Story). New York: Oxford University Press Children's Books, 1998.
Halberstam, David. "Citizen Ford." American Heritage, October-November, 1986, p. 49.
Wamsley, James S. "Henry Ford's Amazing Time Machine." American History Illustrated, April 1985, p. 28.
"The Ford Model T: A Short History of Ford's Innovation." United AutoWorkers Local 387.http://www.local387.org/ford_model_t.htm (accessed on February 13, 2003).
Gross, Daniel. Forbes Greatest Business Stories of All Time. New York: J. Wiley and Sons, 1996. Excerpts found at http://www.wiley.com/legacy/products/subject/business/forbes/ford.html (accessed on February 13, 2003).
"A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries—Henry Ford." Public Broadcasting Service.http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/btford.html (accessed on February 13, 2003).
Born July 30, 1863 (Springwells, Michigan)
Died April 7, 1947 (Dearborn, Michigan)
"An idealist is a person who helps other people to be prosperous."
The important role of the automobile in contemporary U.S. culture really began in the Roaring Twenties. It was during this decade that owning an automobile began to seem like a necessity, for it allowed freedom and convenience and affected such issues as where people worked and lived and what they did for fun. The man who was largely responsible for this trend was Henry Ford. Rising from a Michigan farm boy to become one of the richest people in the world, Ford was a popular hero to millions. He revolutionized the infant automobile industry by producing a reliable car that a wide variety of people could afford to buy. Yet Ford was a man of personal contradictions. He paid his workers more and cut their hours, but he also forced them to follow his own rules of morality and behavior, and he fiercely resisted their efforts to unionize (join labor unions, which allowed workers to negotiate for higher wages and better working conditions).
A young engineer
Born on a farm in Springwells, Michigan (near what is now Dearborn), Henry Ford was the first of six children born to
William and Mary Ford. He was expected to help with the work on the family farm, but he did not like it much. Instead, he was fascinated with gadgets and liked to spend his time taking things apart. Through tinkering with various farm machines, Ford became a self-taught mechanic. He quit attending his one-room village school when he was fifteen, and the next year he walked to Detroit, a thriving city about 8 miles (12.9 kilometers) from Springwells.
First Ford became an apprentice in a machine shop that made valves and fire hydrants, working twelve hours a day, six days a week. In his next job, he worked on steam engines, which burned fuel to create the steam that, in turn, powered the pistons that made the engine work. But Ford was more interested in a new invention called the internal combustion engine, which burned fuel inside the cylinder that housed the piston, creating energy more efficiently than by using steam. Ford learned more about internal combustion engines when, in 1882, he became an engine expert for the Westinghouse Company. His job was to travel around southeastern Michigan and repair farm machinery.
In 1888 Ford married Clara Bryant, a young woman he had met at a country dance. His father offered him 40 acres (16 hectares) of tree-covered land next to the family farm, so Ford settled into cutting and selling lumber and firewood. Five years later, his son Edsel was born. Meanwhile, Ford had set up a small engineering workshop in his back yard, and he spent as much time as he could there, conducting experiments with both steam- and gas-driven engines. His first attempt to create a motor-powered vehicle resulted in a two-cylinder internal combustion engine that he mounted on a bicycle.
An ambitious inventor
Bored with rural life, Ford moved his family to Detroit in 1891. His skills made it easy for him to get a job at the Detroit Illuminating Company, an electrical company headed by inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931). Ford started out making an impressive one hundred dollars per month, and by 1895 he had been made chief engineer and had befriended Edison himself, with whom he would maintain a close relationship for many years to come. Ford continued to experiment with making what were then called "horseless carriages," early versions of automobiles.
In June 1896 Ford produced a vehicle he called a Quadricycle, testing it on the streets of Detroit to the amazement of onlookers. It weighed only 500 pounds (225 kilo-grams) and rolled on bicycle wheels. It had two speeds but no reverse gear, and it was steered with a tiller, like a boat. The Quadricyle was not the first automobile in existence, however. Earlier models had already been produced by the Duryee brothers of Massachusetts and by German engineer Gottlieb Daimler (1834–1900).
Three years later Ford joined with wealthy businessman William Murphy to form the Detroit Automobile Company. Even though the company failed, it gave Ford some valuable experience in manufacturing automobiles. By 1901 he had produced a racing car called the 999 that, with Ford at the wheel, won a race against what was then the fastest automobile in the world. This feat caught the attention of another wealthy investor, coal dealer Alexander Malcomson, who offered to finance Ford's next venture. This led to the founding of the Henry Ford Company, which became the Cadillac Motor Car Company after Ford's 1902 departure.
The next year Ford used resources pooled from several investors to form the Ford Motor Company, through which he finally achieved success. At first he continued to produce racing cars, which tended to attract positive publicity. Eventually, though, Ford's company moved toward making ordinary street cars, although these were still large, expensive vehicles that only rich people could afford. Ford's Model A was very popular, selling seventeen hundred cars in 1904. The company produced more models, all named after letters of the alphabet, and by 1907 it had made more than one million dollars in profits.
The Tin Lizzy
Ford was not satisfied, though. He believed that he could make and sell smaller, cheaper automobiles that would appeal to a much wider market of average U.S. citizens. These cars, he knew, would have to come with inexpensive, easily replaceable parts. The answer came in 1907, when Ford released the Model T. Fondly known as the Tin Lizzy, this car would dominate the automobile industry for the next two decades. Ford sold 8,000 Model Ts the first year and 730,000 in 1916, the year of its highest production.
The Tin Lizzy was a light, durable car that was perfectly suited to travel on bad roads (and thus particularly loved by farmers). People joked that it was available in any color, as long as that color was black. It came with no extras, such as windshield wipers, and tended to break down a lot, but its simple design made repairs fairly easy. The Model T's most attractive feature, though, was its price tag: at its cheapest (in 1924), it was available for $260, and a used Model T could be bought for as little as $50.
The phenomenal success of the Model T could be attributed in large part to Ford's reforms in both manufacturing and management. Finding it difficult to keep up with the demand for the Model T, he had looked for ways to streamline and speed up production. Ford was intrigued by the theory of "scientific management" that had been proposed by industrial engineer Frederick Taylor (1856–1915), who had done careful studies to determine both the most effective ways to manage employees and the most efficient uses of workers' time and motions. Ford put these practices to work in his Detroit factory, and he introduced another innovation: the assembly line.
The assembly line had already been used in the manufacture of small machines like typewriters, but never on such a large scale or for a machine that had five thousand parts, as an automobile did. The assembly line moved the parts along a waist-high conveyor belt past workers, each of whom performed a single task. This greatly improved the speed of production while lowering costs. Meanwhile, Ford forbade his workers from doing anything, such as talking or sitting down, that distracted them from their jobs. He walked around the factory constantly, looking for ways to improve procedures even more.
These changes allowed Ford to reduce production time on the Model T from one car every twelve and a half hours to one every ninety minutes or better (in 1924, the company released 10,000 cars per week, and on the day of its highest production, October 31, 1925, Ford produced 9,109 cars, or one every ten seconds). The lower costs for the company allowed Ford to do something even more revolutionary than the assembly line. Determined to build up a steadier, more loyal workforce, he offered workers $5 a day rather than the usual $2.60, a move that other employers harshly criticized. But Ford did not stop there. He also reduced his workers' workday from nine to eight hours.
Working in a Ford automobile plant was not easy, not only due to the boss's rigid rules and the sometimes unpleasant conditions, but also because of the depressing boredom of working on an assembly line. In addition, the company's notorious Sociological Department tried to control workers' lives by checking up on their behavior outside work. Ford disapproved of smoking and alcohol use, and he expected his workers to accept his ideas about morality. Nevertheless, men lined up to apply for jobs with Ford, and, once hired, they tended to stay for years. Ford was strongly admired, in fact, for the way he had risen from farm boy to billionaire despite a lack of formal education. And he had done so by making sure that the workers who toiled in his factories could afford to buy the cars they built there.
Building wealth and influence
By 1916 war was raging in Europe as Germany continued its drive to take over areas controlled by other nations. Although some called for the United States to become involved on the side of the Allies (Great Britain, France, and Italy), Ford was not among them. Always a committed pacifist (someone who believes that war and violence are never justifiable), he decided to employ his considerable wealth and influence in a bid for peace. He sponsored a mission of pacifists who sailed on a ship called the Oskar II to Sweden, intending to hold peace talks with all of the European nations. When Germany refused to participate, however, the mission failed.
In 1918 Ford made his son Edsel president of the Ford Motor Company (although he still wielded control from behind the scenes) while he ran on the Democratic ticket for the U.S. Senate. Ford was not elected, and he returned to running his company. His desire to control all aspects of the automobile manufacturing process was realized in 1919, when he opened his state-of-the-art Rouge River plant, the largest such facility in the world. By this time Ford was growing his own rubber on plantations in Brazil, and he owned ships, coal and iron-ore mines, and thousands of acres of woodlands. Thus he brought all of his own raw materials to his plant, which was equipped with a steel mill and glass factory as well as the usual assembly shops. Nearly 100,000 workers were employed at the Rouge River plant.
The rise of the automobile
During the 1920s, the automobile first assumed the major role in U.S. life that it has continued to play. And during that crucial decade, Ford made 60 percent of all U.S. cars. The automobile industry provided jobs for about five million people, who worked not only in the actual manufacturing of vehicles but also in the making and selling of parts and supplies, in the gasoline industry, and in service stations.
The suburbs expanded, as automobiles allowed people to live farther from their workplaces. Recreation opportunities also increased, as families took outings and vacations in their cars, and young people found their social lives vastly improved by the greater mobility and privacy afforded by the automobile. The Federal Highway Act of 1921 made funds available to the states to replace or improve the nation's network of terrible roads, many of them unpaved and built for horses, not cars. From now on, the United States would be a car-driving, car-loving nation.
A new model
During the late 1920s it became clear that the public's enthusiasm for the Model T was starting to dwindle. Ford had concentrated all his efforts on only one car, but now consumers were looking for more choices and more style. The other major automobile companies, General Motors and Chrysler, were gaining quickly on Ford. In response to this competition, Ford halted production on the Model T and went to work on a new car called the Model A.
Car fanciers across the nation were abuzz with speculation about the new model. On the day of its unveiling, December 2, 1927, Ford ran full-page advertisements in newspapers and magazines. Dealers all over the country reported huge crowds gathering in showrooms to get a glimpse of the Model A. In New York City, the largest dealership had to move its exhibition to Madison Square Garden (a large arena) to accommodate the crowds. The Model A did not disappoint, for it was available in a range of colors from Florentine Cream to Niagara Blue, and it could reportedly go as fast as 75 miles (120 kilometers) per hour. Best of all, of course, was its low cost. At $495, it was less expensive than General Motors' most popular model, the Chevrolet.
Although the Model A sold well (a million and a half in 1929), the Chevrolet was soon in the lead again. Meanwhile, Ford was busy with other pursuits. The most positive was the establishment of Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. This museum began when Ford moved his childhood home out of the way of a planned highway. He brought in other historic buildings—such as the courthouse in which President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) had once practiced law and Edison's workshop—arranged them around a village green, and filled them with antiques.
Less positive was Ford's role in a scandal involving the Dearborn Independent, a newspaper he owned. In the early 1920s the newspaper had published a series of articles that were harshly
The Dearborn Independent Scandal
By 1919 Henry Ford was one of the most famous men in the United States, much admired by the public for having lifted himself out of a working-class background and into the highest ranks of wealth and status. Looking for a way to share his views with the public, Ford bought a weekly local newspaper called the Dearborn Independent. Although he was not the editor, the newspaper served as a vehicle for his own opinions.
One of Ford's strongly held beliefs was Jewish people were a threat to Christian society, and his anti-Semitism (anti-Jewish sentiments) were expressed in the newspaper. A series of articles in the Independent between May 1920 and December 1921 alleged that Jews had caused World War I and were planning to overthrow Christian civilization. The newspaper also began to publish a translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which claimed to describe Jewish plans for the destruction of Christianity. The document was actually a fake, originally produced by the secret police of czarist Russia in order to divert public attention away from that nation's corrupt government.
The Jewish community in the United States was divided over how to respond to the Independent's articles. One group, led by the American Jewish Committee, preferred a nonconfrontational approach. The second group, spearheaded by the publishers of the magazine American Jew, supported a more aggressive response, such as a boycott of Ford products.
In early 1922 the Independent stopped printing anti-Semitic material, but its earlier articles were published in a book titled The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem (1922) and circulated around the world. Adolf Hitler, the Nazi dictator of Germany and an outspoken anti-Semite, was a known admirer of the book.
The Dearborn Independent's anti-Semitic campaign resumed in 1924 with an attack on a Jewish lawyer who had organized farm cooperatives. A cooperative is a collaborative arrangement in which people in a business or community work together to mutual benefit. The lawyer sued the newspaper and Ford for defamation, or publishing false information that damages one's reputation. The case came to trial in 1927, but Ford was spared from testifying when he was injured in an automobile crash the day before he was to appear in court. When a juror later spoke to a newspaper reporter about the trial, the judge declared a mistrial.
Concerned about the possible effect of negative publicity on his ailing company, Ford met with a representative of the American Jewish Committee. He agreed to take back the anti-Semitic statements published in the Independent, and he issued an apology to Jews. Ford soon closed down the newspaper, but he renewed Jewish anger and distrust during the late 1930s when he accepted a prize from Hitler.
critical of Jewish people, blaming them for many of the world's problems and accusing them of a plot to take over the world. Among the admirers of these articles was Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), the anti-Jewish leader of Nazi Germany, who would soon lead his country into World War II (1939–45). When a Jewish attorney who had been directly named in the article threatened to sue Ford, he apologized, but he had already gained a reputation as an anti-Semite (a person who dislikes Jews).
With the Great Depression, the period of economic downturn and hardship that lasted from the 1929 stock market crash until approximately 1939, came some major changes in U.S. society. One of these was the strengthening of the labor movement, as workers began to make more demands for better pay, benefits, and working conditions. This was a change, however, that Ford was unable to accept. His large security force repeatedly harassed and intimidated leaders and potential members of the United Auto Workers (UAW), the union that was working to organize the auto industry.
Ford was one of the last companies to become unionized, and it did so only after several violent worker strikes and, in 1941, a court order allowing workers to join the union if they wished. Seventy percent of Ford's workers voted to join the UAW. Ford also resisted the efforts of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) to ease the effects of the Depression. Ford would not go along with either the National Recovery Act, which encouraged industries to work together to ease economic problems, or the National Labor Relations Act, which provided various benefits to workers.
After suffering a stroke in 1938, Ford again handed over the reins of his company to his son. Although Ford had opposed U.S. involvement in World War II, once the U.S. naval forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, were bombed (the event that triggered the United States' entry into the war), he quickly converted his factories to manufacture airplanes and weapons. At Ford's Willow Run plant, eight thousand Liberator bomber planes were produced.
When Edsel died in 1943, Ford came out of retirement one last time. At this point, due to Ford's stubborn one-man rule and generally poor management, the Ford Motor Company was in decline. But in 1945 Ford's grandson Henry Ford II took over the company, and under his leadership it began a slow upward climb. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it was the second-largest automobile manufacturer in the world. And since its founding in the late 1930s, the company's Ford Foundation has offered many billions of dollars in charitable grants.
Two years after his last retirement, at the age of eighty-three, Ford died at his Fair Lane mansion. His grand, final home was located only a few miles from the farm on which he had grown up.
For More Information
Batchelor, Ray. Henry Ford, Mass Production, Modernism, and Design. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1994.
Burlingame, Roger. Henry Ford: A Great Life in Brief. New York: Knopf, 1969.
Collier, Peter, and David Horowitz. The Fords: An American Epic. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.
Lacy, Robert. Ford: The Men and the Machine. Boston: Little, Brown, 1986.
Miller, Nathan. New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America. New York: Scribner, 2003.
Nevins, Allan, and F.E. Hill. Ford: The Times, the Man, the Company. New York: Scribner, 1954.
Perret, Geoffrey. America in the Twenties. New York: Touchstone, 1982.
"Henry Ford." Education on the Internet and Teaching History Online. Available online at http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAford.htm. Accessed on June 23, 2005.
"Henry Ford, 1863–1947." A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries. Available online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/btford.html. Accessed on June 23, 2005.
Iacocca, Lee. "Builders & Titans: Henry Ford." The Time 100. Available online at http://www.time.com/time/time100/builder/profile/ford2.html. Accessed on June 23, 2005.
The Life of Henry Ford. Available online at http://www.hfmgv.org/exhibits/hf/default. Accessed on June 23, 2005.
Born July 30, 1863 (Dearborn, Michigan)
Died April 7, 1947 (Dearborn, Michigan)
American automotive pioneer Henry Ford was one of twentieth-century industry's greatest innovators, and even during his lifetime he was proclaimed as the man who ushered in the modern age. Though he did not invent the gasoline-powered "horseless carriage," as the car was initially called, his inventive ideas about accelerating the manufacturing process made him one of the most important visionaries of the industrial age. Over a twenty-year period, his Ford Motor Company churned out some eleven million Model T cars, the first automobile to be mass-produced. The quick-moving assembly line at Ford's Detroit-area plant, where each worker was responsible for completing a single task, was a model of efficiency and became the standard for the modern factory floor. The concepts Ford first tested there would be widely copied by his competitors and applied to countless other manufacturing processes.
"Paying good wages is not charity at all—it is the best kind of business."
Ford often claimed that his ideas about efficient work habits were the result of his dislike of the farm chores he was forced to do as a child. "My earliest recollection is that, considering the results, there was too much work on the place," he wrote in his memoirs, according to Douglas Brinkley's Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress. Ford was born on July 30, 1863, at home on the family farm in Greenfield Township, Michigan. The area later became part of the city of Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit. Henry was the second of eight children in the family, and a third-generation Irish immigrant of Protestant stock. His education was basic and lasted just eight years, from 1871 to 1879. He lost his mother the year he turned thirteen, of complications from childbirth, and the teenager then became eager to escape the backbreaking life of the farm. He learned watch repair, and left the farm in December 1879, when he was hired as an apprentice, or someone who is bound to work for someone else for a specific term in order to learn a trade, at a Detroit firm, James Flower and Brothers Machine Shop.
The Detroit job paid little, however, and his living expenses in the city were high, so Ford took a second job at a jewelry shop fixing watches in the evening hours. By the following summer, he was working at the Detroit Drydock Company, a thriving local shipbuilder, in its engine shop. When his apprenticeship period was completed in 1882, he found a job with the Westinghouse Engine Company repairing steam traction engines, wheeled engines used to move heavy loads or to provide power at various locations, on farms across southeastern Michigan. He occasionally returned to his father's farm to help out with chores but was still determined to forge his own career. Near the time of his 1888 marriage to Clara Bryant, who came from a nearby farm family, his father gave him a plot of land. The elder Ford strongly advised his son to set up his own farm, and the newlyweds did live on the property for a time. There Ford built a little shed to serve as his own machine shop, where he experimented with different types of engines. He had become increasingly fascinated with the emerging automobile industry.
Two German inventors, Gottlieb Daimler (1834-1900) and Karl Benz (1844-1929), had separately made important discoveries for a gasoline-powered engine and a four-wheeled vehicle in the 1880s. Their efforts launched an automobile-manufacturing industry in Europe, which then migrated to the United States and joined the push to build a self-propelled vehicle already underway there. In 1893 Massachusetts brothers Charles E. Duryea (1861-1938) and J. Frank Duryea (1869-1967) built the first American-made, gasoline-powered automobile and started their own company to manufacture more. Ford, because of later legal difficulties and possibly as an attempt to secure his place in history, would claim that he had also designed and built a self-propelled gasoline vehicle—or, in other versions of the story, a working motor for one—in the period between 1888 and 1892, but such claims have been disproved as early company lore.
Invents the quadricycle
Ford quit farm life forever in mid-1891 when he took a job as a night engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit. Within a short time he was promoted to chief engineer, at a salary of $100 a month, but he continued to work on a prototype vehicle inside the small brick workshop behind his two-family Detroit house. He saw the debut outing of Detroit's first car, built by Charles B. King and Oliver E. Barthel in 1896, and that same year achieved his true manufacturing first: a four-cycle, air-cooled engine that operated on two cylinders and had a four-horsepower (h.p.) capacity. He named it the quadricycle, and it made its first run on June 4, 1896.
Ford had gained a reputation as one of the city's new generation of technological innovators, and Detroit's mayor and other business leaders provided the start-up money for his first automobile-manufacturing venture, called the Detroit Automobile Company. The first model was a two-passenger car, which featured an inventive electric-spark ignition and chain-and-sprocket transmission. The Detroit Automobile Company was incorporated on August 5, 1899, the first in the city established solely for the purpose of making gasoline-powered vehicles, but it went under late in 1900 after producing just twenty vehicles. Many of the other early car-manufacturing ventures in Detroit also had rough starts, and few of them survived their first decade in business.
Deeply committed to the possibilities of the internal-combustion engine, Ford was uninterested in making a car that was powered by any other method. The internal-combustion engine burned fuel (gasoline) within the engine rather than in an external furnace, as in a steam engine. Some of the early automobiles were driven by steam power, and for a few years there was a tremendous industry debate over which was better—gasoline or steam. Steam engines could be lit with a match and did not require the driver to manually hand-crank the engine to start it. There was also a small but growing electric car market, which were especially well-suited to women drivers because they were also simple to start. Neither steam nor electric vehicles could attain anything but a rather leisurely speed, and Ford knew that the internal-combustion engine might be perfected enough to be able to reach a much more advanced horsepower. He was encouraged to further develop the gas-powered engine by world-famous inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931; see entry), whom Ford met on a trip to New York when he was still the chief engineer at the Edison plant. Edison asked Ford about his side project, and Ford sketched it out for him. Edison agreed that a car with an internal-combustion engine was the ideal, for electric-car batteries were far too heavy, and needed to be near a recharging station.
The Rise of the Motor City
Detroit's rise to become the center of the automotive industry did not happen entirely by accident. When bicycles became the newest craze in the 1880s, Michigan and neighboring Ohio emerged as manufacturing centers. Detroit also boasted many carriage-making shops, and there were numerous producers of marine engines as well. In short, the city had many small light-industrial shops and a large skilled-labor force who staffed them, both of which easily made the transition to automotive manufacturing. Furthermore, the engine-building process required iron ore, and there were vast mines of it in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and a highly developed water-transportation system that brought it to Detroit. Finally, Detroit had a good number of wealthy citizens—Midwest tycoons who had made quick fortunes in timber or shipping—who were eager to fund new ventures. All of these factors earned Detroit its reputation as the "Motor City." Although the automobile industry declined in the late twentieth century, the country's top three auto manufacturers, Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler still have their headquarters in Detroit.
Ford tinkered with engines and aerodynamics, or how air flows around an object, on prototype cars that he raced himself on a track in Grosse Pointe, a posh resort community north of the city. This was a shrewd marketing strategy that attracted influential crowds and boosted his reputation as an innovator. A new group of investors recapitalized the Detroit Automobile Company, but Ford disagreed with their strategies and resigned in March 1902. He found a more like-minded partner in Alexander Y. Malcomson, a successful Detroit coal dealer, and once again was made a principal in a company in which he had invested not a cent of his own money. On June 16, 1903, the Ford Motor Company was formally incorporated.
The Model A is introduced
The Model A was Ford's first vehicle, and it sold for $850. It had a two-cylinder, eight h.p. engine and began selling at a rate of over one hundred each month. The cars were made at a new Ford factory on Piquette Avenue and Beaubien Street, but Ford ran into problems with Malcomson, who wanted to concentrate on top-of-the-line models, like the Model B of 1905, which sold for $2,000. Nearly all the automobile manufacturers in this era focused on producing luxury vehicles. The costs of manufacturing a single car were still quite high and most companies believed that the initial start-up costs could be more easily recovered by selling high-end cars, which had higher profit margins. Ford believed otherwise and bought out Malcomson's share in the company.
Ford's next big project was the Model N, introduced in 1906 with a base price of $700. His plan was to make 10,000 of them in one year, and he teamed with Walter E. Flanders, an expert in the machine-tool industry, to refine the manufacturing process. Flanders's ideas formed the basis of Ford's new arrangement for the factory floor to reach maximum efficiency, and the company thrived. The legendary Ford Model T was introduced on October 1, 1908. It was the reliable, affordable car that permanently shifted the automotive industry focus from the luxury consumer to the mass market. It featured a four-cylinder, twenty h.p. water-cooled engine and an innovative magneto starter, which was a self-contained starter unit that provided power to the spark plugs. It originally sold for $850, but Ford managed to reduce the costs of production and offer three different versions by 1916, the cheapest of which was the Runabout, which sold for $345.
Ford was able to reduce costs because of his company's production methods. The maximum-efficiency concept became a reality with the design of an even larger new Ford plant, this one located on sixty acres in Highland Park, just outside the Detroit city limits. It was a state-of-the-art facility, designed by noted architect Albert Kahn (1869-1942), and was the largest industrial plant in the state when Ford models began rolling off its new assembly line on December 1, 1913. It cut the average assembly time for one vehicle from 728 minutes to an astonishing 93 minutes. The idea was based upon a continuously moving assembly process, helped along by overhead conveyors; materials were also brought to the worker by gravity, with items coming down chutes. The work came to the worker, not the worker to the work, with everything located at waist level to reduce wasted movement.
The Highland Park factory produced cars at a fast pace that attracted attention from around the world, and its methods were soon widely copied in the production of countless other consumer goods. But Ford's company built no other cars except for the Model T for nearly twenty years. Since black paint dried the fastest, the other colors in which it was first offered were eventually dropped, giving rise to Ford's famous pronouncement, "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black," according to Brinkley. The Model T sold well in rural America, at a time when farms still dominated the landscape and agriculture was a mainstay of the economy. It was ideally suited to bad roads because of its sturdy construction, and farmers were enthusiastic about the way it had transformed their lives. Rural areas were no longer isolated because now people could easily travel back and forth between the city and the country.
The $5-a-day wage
Ford and his team of engineers continued to perfect the manufacturing process, but the emphasis on efficiency alienated workers at the plant. The company seemed to view them as if they were part of the factory itself, not human beings. To soothe growing discontent, Ford announced a new $5 a day wage in January 1914; he also reduced the day's work hours at his plant from nine to eight. At the time, the rate in Detroit for unskilled labor was about $1.80 a day; skilled workers earned $2.50 a day. The American business community was outraged and predicted that Ford's headline-grabbing strategy would be the death of his company. Wall Street was also contemptuous, but in other quarters Ford was hailed as the new breed of company president, one who was both progressive-minded and a humanitarian.
Ford's influence and innovation seemed to peak around this time, however. During World War I (1914-18; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies) he provided heavy financial support to a foundation that attempted to negotiate an end to the European conflict on board a "Peace Ship." The press criticized Ford heavily for this. At the office, he had battles with longtime trusted associates and investors, many of whom left. There were nasty legal fights as well; eventually a court ordered his company to pay its minority shareholders millions of dollars. Ford used this 1919-20 crisis as an opportunity to retake control of his company by buying up all outstanding shares and turned the Ford Motor Company into a privately held one. It remained a predominantly family-run business until 1956, when it became a publicly traded company, but Ford's descendants still hold a majority stake.
Ford did not like books and was dismissive of art; he was a poor public speaker, and his business rivals mocked his limited education. In 1919 he was called upon to give testimony in a libel case he had instigated against the Chicago Tribune, which had described him as an "anarchist," linking him to radical political groups of the era who believed in the overthrow of organized government, in a 1916 editorial because of his antiwar views. The automotive tycoon was repeatedly asked by defense lawyers during cross-examination to read documents they set before him, but he evaded the challenges. The trial judge supported the newspaper's right to freedom of the press, and that decision was upheld by the Illinois Supreme Court on appeal. Ford also became involved in politics, losing a 1918 bid for one of Michigan's two U.S. Senate seats. He invested some $4 million into a newspaper called the Dearborn Independent, which published offensive editorials and promoted the idea of a worldwide "Jewish conspiracy," the claim that European and North American Jews had an unusual amount of influence in the corporate world and the media. The paper had a nine-year run, but Ford was finally forced to close it in 1927 when a Chicago lawyer sued him for defamation of character, or unfairly attacking his reputation.
The Rouge plant
In the end, Ford had one final and grand idea that secured his place in American manufacturing history: the Rouge plant, located on the banks of the Rouge River that ran near his boyhood home in Dearborn. The massive facility opened in stages just after World War I. It was soon the largest industrial complex in the world. Visitors came from every country to study its methods and marvel at its efficiency. Raw materials arrived at one end of the plant by ship or train, and a car came out on the other end. The Rouge had everything necessary in the automotive manufacturing process right on site, from blast furnaces to foundries, where metal was cast, to glass-making kilns (high-temperature ovens), all arranged in the most efficient way possible.
Ford and his wife had only one child, a son named Edsel (1893-1943), who took over as company president in 1918. The father, however, remained a commanding presence. The family had a lavish estate, called Fair Lane, also on the banks of the Rouge, but in a more rural spot. In his senior years, Ford seemed to retreat into the past and was keen to preserve a vanishing rural America—the same one he had been so eager to escape in his youth. He established a historical museum and village in Dearborn, called Greenfield Village, that became a model for modern-day historic preservation.
Ford's nostalgic ideas of his earlier years did not seem to keep pace with the times. As one of the leading industrialists of his era, he was strongly opposed to labor unions, and the Ford Motor Company had an internal security department whose union-busting hired hands were among the most notoriously brutal thugs inside an already-violent anti-union movement. They were supervised by Harry H. Bennett (1892-1979), the company's director of personnel and plant security. The company was the last of the major Detroit automakers to sign a contract with the United Automobile Workers union, and Ford allegedly did so only after his wife threatened to leave him. Clara Ford had taken the side of their son, Edsel, who believed that Bennett exerted undue influence over his aging father.
By 1941 Ford suffered the second of two strokes, and his health declined. Edsel died of stomach cancer in May 1943. Bennett used the opportunity to move toward taking over but was quickly ousted by Edsel's son, Henry Ford II (1917-1987), who joined the company in August 1943. The youngest Ford led the company through its impressive postwar boom years, and though it later became a publicly traded one, descendants of the founder still held vital positions in the company leadership ranks a century later.
Ford died on April 7, 1947, of a cerebral hemorrhage at his Fair Lane estate. Years before, a younger man had been discussing educational issues with him and pointed out, "These are different times: this is the modern-age," to support his argument. "Young man," Ford retorted, according to Brinkley, "I invented the modern age."
For More Information
Bak, Richard. Henry and Edsel: The Creation of the Ford Empire. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003.
Brinkley, Douglas. Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress. New York: Viking, 2003.
Iacocca, Lee. "Driving Force—Henry Ford." Time (December 7, 1998): 76.
The Model T. http://www.hfmgv.org/exhibits/showroom/1908/model.t.html (accessed on July 7, 2005).
Ford Motor Company
Henry Ford launched the era of the automobile and in doing so provided the tools necessary for the mass production of consumer goods. He founded Ford Motor Company, which is still the second largest carmaker in the world. Ford is associated with the creation of the assembly line, which allowed cars and other uniform products to be produced quickly and efficiently. His production of the Model T automobile on an assembly line brought the low-priced automobile within reach of many middle-class Americans.
Henry Ford was born in Springwells, Michigan on July 30, 1863. Ford was the eldest of six children born to William, a prosperous farmer, and Mary (Litogot) Ford. Ford was raised on his father's farm but developed a distaste for the farm lifestyle and, instead, became fascinated by machinery. He began tinkering with farm machinery that he was responsible for operating and without any formal training, became an excellent self-taught mechanic and machinist. While in his late teens, he even designed and built his own engine-based vehicle. He attended school in a one-room schoolhouse in the Dearborn school district in Wayne County, Michigan until the age of 15. Ford's mother was responsible for his early education, teaching him to read and instilling in him the core values of responsibility, duty, and self-reliance.
While running Ford Motor Company, Ford used his enormous wealth and power for social causes. For example, he made an ill-fated attempt to end World War I, before the United States was drawn into it. In 1915, he set sail on his "peace ship," Oskar II, and sailed to Europe to seek an end to hostilities. In 1918, Ford made an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate as a Democrat and was defeated by a narrow margin. At the beginning of World War II, Ford initially took a pacifist stance, but following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, he retooled his auto plants quickly to help the U.S. military produce munitions for the war effort.
Ford's last years were marred by scandals, the worst of which was his support of vehemently anti-Semitic statements made by the Dearborn Independent, a newspaper that he owned.
On April 11, 1888, Ford married Clara J. Bryant and had one child, Edsel, in 1893. Ford suffered strokes in 1938 and 1941, but did not trust his son to run Ford Motor Company single-handedly. Instead he kept most of the control over the company despite his declining health. His son Edsel died of cancer in 1943, and after World War II, Ford installed his grandson, Henry Ford II, as president of the company. Ford died on April 7, 1947 at his home in Dearborn, Michigan.
Ford initially founded the Ford Foundation, one of the world's largest philanthropic foundations, in 1936 to avoid estate taxes. It has since given over $8 billion in funds to various social causes and organizations. Ford also founded the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, dedicated as a living museum to industry and technological innovation.
In 1879, Ford left Dearborn for nearby Detroit to seek his fame and fortune. There he quickly found a position as an apprentice at the James Flowers and Brothers Machine Shop, a small company that was busily manufacturing valves and fire hydrants for the rapidly growing city. Ford's job required 12 hours of labor a day, six days a week.
Nine months later, Ford left the machine shop in order to work for the Detroit Dry Dock Company, working on steam engines. There he gained his first exposure to a new machine, the internal combustion engine. At the Detroit Dry Dock Company, he earned only $2.50 a week. Because Ford's room and board in Detroit cost him $3.50 a week, he repaired watches and clocks at night to make up the difference.
From 1884 to 1885, while working long hours in Detroit, Ford also attended business college to learn the skills that he thought would be necessary if he were to sell the machinery that he hoped one day to manufacture.
Ford's father was not happy with his young son's career choice and offered him 40 acres of timberland adjacent to the family farm. Ford accepted his father's offer, but also built a top-rated machinist workshop on his new farm, much to his father's displeasure. It was during this time on his new farm that Ford met his future bride, Clara J. Bryant.
Ford did not find farming any more attractive as a young husband in his 20s than he had as a teenager. It was during this period that he built his first internal combustion engine, a two-cylinder device he used to power a bicycle. The lure of working on machinery was too strong for Ford and he found himself spending more and more time working at the Edison Illumination Company (later named Detroit Edison Company) in Detroit instead of working on his farm.
By 1891, he had left his farm completely and took a job at Edison Illumination, where he earned the impressive salary of $100 per month as an engineer. Ford's increased income allowed him to fund his experiments with the "horseless carriage." In 1895, he was promoted to the position of chief engineer for Edison Illumination and met Thomas Alva Edison, who would eventually become one of his closest lifelong friends.
In 1896, Ford spent his spare time building an automobile that used an internal combustion engine. The car utilized a two-cylinder, four-cycle motor that weighed only 500 pounds. It was mounted on bicycle wheels and had no reverse gear.
Because of Ford's continued tinkering with automobiles, Edison Illumination forced Ford to choose between automobiles and his job. Ford chose automobiles and on August 5, 1899, with the backing of William Murphy, a wealthy Detroit businessman, Ford founded the Detroit Automobile Company. Ford's first venture was an economic failure after disagreements with Murphy but it gave him the opportunity to concentrate all of his energies on designing and building automobiles.
Chronology: Henry Ford
1880: Began job at Detroit Dry Dock Company.
1891: Began job at Edison Illumination Company.
1899: Founded Detroit Automobile Company.
1903: Founded Henry Ford Company and Ford Motor Company.
1909: Introduced Model T automobile.
1918: Named son Edsel Ford as president of Ford Motor Company.
1919: Built River Rouge automobile plant.
1927: Stopped production of Model T.
1928: Introduced Model A automobile.
1943: Became president of Ford Motor Company again after Edsel's death.
1945: Retired from Ford Motor Company.
In 1901, Ford, driving his own car, raced and beat what was then the world's fastest automobile. This car, the "999," was later driven to victory many times by the famous Barney Oldfield. The publicity from Ford's victory grabbed the attention of Detroit coal dealer Alex Y. Malcomson, who offered financial aid to Ford. This allowed Ford to fund his second and third automobile-making ventures, the Henry Ford Company (later renamed Cadillac) and the Ford Motor Company, formed in 1903 with $28,000. Ford continued to build racers, which provided free publicity and a practical laboratory for refining his ideas. As a result, the Ford Motor Company sold 1700 cars in 1904. After two failed attempts, Ford had launched a hugely successful car company.
By 1903, 1,500 automobile companies had been started, bringing significant competition to the industry. Part of Ford's success was due to the highly competent and driven assistants that he surrounded himself with. James S. Couzens, C.H. Wills, and John and Horace Dodge all worked for Ford at this time.
In 1903, the Ford Motor Company came out with the Model A (also known as the Fordmobile) and by 1907, profits had exceeded $1.1 million. Ford continued to introduce new models frequently. Each new car was known by another letter of the alphabet up through the letter S.
The Model T was introduced in 1909. Ford decided to build only one type of automobile at this time and the Model T (also known as the "Tin Lizzie") would be that car. This car was reliable, easy to build, and cheaply priced. In its first year, Ford sold 8,000 Model T's. Over the course of the next three years, Model T sales increased dramatically with 18,000 sold in 1909, 34,000 in 1910, and 78,000 in 1911. In 1916, the year of its greatest production, 730,000 of the automobiles were sold.
In 1918, Ford made his son Edsel president of the company and concentrated on his race for the U.S. Senate. He still exercised control over most of the operational aspects of his company, though, and managed to purchase the majority of the company's stock, making the company a family operation. In 1919, Ford's River Rouge plant opened in Detroit and became the largest industrial manufacturing facility in the world.
The 1920s saw increased growth in the company with over 60 percent of all the automobiles in the United States manufactured by Ford's company. But by the end of the decade, customers wanted a change, and Ford sales began to lag. In response to consumer demand, other manufacturers were introducing different car models and they were selling better than Ford's Model T. In 1927, Ford finally stopped production of the Model T. He introduced the new Model A, 18 months later, but the new model was not enough to help Ford claim the top spot from competing car manufacturer, General Motors.
Ford never accepted the changes brought about by the Great Depression and his company suffered because of this reluctance. Ford refused to cooperate with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's new National Recovery Administration, and suffered through numerous labor disputes.
During World War II, Ford factories were converted to build bombers and other weapons for the armed forces. In 1943, when Edsel died, Henry Ford came out of retirement and was again president of the company. He retired for the last time in 1945, turning the company over to his grandson, Henry Ford II.
Social and Economic Impact
Henry Ford's impact on the manufacturing sector of the economy was and continues to be enormous. Ford is often credited with inventing the moving assembly line, a system for carrying an item that is being manufactured past a series of stationary workers who each assemble a particular portion of the finished product. Using the moving assembly line, huge numbers of uniform products (such as automobiles, television, computers, toys, etc.) can be made quickly and cheaply. Ford made the first industrial application of this idea for his Model T, thereby revolutionizing manufacturing.
In addition, by developing a car for the masses, Ford played a large role in the creation of an American automobile culture. This new culture radically changed the U.S. economy, including the housing, transportation, and tourism industries.
A fiercely driven man, Ford exercised great personal control over every aspect of his company. He avoided the use of outside contractors and suppliers, preferring to make and develop his own materials and parts as much as possible.
Ford shocked the world by raising his average wage to the unprecedented rate of $5.00 per day in 1914. In return, however, workers were subject to intense scrutiny both on and off the job. Ford required his employees not only to perform their jobs diligently and up to the standards, but to meet his personal ideals of conduct and morality.
To enforce his rules, Ford maintained a large security force to watch his employees. This group, headed by Harry Bennett, was particularly important to Ford in his struggle to prevent the unionization of his factories. They were instructed to monitor, harass, and intimidate organizers and potential members of the newly formed United Auto Workers (UAW). Ford Motor Company was the last of the major auto companies to unionize. After many years of court battles and strikes, Ford finally relented and signed a contract with the UAW in 1941.
Before Ford developed the Model T, the automobile existed largely as an expensive toy for the wealthy. Ford's strategy turned the automobile into the transportation of choice for the masses. The Model T had a simple design, included many interchangeable parts, and was produced on the moving assembly line. As a result, the car was reliable, easy to repair, and affordable. After the second year of production, Ford either dropped the price or enhanced the features of the Model T every year, carrying out his stated goal of increasing the Model T's value annually. The price of the Model T, initially $850 in 1908, dropped to as low as $260 in 1924, while the car's quality improved.
Ford also created his own market for the Model T. In January of 1914, he doubled the pay of the average worker in the Ford plants from $2.50 to $5.00 a day and cut the work day from nine hours to eight. This strategy drew workers from all over the United States and the world. In addition, Ford drastically reduced employee turnover, raised morale, and created a new class of industrial workers who could afford to buy Ford automobiles. Ford regarded low wages as "the cutting of buying power and the curtailment of the home market."
Ford's strategy for producing the Model T was a huge success. The large degree of standardization in the automobile's design and manufacturing allowed Ford to produce millions of vehicles. Over 15 million Model T's were sold over a production run that lasted almost two decades. Ford achieved legendary status, and by 1922 was the richest man in the United States.
In addition to his conflicts with organized labor, Ford's fatherly behavior resulted in many poor business decisions. In 1920 he bought out the other shareholders in the Ford Motor Company and became the sole person in charge. He ignored the advice of his subordinates, chased away many of his best executives and, by 1927, the last year of production of the Model T, his company had been eclipsed by General Motors. General Motors was more successful than the Ford Motor Company in responding to changing consumer needs. The simplicity of Ford's approach eventually became a major source of his company's decline.
As a boy on his family farm, Ford used machinery to ease his farm chores. Similarly, he saw the automobile as the tool that would end the dreary isolation of the American farmer and allow the inhabitants of the teeming urban slums to move to the outskirts of the great cities where there was plenty of room for new housing developments but no transportation to the factories.
Driven by his sense of duty and obligation, Ford was an active philanthropist. His most enduring legacy has been the Ford Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic trusts in the world. It was established in 1936 for the purpose of "advancing human welfare." Initially a local philanthropy, the Ford Foundation has functioned since 1950 as a national and international foundation. Headquartered in New York City, the foundation has issued more than $8 billion in grants and maintains offices throughout the world.
Sources of Information
Contact at: Ford Motor Company
The American Rd.
Dearborn, MI 48121-1899
Business Phone: (313)322-3000
Bennett, Harry and Paul Marcus. Ford: We Never Called Him Henry. TOR, 1951.
Dahlinger, John. The Secret Life of Henry Ford. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1978.
Nevins, Allan and Hill, F.E. Ford: The Times, the Man, the Company. New York: Scribners, 1954.
Rae, John B, ed. Great Lives Observed: Henry Ford. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1969.
Henry Ford not only founded the Ford Motor Company, he helped give birth to the automobile industry in the United States. With his innovations to the manufacturing process and his commitment to his workers, he became a true American legend of the twentieth century. Although Ford died in 1947, his name continues to be stamped on every car and truck that rolls off a Ford assembly line today.
He Liked to Tinker
Henry Ford was born on a farm in 1863 in Springwells, Michigan (now a part of Dearborn, Michigan). He was the second child of William and Mary Ford, whose first son died as a baby. When Henry was twelve his mother died from complications of childbirth and the Ford household changed forever. To manage his grief and the hard life of farming, Ford took to tinkering. He could fix many things around the homestead, but he especially had a keen interest in the workings of watches.
"Even a mistake may turn out to be the one thing necessary to a worthwhile achievement."
Ford worked as an apprentice at a machinery shop in Detroit in 1879; he fixed watches after hours. The following year, he went to work at the shipyards and helped repair large dock machinery. He also continued to help out at the family farm. In 1885, he met Clara Bryant. The two married in April 1888, and lived in a log cabin built by Ford using a small, motorized sawmill. In his spare time Ford cut and sold lumber and continued to dabble with a variety of motors, both gasoline-powered and steam-driven.
Jacques Nasser: Taking Care of Business
Jacques Nasser was a pivotal part of the Ford Motor Company for over thirty years, working his way up from a trainee in 1968 to his resignation as chief executive officer (CEO) and president in 2001. A shrewd businessman, he was transferred to Ford divisions around the globe where he turned sluggish operations profitable. His "can-do" attitude landed him the top slot at Ford in 1999, where he reigned until a series of unfortunate events, including the failure of Firestone tires on Ford Explorers, led to his departure.
Jacques Albert Nasser was born in Amyoun, Lebanon, in 1947. He moved with his parents to Melbourne, Australia, at age four. Nasser was brought up speaking both Arabic and French, and during his youth enjoyed sports and starting home-based businesses to earn money. After high school he was accepted at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology where he made a decision crucial to his future: he applied to a business training program with the Ford Motor's Australian division in 1968.
After graduating, Nasser continued his employment with Ford. He worked his way up the corporate ladder in the 1970s and 1980s, relocating to Ford offices around the world, including South Africa, America, Argentina, Great Britain, and back to Australia. Wherever Nasser went, improvement followed. His willingness to make harsh or unpopular decisions led him to Ford's American headquarters as vice president for product development in 1994, vice president for overall operations in 1996, president of the automotive division in 1997, and CEO and president in 1999.
Nasser's leadership of Ford, however, did not last. Shortly after he took the top spot, it became known that the Firestone tires on Ford's most popular vehicle, the Explorer, were not just faulty but deadly. Amid terrible accidents and resulting lawsuits, Ford Motor went into a tailspin. In an effort to stop the losses and rejuvenate the company, Nasser was replaced by Ford family member William Clay Ford Jr. in late 2001. Although Nasser's reign at Ford ended rather suddenly, his abilities saw the company through many of its darkest periods.
In 1891, Henry and Clara moved to Detroit where Ford worked his way up to chief engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company founded by inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1941), who became a lifelong friend. The couple's only child, son Edsel, was born in 1893. Ford continued to work on motors, especially those designed to propel vehicles. In 1896, he finally developed a working model. Called the "Quadricycle," it was a motorized bicycle with four wheels, which Ford sold for $200. He then went to work on a more advanced model.
Head of an Empire
By the end of the 1890s, automobiles were no longer the stuff of fantasy, but had become the transportation of the future. In 1903, Ford established the Ford Motor Company, joining hundreds of other inventors around the world who were beginning to open their own car manufacturing businesses. As general manager and chief engineer, Ford was responsible for creating the Model A, which had a two-cylinder engine and cost $850. The success of the Model A led to more sophisticated automobiles like the Model B and Model C, and eventually to the company's most famous vehicle, the Model T in 1908. In mid1927 the last Model T came off the assembly line and a revamped Model A took its place. Over four million new Model As were produced over the next four years.
In 1919, although he was still involved with the company bearing his name, Ford retired and son Edsel (1893-1943) took over. Edsel's sons, Henry II (1917-1987), Benson, and William, were also working in the family business. Henry Ford retired to a spacious home on the banks of the Rouge River in Dearborn, Michigan, which was called Fair Lane. Henry and Clara vacationed often in the South, and eventually bought homes in Ft. Myers, Florida, and Richmond Hill, Georgia.
Gasoline in His Veins:
William Clay Ford Jr.
William "Bill" Clay Ford Jr. is the great-grandson of founder Henry Ford. He was named chairman of Ford Motor Company in 1999 and took on the responsibilities of chief executive officer (CEO) in 2001 at age forty-four. His appointment was an important landmark for the company, which had been run by nonfamily members since Henry II, Bill's uncle, resigned in 1979. Although his leadership qualities were untested, Bill Ford has proven an able guide for one of the world' largest companies.
Bill Ford was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1957, the son of William Clay Sr. and Martha Firestone and the grandson of Edsel, Henry Ford's only child. As a youth, Ford played hockey and soccer, was a good student, and after his father bought the Detroit Lions football team in 1963, became a devoted football fan. He earned a bachelor of arts degree from Princeton University in 1979 and a master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1984.
Ford has often joked about having gasoline in his veins, due to his family's longtime involvement with the design and manufacturing of automobiles. Yet he was never forced into the family business. He chose to join the company in the late 1970s, and worked his way through many departments and divisions until he gained a seat on the board of directors in 1988. In 1998, he was named chairman of the board; he became CEO in 2001.
As an ardent environmentalist, just as his grandfather great-grandfather was, one of Ford's major goals was to make Ford Motor as "Earth-friendly" as possible in the twenty-first century. In addition, he continues his involvement with the Detroit Lions (as vice chairman since 1995) and oversees his great-grandfather's beloved Greenfield Village & Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
Ford married a fellow Princeton student, Lisa Vanderzee, and they have two daughters and two sons. He says since he was not forced into working in the auto business, he will let his children make their own choices as well regarding their careers. The family lives in Grosse Pointe Farms, an upscale suburb of Detroit, where Ford can be spotted in-line skating through the quiet streets or getting ready for a fly fishing trip. As a nature lover, he likes camping, hiking, and skiing with his family, and also enjoys tae kwon do, hockey, tennis, coaching soccer, and collecting Civil War documents. He has pledged that his job will not detract from his personal life, and has no plans to cut down his involvement with his children. Ford is also a vegetarian who practices alternative healing methods such as acupuncture and herbal remedies, and he does not often drink alcohol.
Retirement did not slow down Henry Ford. He was considered a true American success story, and he was constantly giving interviews to newspapers and magazines. In 1916, he briefly entered politics when he ran for the Senate and lost. Ford was also a best-selling author. His first book, Henry Ford's Own Story: How a Farmer Boy Rose to the Power that Goes with Many Millions, Yet Never Lost Touch with Humanity, was written in 1917 with the help of Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of famous children's author Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957). Ford went on to publish five more books in the 1920s and 1930s about his life and business beliefs, working with a writer named Samuel Crowther. In 1930, he wrote a memoir about his friend, Thomas Edison, called Edison as I Knew Him.
Leaving It Behind
During his retirement Ford developed a growing interest in collecting artifacts that depicted early American life. This included antique furniture, books, and sometimes buildings. A natural extension of this hobby was building a museum, which he began around the same time he bought and restored an old hotel in Massachusetts called the Wayside Inn. By 1929, Ford's museum had grown into an historic village, which he called the Edison Institute to honor his old friend. The museum and surrounding grounds, located in Dearborn, were opened to visitors in 1933. The complex was eventually named Greenfield Village. It has since become a tourist destination and is overseen by the Ford Foundation, owned by the Ford family.
In the late 1930s, Ford's health was declining, and in 1938 he had a stroke. This was followed by a second, more powerful stroke in 1941. In 1943, more tragedy struck when Edsel died of cancer at the age of forty-nine. Henry and Clara were inconsolable over the loss of their only child. The elder Ford resumed his position as president of Ford Motor Company. The move was temporary, however, as he soon turned leadership over to his oldest grandson, Henry II. Henry II became president in 1945 and Ford, in failing health, retired once again.
For the remainder of his life, Henry Ford devoted his time to collecting artifacts and visiting his homes in the South with wife Clara at his side. On April 7, 1947, Henry died at his Dearborn estate, Fair Lane, at the age of eighty-three. Before his funeral, over 100,000 people viewed his body at Greenfield Village and twenty thousand attended his funeral. He will always be remembered as the founder and driving force behind the Ford Motor Company, one of the world's largest and most respected auto manufacturers.
A Car Made of Soybeans
Always the innovator, Henry Ford was intrigued by the idea of creating new materials. This led him to experiment with soybeans. Ford researchers used soybeans to develop plastic car parts and car paint. According to the Ford Motor Web site, nearly two bushels of soybeans were used to make a single Ford automobile in 1935. Henry Ford was so devoted to the plant that he even had a suit made out of fabric processed from the soybean.
For More Information
Brough, James. The Ford Dynasty: An American Story. New York: Double day, 1977.
Bryan, Ford R. Beyond the Model T. The Other Ventures of Henry Ford. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1997.
Cahill, Marie. A History of Ford Motor Company. London: Bison Group, 1992.
Collier, Peter, and David Horowitz. The Fords: An American Epic. San Francisco, CA: Summit, 2001.
Kent, Zachary. The Story of Henry Ford and the Automobile. Chicago: Children's Press, 1990.
McCarthy, Pat. Henry Ford: Building Cars for Everyone. Berkeley Heights., NJ: Enslow, 2002.
Nevins, Allan, and F. E. Hill. Ford: The Times, the Man, the Company. New York: Scribners, 1954.
Weitzman, David L. Model T. How Henry Ford Built a Legend. New York: Crown, 2002.
McElroy, John. "Six Lessons for Ford: How Could So Many Things Unravel Under Nasser's Watch?" Ward's Auto World (December 1, 2001): p. 17.
Naughton, Keith. "Hit the Road, Jacques." Newsweek (November 12, 2001): p. 44.
Phelan, Mark. "SUVs Reach Their Peak." Automotive Industries (October 1997): p. 89.
Smith, David C., and Greg Gardner. "Nasser: Savior or Slasher? Why This Man Has Ford on Edge." Ward's Auto World (February 1997): p. 27.
Whalen, Christopher. "A Ford in Ford's Uncertain Future." Insight on the News (December 17, 2001): p. 22.
Ford Motor Company. [On-line] http://www.ford.com (accessed on August 15, 2002).
Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village. [On-line] http://www.hfngv.org (accessed on August 15, 2002).
Born: July 30, 1863
Died: April 7, 1947
American automobile pioneer and industrialist
After founding the Ford Motor Company, the American industrialist Henry Ford developed a system of mass production based on the assembly line and the conveyor belt which produced low-priced cars that were affordable to middleclass Americans.
Ford's early years
The oldest of six children, Henry Ford was born on July 30, 1863, on a prosperous farm near Dearborn, Michigan. He attended school until the age of fifteen, at which time he developed a dislike of farm life and a fascination for machinery. He had little interest in school and was a poor student. He never learned to spell or to read well. Ford would write using only the simplest of sentences. He instead preferred to work with mechanical objects, particularly watches. He repaired his first watch when he was thirteen years old, and would continue to repair watches for enjoyment throughout his life. Although he did not like working on the farm, he did learn that there was great value in working hard and being responsible.
In 1879 Ford left for Detroit, Michigan, to become an apprentice (a person who works for another to learn a specific skill or trade) at a machine shop. He then moved to the Detroit Drydock Company. During his apprenticeship he received $2.50 a week, but room and board cost $3.50 so he labored nights repairing clocks and watches. He later worked for Westinghouse, locating and repairing road engines.
Ford's father wanted him to be a farmer and offered him forty acres of timberland, provided he give up machinery. Ford accepted the proposal, then built a first-class machinist's workshop on the property. His father was disappointed, but Ford did use the two years on the farm to win a bride, Clara Bryant.
Ford's first car
Ford began to spend more and more time in Detroit working for the Edison Illuminating Company, which later became the Detroit Edison Company. By 1891 he had left the farm permanently. Four years later he became chief engineer. While at the Edison Illuminating Company he met Thomas A. Edison (1847–1931), who eventually became one of his closest friends.
Ford devoted his spare time to building an automobile with an internal combustion engine, a type of engine in which a combination of fuel and air is burned inside of the engine to produce mechanical energy to perform useful work. His first car, finished in 1896, followed the attempts, some successful, of many other innovators. His was a small car driven by a two-cylinder, four-cycle motor and by far the lightest (500 pounds) of the early American vehicles. The car was mounted on bicycle wheels and had no reverse gear.
In 1899 the Detroit Edison Company forced Ford to choose between automobiles and his job. Ford chose cars and that year formed the Detroit Automobile Company, which collapsed after he disagreed with his financial backers. His next venture was the unsuccessful Henry Ford Automobile Company. Ford did gain some status through the building of racing cars, which resulted in the "999," driven by the famous Barney Oldfield (1878–1946).
By this time Ford had conceived the idea of a low-priced car for the masses, but this notion flew in the face of popular thought, which considered cars as only for the rich. After the "999" victories, Alex Y. Malcomson, a Detroit coal dealer, offered to aid Ford in a new company. The result was the Ford Motor Company, founded in 1903, with its small, $28,000 financing supplied mostly by Malcomson. However, exchanges of stock were made to obtain a small plant, motors, and transmissions. Ford's stock was in return for his services. Much of the firm's success can be credited to Ford's assistants—James S. Couzens, C. H. Wills, and John and Horace Dodge.
By 1903 over fifteen hundred firms had attempted to enter the new and struggling automobile industry, but only a few, such as Ransom Eli Olds (1864–1950), had become firmly established. Ford began production of a Model A, which imitated the Oldsmobile, and followed with other models, to the letter S. The public responded, and the company flourished. By 1907 profits exceeded $1,100,000, and the net worth of the company stood at $1,038,822.
Ford also defeated the Selden patent (the legal rights given to a company or person for the sole use, sale, or production of an item for a limited period of time), which had been granted on a "road engine" in 1895. Rather than challenge the patent's legal soundness, manufacturers secured a license to produce engines. When Ford was denied such a license, he fought back; after eight years of legal action, the courts decided the patent was valid but not violated. The case gave the Ford Company valuable publicity, with Ford cast as the underdog, but by the time the issue was settled, the situation had been reversed.
In 1909 Ford made the important decision to manufacture only one type of car—the Model T, or the "Tin Lizzie." By now he firmly controlled the company, having bought out Malcomson. The Model T was durable, easy to operate, and economical; it sold for $850 and came in one color—black. Within four years Ford was producing over forty thousand cars per year.
During this rapid expansion Ford held firmly to two principles: cutting costs by increasing productivity and paying high wages to his employees. In production methods Ford believed the work should be brought by a conveyor belt to the worker at waist-high level. This assembly-line technique required seven years to perfect. In 1914 he startled the industrial world by raising the minimum wage to five dollars a day, almost double the company's average wage. In addition, the "Tin Lizzie" had dropped in price to $600; it later went down to $360.
Ford was now an internationally known figure, but his public activities were less successful than his industrial ones. In 1915 his peace ship, the Oskar II, sailed to Europe to seek an end to World War I (1914–18; a war fought between the German-led Central powers and the Allies: England, the United States, Italy, and other nations). His suit against the Chicago Tribune for calling him an anarchist (a person who desires to change the existing government) received unfortunate publicity. In 1918 his race for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat met a narrow defeat. Ford's worst mistake was his approval of an anti-Semitic (anti-Jewish) campaign waged by the Ford-owned newspaper, the Dearborn Independent.
When the United States entered World War I, Ford's output of military equipment and his promise to give back all profits on war production (which he never did) silenced the critics. By the end of the conflict his giant River Rouge plant, the world's largest industrial facility, was near completion. Ford gained total control of the company by buying the outstanding stock.
In the early 1920s the company continued its rapid growth, at one point producing 60 percent of the total United States output. But problems began to arise. Ford was an inflexible man and continued to rely on the Model T, even as public tastes shifted. By the middle of the decade Ford had lost his dominant position to the General Motors (GM) company. He finally saw his error and in 1927 stopped production of the Model T. However, since the new Model A was not produced for eighteen months, there was a good deal of unemployment among Ford workers. The new car still did not permanently overtake the GM competition, Chevrolet, and Ford remained second.
Ford's last years were frustrating. He never accepted the changes brought about by the Great Depression (a period in the 1930s marked by severe economic hardship) and the 1930s New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's (1882–1945) plan to help the United States recover from the Great Depression. He fell under the spell of Harry Bennett, a notorious figure with connections to organized crime, who, as head of Ford's security department, influenced every phase of company operations and created friction between Ford and his son Edsel. For various reasons Ford, alone in his industry, refused to cooperate with the National Recovery Administration, a 1930s government agency that prepared and oversaw codes of fair competition for businesses and industries. He did not like labor unions, refused to recognize the United Automobile Workers (UAW), and brutally restricted their attempts to organize the workers of his company.
Ford engaged in some philanthropic or charitable activity, such as the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. The original purpose of the Ford Foundation, established in 1936 and now one of the world's largest foundations, was to avoid estate taxes. Ford's greatest philanthropic accomplishment was the Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.
A stroke in 1938 slowed Ford, but he did not trust Edsel and so continued to exercise control of his company. During World War II (1939–45; a war fought between the Axis: Germany, Italy, and Japan—and the Allies: England, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States), Ford at first made pacifist, or peace-minded, statements, but changed his mind and contributed greatly to the war effort. Ford's grandson, Henry Ford II, took over the company after the war. Henry Ford died on April 7, 1947, in Dearborn.
For More Information
Brough, James. The Ford Dynasty: An American Story. New York: Doubleday, 1977.
Collier, Peter, and David Horowitz. The Fords: An American Epic. San Francisco: Summit, 2001.
Kent, Zachary. The Story of Henry Ford and the Automobile. Chicago: Children's Press, 1990.
McCarthy, Pat. Henry Ford: Building Cars for Everyone. Berkeley Hts., NJ: Enslow, 2002.
Weitzman, David L. Model T: How Henry Ford Built a Legend. New York: Crown, 2002.
Henry Ford (July 30, 1863–April 7, 1947), who gained international fame as an innovator and entrepreneur in the automobile industry, was born into a farm family in present-day Dearborn, Michigan. Ford channeled an engineering background and a notable stint as a motorcar racer into a career as a pioneer in the development of mass production systems and the manufacture of low-priced vehicles, beginning with the Model T in 1908. The spectacular expansion of the Ford Motor Company between 1910 and 1923 established it as the country's leading automobile producer, transformed the automobile industry, and enabled Henry Ford to secure complete control of his business. The associated publicity established Henry Ford's international reputation as the inventor of mass production and a symbol of successful entrepreneurship. Prominent aspects of this public persona included the introduction of the $5 per day wage, peace campaigning during World War I, and a virulent anti-Semitism that was propounded through Ford's own newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, between 1920 and 1927. Henry Ford's anti-Semitic views reflected a strand of midwestern populist thought that was also reflected in his distrust of financial interests and international agencies. It created considerable controversy that tarnished his public image considerably by 1927.
Although Ford Motor Company was the industry leader and extended its multinational operations considerably from 1911 to 1926, General Motors and Chrysler were potent competitors after 1923. Ford's investment in associated enterprises, such as mines, steelworks, and shipping, and the firm's focus on a single model imposed higher fixed costs than the less integrated General Motors, which offered a range of models. Moreover, Henry Ford's autocratic style alienated key managers and delayed modernization of the Model T. Model T production ended in 1927, and the Ford Motor Company's vast River Rouge plant was shut down for retooling in preparation for the manufacture of the new Ford Model A. Thousands of auto workers were left idle. Public interest in the new Model A focused on the Ford Motor Company's reputation and status, and initial sales were promising, with Ford regaining its leading position in 1929 and 1930. But industry sales slumped from more than 5 million new cars in 1929 to 1.4 million in 1932, and sales recovered only slowly. For such a capital-intensive industry, the result was persistent overcapacity, even after the failure of many small firms. The Ford Motor Company's own sales and profits fell steeply, and the firm followed the general pattern of dismissing workers and operating shorter hours. Although Henry Ford's financial control precluded external threats from banks, the crisis diminished his reputation for transcending economic trends. The virtues of mass production as a means of extending consumption and, thus, employment became associated with fear of technological unemployment during the 1930s.
Although Ford remained a major public figure during the Depression years, his self-help ideals associated him with aspects of a discredited form of conservatism. In addition, his company's competitive strength ebbed as the aging Ford's arbitrary and intermittent authority impeded technological changes and inhibited an effective succession to his only son, Edsel Ford. The Ford Motor Company's management systems were weak compared to those at General Motors. Above all, Henry Ford's opposition to labor unions created a sour atmosphere within the company. The company's pioneering and paternalistic labor practices, including the $5 per day wage and the sociological department, which administered the scheme, were attempts to support and stabilise the firm's expanding and diverse workforce. Sociological Department's inspectors used questionnaires and home visits to determine whether workers qualified for the highest hourly rates. Despite positive aspects, the system had an authoritarian edge that contained the seeds of later problems. By the late 1920s Ford's industrial relations were explicitly coercive, especially in the giant Rouge plant. Henry Ford placed control of labor policies in the hands of Harry Bennett and his Service Department. Bennett oversaw a network of spies, employed violence to intimidate workers, awarded catering contracts to underworld associates, and parlayed his control of personnel and his close relationship with Henry Ford into wider influence. The latter element compounded the disunity and turnover among executives, but the consequences were more direct for the workers. Competitive pressures translated into wage reductions and "speed-up" of the assembly line, as well as an intense work regime, favoritism, and a repressive management culture. By the 1930s Ford was among the worst examples of industrial practices in American manufacturing.
Always eager for complete control, Ford was hostile to New Deal initiatives and to the emergence of union organizing campaigns. This was demonstrated graphically on March 7, 1932, when three thousand people marched to the River Rouge demanding work-sharing, union representation, and reforms to labour practices. The Dearborn police and members of Ford's service department acted violently to disburse the crowd, eventually firing directly into them. Four people were killed and at least twenty seriously wounded. Antipathy to the New Deal, combined with distaste for trade associations, was reflected in Ford's refusal to participate in the automobile industry code under the National Recovery Administration (NRA) between 1933 and 1935. Since the industry monitored its trade practices effectively, the NRA code centered on labor relations. Despite federal rhetoric, Ford's opposition to the NRA had little adverse impact on the company. However, union organizing activities gained momentum with the creation of United Automobile Workers (UAW) in 1935 and its transfer to the newly formed Committee for Industrial Organization, later called the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Legal support for the union came from the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. A series of sit-down strikes and organizing drives, plus the revival of business, persuaded General Motors and Chrysler to recognize the UAW in 1937. Yet Henry Ford ensured that his firm continued to resist unionization through intimidation and legal challenges. The most striking public images of this opposition came in May 1937 when photographers captured the "Battle of the Overpass" at the Rouge plant as Bennett's men assaulted UAW organizers. Similar tactics were used at Ford plants in Dallas and Kansas City. Finally, in 1941 Ford faced a more unified UAW after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the firm's labor practices. A strike and blockade of the Rouge plant in April convinced Ford to negotiate, and the UAW emerged from the resulting National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election as the representative union. The first union contract was signed in June in spite of Henry Ford's opposition.
During the 1930s Henry Ford's other interests included opening Greenfield Village, a museum that symbolized the rural childhood that had shaped his attitudes, including his preference for political isolationism and his suspicion of financiers. Ford also promoted "village industries" by locating plants in rural areas, and he promoted experiments in the cultivation of soybeans and their use in manufacturing. World War II revived Ford's pacifist ideals: In 1940 he refused to manufacture Rolls Royce engines for Great Britain. Once the United States entered the war, Ford concentrated the company's production on defense contracts, including trucks, jeeps, munitions, and aircraft. After a stroke in 1941, Ford became less active, though more capricious, in management, and the death of his son Edsel in 1943 weakened the firm's leadership. Henry Ford became company president and his grandson, Henry Ford II, was released from the navy to join management. Bennett's ambitions for control were thwarted by Clara Ford and Eleanor Ford, the wives of Henry and Edsel respectively, who mobilized the family's financial power and Clara's influence over Henry to ensure a transition to Henry Ford II. In 1947, Ford died quietly at the Fair Lane estate. His lying "in state" in Greenfield Village attracted thousands and his funeral was a major civic occasion.
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Hounshell, David. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800–1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States. 1984.
Lewis, David L. The Public Image of Henry Ford: An American Folk Hero and his Company. 1976.
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Henry Ford Estate. University of Michigan-Dearborn. http://www.umd.umich.edu/fairlane
Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. Dearborn, Michigan. http://www.hfmgv.org
Wilkins, Mira, and Frank Ernest Hill. American Business Abroad: Ford on Six Continents. 1964.
Wik, Reynold M. Henry Ford and Grass-Roots America. 1972.
Henry Ford (1863–1947) launched the era of the mass-produced automobile. He provided tools such as the moving assembly line to enable the fast mass-production of cars and other consumer goods. Ford founded the Ford Motor Car Company, which remained the second largest car and truck manufacturer in the world through the 1990s. He is regarded as one of the great industrialists and automobile innovators of the twentieth century. Ford was also a generous philanthropist.
Henry Ford was born in Dearborn, Michigan, into a farming family. The first child of William and Mary Ford, he was taught largely by his mother, who instilled in him a strong sense of responsibility, duty, and self-reliance. As a young man he became an excellent self-taught mechanic and machinist. At age 16 he left the farm and went to nearby Detroit, a city that was process of becoming an industrial giant. There he worked as an apprentice at a machine shop. Months later he began to work with steam engines at the Detroit Dry Dock Co., where he first saw the internal combustion engine, the kind of engine he would later use to make his automobiles.
When he was 28 Ford took a job with Thomas Edison's (1847–1931) Detroit Illuminating Company, where he became chief engineer. In his spare time he began to build his first car, the Quadricycle. It resembled 2 bicycles positioned side by side with spindly bicycle-like wheels, a bicycle seat, and a barely visible engine frame. Some said it bore a resemblance to a baby carriage with a two-cylinder engine. In June 1896, Ford took an historic ride in his first automobile that was observed by many curious Detroit on-lookers. The Quadricycle broke down in a humiliating scene.
By 1899 Ford created a more proper-looking motorcar with the help of wealthy businessman William Murphy. It had high wheels, a padded double bench, brass lamps, mud guards, and a "racy" look. In the same year Ford founded the Detroit Automobile Company. Within 3 years Ford had built an improved, more reliable Quadricycle, using a four-cylinder, 36 horsepower racing engine. In 1901 his car beat what was then the world's fastest automobile in a race before a crowd of eight-thousand people in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
The publicity he received for this victory allowed Ford to finance a practical laboratory for refining his auto ideas. In 1903 Ford launched his own car company, The Ford Motor Car Company, and by January 1904 he had sold 658 vehicles. By 1908 he built the famous Model T, a car that was affordable to the middle class. The automobile was no longer the toy of the rich. Sales of the Model T increased to 720,000 by 1916.
Ford was able to make a reliable and inexpensive automobile primarily because of his introduction of the innovative moving assembly line into the process of industrial manufacturing. The assembly line is a system for carrying an item that is being manufactured past a series of stationary workers who each assemble a particular portion of the finished product. The assembly line was undoubtedly Ford's greatest contribution to industry. It revolutionized manufacturing and made it possible to make uniform products quickly and affordably.
Ford personally controlled most aspects of his company operations. He shocked the industrial world in 1914 by paying his workers the very high wage of $5 a day. In exchange for this high wage Ford demanded of his employees regular attendance at work, as well as a serious and sober private life. He required all immigrant laborers learn English and become citizens of the United States.
Ford was intrigued by the ideas of Frederick Taylor (1856–1915), the founder of Scientific Management. It was a philosophy of standardizing the behavior of workers to increase efficiency and production. Ford designed his factories to fit human performance, but then demanded his workers perform according to the factory design. He was one of the first to introduce time clocks into his business operations to monitor the exact minute a worker arrived at his job, took his lunch, and when he left his job. Ford began treating the worker like a living machine, and he attracted heavy criticism for this. The most enduring indictment of Ford's totalitarian business style was created by Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) in his classic novel Brave New World.
Ford was criticized for more than his totalitarian business practices. It was shocking for most people in the United States to read of Henry Ford's anti-Semitism, which he published weekly for 2 years in unsigned articles in his own newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. Oddly, many of his best friends were Jewish. An example is Albert Kahn (1869–1942), the great architect who designed Ford's factory in Highland Park, Michigan. Despite his controversial and at times publicly unpleasant views, some people thought enough of Ford to encourage him to run for president in 1922. They quickly retracted their support when they discovered Adolph Hitler (1889–1945) had a picture of Ford on his wall and often cited Ford as an inspiration. Ford was the only U.S. citizen mentioned in Hitler's Mein Kampf.
Driven by his childhood sense of duty and obligation, Ford was also an active philanthropist throughout his life. He built a hospital for his employees in Detroit, and in 1936 established the Ford Foundation for the purposes of "advancing human welfare." Since its founding the Ford Foundation has issued more than $8 billion in grants worldwide.
This complex farmer's son from Michigan, who made automobiles affordable to the masses, died at his estate, Fairlane, in Dearborn, Michigan in 1947 at the age of 84.
Bryan, Ford R. Beyond the Model T: The Other Ventures of Henry Ford. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990.
Lasey, Robert. Ford: The Men and the Machine. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1986.
Nevins, Allan and F. E. Hill. Ford: The Times, the Man, the Company. New York: Scribners., 1954.
After founding the Ford Motor Company, the American industrialist Henry Ford (1863-1947) developed a system of mass production based on the assembly line and the conveyor belt which produced a low-priced car within reach of middle-class Americans.
The oldest of six children, Henry Ford was born on July 30, 1863, on a prosperous farm near Dearborn, Mich. He attended school until the age of 15, meanwhile developing a dislike of farm life and a fascination for machinery. In 1879 Ford left for Detroit. He became an apprentice in a machine shop and then moved to the Detroit Drydock Company. During his apprenticeship he received $2.50 a week, but room and board cost $3.50 so he labored nights repairing clocks and watches. He later worked for Westinghouse, locating and repairing road engines.
His father wanted Henry to be a farmer and offered him 40 acres of timberland, provided he give up machinery. Henry accepted the proposition, then built a first-class machinist's workshop on the property. His father was disappointed, but Henry did use the 2 years on the farm to win a bride, Clara Bryant.
Ford's First Car
Ford began to spend more and more time in Detroit working for the Edison Illuminating Company, which later became the Detroit Edison Company. By 1891 he had left the farm permanently. Four years later he became chief engineer; he met Thomas A. Edison, who eventually became one of his closest friends.
Ford devoted his spare time to building an automobile with an internal combustion engine. His first car, finished in 1896, followed the attempts, some successful, of many other innovators. His was a small car driven by a two-cylinder, four-cycle motor and by far the lightest (500 pounds) of the early American vehicles. The car was mounted on bicycle wheels and had no reverse gear.
In 1899 the Detroit Edison Company forced Ford to choose between automobiles and his job. Ford chose cars and that year formed the Detroit Automobile Company, which collapsed after he disagreed with his financial backers. His next venture was the unsuccessful Henry Ford Automobile Company. Ford did gain some status through the building of racing cars, which culminated in the "999," driven by the famous Barney Oldfield.
By this time Ford had conceived the idea of a low-priced car for the masses, but this notion flew in the face of popular thought, which considered cars as only for the rich. After the "999" victories Alex Y. Malcomson, a Detroit coal dealer, offered to aid Ford in a new company. The result was the Ford Motor Company, founded in 1903, its small, $28,000 capitalization supplied mostly by Malcomson. However, exchanges of stock were made to obtain a small plant, motors, and transmissions. Ford's stock was in return for his services. Much of the firm's success can be credited to Ford's assistants—James S. Couzens, C. H. Wills, and John and Horace Dodge.
By 1903 over 1,500 firms had attempted to enter the fledgling automobile industry, but only a few, such as Ransom Olds, had become firmly established. Ford began production of a Model A, which imitated the Oldsmobile, and followed with other models, to the letter S. The public responded, and the company flourished. By 1907 profits exceeded $1,100,000, and the net worth of the company stood at $1,038,822.
Ford also defeated the Selden patent, which had been granted on a "road engine" in 1895. Rather than challenge the patent's validity, manufacturers secured a license to produce engines. When Ford was denied such a license, he fought back; after 8 years of litigation, the courts decided the patent was valid but not infringed. The case gave the Ford Company valuable publicity, with Ford cast as the underdog, but by the time the issue was settled, the situations had been reversed.
In 1909 Ford made the momentous decision to manufacture only one type of car—the Model T, or the "Tin Lizzie." By now he firmly controlled the company, having bought out Malcomson. The Model T was durable, easy to operate, and economical; it sold for $850 and came in one color—black. Within 4 years Ford was producing over 40,000 cars per year.
During this rapid expansion Ford adhered to two principles: cutting costs by increasing efficiency and paying high wages to his employees. In production methods Ford believed the work should be brought by conveyor belt to the worker at waist-high level. This assembly-line technique required 7 years to perfect. In 1914 he startled the industrial world by raising the minimum wage to $5 a day, almost double the company's average wage. In addition, the "Tin Lizzie" had dropped in price to $600; it later went down to $360.
Ford was now an internationally known figure, but his public activities were less successful than his industrial ones. In 1915 his peace ship, the Oskar II, sailed to Europe to seek an end to World War I. His suit against the Chicago Tribune for calling him an anarchist received unfortunate publicity. In 1918 his race for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat met a narrow defeat. Ford's saddest mistake was his approval of an anti-Semitic campaign waged by the Ford-owned newspaper, the Dearborn Independent.
When the United States entered World War I, Ford's output of military equipment and his promise to rebate all profits on war production (he never did) silenced critics. By the end of the conflict his giant River Rouge plant, the world's largest industrial facility, was nearing completion. Ford gained total control of the company by buying the outstanding stock.
In the early 1920s the company continued its rapid growth, at one point producing 60 percent of the total United States output. But clouds stirred on the horizon. Ford was an inflexible man and continued to rely on the Model T, even as public tastes shifted. By the middle of the decade Ford had lost his dominant position to the General Motors Company. He finally saw his error and in 1927 stopped production of the Model T. However, since the new Model A was not produced for 18 months, there was a good deal of unemployment among Ford workers. The new car still did not permanently overtake the GM competition, Chevrolet; and Ford remained second.
Ford's last years were frustrating. He never accepted the changes brought about by the Depression and the 1930s New Deal. He fell under the spell of Harry Bennett, a notorious figure with underworld connections, who, as head of Ford's security department, influenced every phase of company operations and created friction between Ford and his son Edsel. For various reasons Ford alone in his industry refused to cooperate with the National Recovery Administration. He did not like labor unions, refused to recognize the United Automobile Workers, and brutally repressed their attempts to organize the workers of his company.
Ford engaged in some philanthropic activity, such as the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. The original purpose of the Ford Foundation, established in 1936 and now one of the world's largest foundations, was to avoid estate taxes. Ford's greatest philanthropic accomplishment was the Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich.
A stroke in 1938 slowed Ford, but he did not trust Edsel and so continued to exercise control of his company. During World War II Ford at first made pacifist statements but did retool and contribute greatly to the war effort. Ford's grandson Henry Ford II took over the company after the war. Henry Ford died on April 7, 1947.
Ford's own books, written in collaboration with Samuel Crowther, provide useful information: My Life and Work (1922), Today and Tomorrow (1926), and Moving Forward (1930). The writings on Ford are voluminous. The most authoritative on the man and the company are by Allan Nevins and Frank E. Hill, Ford: The Times, the Man, the Company (1954), Ford: Expansion and Challenge, 1915-1933 (1957), and Ford: Decline and Rebirth, 1933-1962 (1963). The best short studies are Keith Theodore Sward, The Legend of Henry Ford (1948), and Roger Burlingame, Henry Ford: A Great Life in Brief (1955). More recent works are Booton Herndon, Ford: An Unconventional Biography of the Men and Their Times (1969), and John B. Rae, Henry Ford (1969). Of the books by men who worked with Ford, Charles E. Sorensen, My Forty Years with Ford (1956), is worth reading. See also William Adams Simonds, Henry Ford: His Life, His Work, His Genius (1943), and William C. Richards, The Last Billionaire: Henry Ford (1948). □
The American automobile manufacturer Henry Ford (1863–1947) is, along with Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers, one of those who best symbolized the use of technology to transform human life in the early twentieth century. Ford himself recognized the social orientation of his efforts. As he explained in his 1922 autobiography, he believed that successful manufacturing was rooted in public service rather than in money making. He was equally clear about his own public service goal: "To lift farm drudgery off flesh and blood and lay it on steel and motors has been my most constant ambition." Somewhat unexpectedly, however, his focus shifted when he discovered "that people were more interested in something that would travel on the road than in something that would do the work on the farms".
Ford was born on a farm in Wayne County, Michigan, on July 30 and died in Dearborn, Michigan, on April 7. As a boy he experienced the agrarian way of life that once had dominated the American economy but that during his lifetime, in part as a result of his efforts, would be replaced by manufacturing. Among the relevant features of his youth were his education in rural schools (1871–1879), the early death of his mother (1876), and his fascination with machinery. That interest led to an apprenticeship in nearby Detroit (1879–1882) and a traveling job servicing steam traction engines. After his marriage in 1888 Ford's father gave him a forty-acre farm, but rather than take up farming, Henry Ford and his wife moved to Detroit, where he became an engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company.
By the early 1890s, when Ford turned his attention to using internal combustion engines to power road vehicles, the effort to develop automobiles had been under way for several decades. By that time American manufacturers had incorporated the general principles of machine production, interchangeable parts, and cost-based management, along with other practices of the factory system and large-scale business. Thus, Ford began neither the specific process of creating automobiles nor the overall process of industrialization. However, he would achieve lasting fame as well as notoriety by helping bring both processes to full maturity.
Ford's historic achievement was twofold. First, he rethought the basic idea of the automobile (making him more an innovator than an inventor), by aiming not for a large luxury vehicle but for one that was light and sturdy enough for unimproved rural roads and inexpensive enough for the average family. Second, he, along with the mechanics and engineers he employed, redesigned the manufacturing process to allow for the mass production of a product of unprecedented complexity.
The main features of this frequently told story include the completion of Ford's first experimental car (1896), his early interest in building race cars (driven by Barney Oldfield), the formation of the Ford Motor Company (1903), the introduction of the Model N (1906), and the successful challenge of the Seldon patent (1911), which ruled that George B. Seldon, a Rochester lawyer who was issued a patent in 1896 for the horseless carriage, was not entitled to a royalty for each car manufactured. However, looming over everything else was the Model T. First sold in 1908 for $825, the Model T remained in production until 1927, by which time 15 million had been made and the price had dropped to $290.
To lower costs and increase output, the company adopted the practices of progressive assembly at its Highland Park plant. The capstone of that effort was the continuously moving assembly line for attaching the various components to the chassis, which was put in place during the winter of 1913–1914. Although not a direct application of scientific management, Ford's system bore similarities to it, including the dramatically higher pay rate of "the Five Dollar Day" (1914). During and after World War I the company went on to construct the River Rouge plant, where production of the Model T achieved a high degree of vertical integration.
This system was widely admired, copied, detested, and critiqued. Its place in the modern psyche can be seen in widely different cultural products, such as Charlie Chaplin's performance in the film Modern Times (1936) and the convention for numbering years that Aldous Huxley devised in Brave New World (1932): "A.F." for "After Ford."
Achievements and Criticism
Those achievements must be attributed to many people in addition to Henry Ford. Nevertheless, Ford personally led the enterprise. Before World War I the result was a highly favorable public image. However, "the Five Dollar Day" was accompanied by the systematic investigation by the Ford Motor Company of individual workers outside the plant, and after World War I that arrangement was replaced for the most part by a more traditional approach involving company spies and threats of violence. Meanwhile, with wealth and power also came the expression of personal idiosyncrasies. A newspaper Ford owned, for example, propounded anti-Semitic views that later struck a resonant chord in Nazi Germany.
From the vantage point of the present, however, probably the most significant of Ford's shortcomings was his failure to give up personal control of the company he had founded. He consolidated that control after World War I and held on to it until almost the time of his death. One result was continued production of the Model T until the company had saturated its market, making more difficult the conversion to other models (the Model A in 1928 and the V-8 engine in 1932). Limitations also can be seen in other products the company attempted to produce: submarine chasers during World War I and farm tractors and trimotor commercial aircraft in the interwar years. Even when the products were well conceived, problems arose with production or marketing; those problems could be traced back in part to Ford's personal control of the company.
Although the Ford Motor Company was his primary achievement, Henry Ford created other organizations of lasting importance, including the Ford Foundation and The Henry Ford (formerly the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village) in Dearborn, Michigan.
THOMAS D. CORNELL
Ford, Henry, with Samuel Crowther. (1922). My Life and Work. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. The first of several co-authored books that presented Ford's views and life story to the public.
Hounshell, David A. (1984). From the American System to Mass Production, 1800–1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press. Places Ford's technological achievement in the context of the larger trend toward mass production.
Meyer, Stephen III. (1981). The Five Dollar Day: Labor Management and Social Control in the Ford Motor Company, 1908–1921. Albany: State University of New York Press. Explores the practices of Ford's company as a social system of production.
Nevins, Allan, and Frank Ernest Hill. (1954). Ford: The Times, the Man, the Company. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
Nevins, Allan, and Frank Ernest Hill. (1957). Ford: Expansion and Challenge, 1915–1933. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
Nevins, Allan, and Frank Ernest Hill. (1963). Ford: Decline and Rebirth, 1933–1962. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. These three books by Nevins and Hill remain the most detailed treatment of Ford and the company he founded.