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Ford, Henry - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Henry Ford, Social and Economic Impact

company model ford’s automobile

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.

Personal Life

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.

Career Details

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

1863: Born.

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.

1947: Died.

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.

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