“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” Henry Ford
Henry Ford did not invent the automobile but he made it possible for the masses to afford one, creating the “car culture.” Ford did this because he had a vision and he found a way to realize his vision. He streamlined the manufacturing process and introduced the continuously moving assembly line. Ford installed the first conveyor belt-based assembly line in his car factory in his Highland Park, Michigan plant.
Name: Henry Ford
Birth Date: July 30, 1863 – April 7, 1947
Job Functions: Car Manufacturer
Fields: Manufacturing and Transportation
Known For: The Model T and Streamlining the Assembly Line
Henry Ford was born in Dearborn, Michigan to a prosperous farmer. Ford’s mother was responsible for his early education. She taught him how to read and instilled in him the core values of responsibility, duty and self-reliance. The young lad had a fascination for machinery and would tinker with the farm machinery. In 1876 when he was 13 years old, he saw a coal-fired steam engine which fired up his imagination.
Three years later, in 1879, when he was 16 years old, Ford left the family farm and entered into an apprenticeship at James Flowers and Brothers Machine Shop in Detroit, where they made valves and fire hydrants. To supplement his income which was less than his room and board, Ford worked at nights repairing clocks and watches.
Less than a year later, Ford moved to the Detroit Drydock Company, a thriving local shipbuilder where he apprenticed in its engine shop. Ford kept abreast of what was occurring in the automobile industry and was particularly interested in what German engineer Karl Benz was doing with the new gasoline-powered internal combustion engine.
After his apprenticeship ended in 1882, Ford joined 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. From time to time, Ford visited his father’s farm to help out. His father wanted him to become a farmer and gave him a 40-acre plot of land. Ford took the land but was determined to chart his own path. When he married Clara Bryant they lived on the plot of land for a while, but Ford built a little shed which he used as his own machine shop. To learn more about his trade, Ford often travelled around Detroit, conducting what is now known today as information interviews. He questioned the best engineers to get the answers he so desperately sought.
Ford left the farm life permanently in mid-1891 when he took a night-time position as an engineer at Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit. In 1895, he was promoted to chief engineer earning $100 a month. During his time at Edison Illuminating Company he met Thomas Alva Edison who became a lifelong friend.
In 1896, Ford produced a two-cylinder, four-cycle engine that generated four horsepower. He then mounted the engine on a chassis with four bicycle wheels and called his invention the Quadricycle. It was an instant success and people wanted one for themselves. Ford sold his machine for $200 and set out to build a more powerful one. Because of Ford’s constant tinkering with automobiles, Edison Illuminating gave him an ultimatum to choose between automobiles and his job. Ford chose automobiles. With help from investors, Ford established the Detroit Automobile Company, which was shortly changed to the Henry Ford Company.
Ford entered his car into races and he also spent a lot of time improving car designs and introducing new technologies which impacted the entire industry. In 1902, Ford left the Henry Ford Company which he had started to form another company, the Ford Motor Company in 1903. At this new company, Ford manufactured eight different models, and within five years the output was 100 cars a day.
A visionary, Ford was very strategic, and bought out many of his original investors, and ended up with a 58 percent stake in the company, which gave him more control of his company. He was also very dissatisfied with the daily output of cars and aspired to produce 1,000 cars each day. To do that, he decided to produce just one type of car, the Model T, a car suited for the masses. His stockholders were furious with him, but could do nothing because he held controlling interest in the firm.
In the fall of 1908, Ford rolled out his first Model T, which was loaded with many features, some of which were safety features like an encased engine. The price was $825, which at the time was quite expensive for the masses. Ford believed that with the introduction of assembly line technologies, over time he could reduce the price of the car because of efficiencies. For 20 years, Ford would manufacture only the Model T car.
From 1908 to 1909, Ford sold 11,000 cars, in 1910 he sold 19,000, and by 1914, he had captured nearly 50 percent of the US market selling 248,000 cars. Ford built a factory on 60 acres of land in Highland Park in Detroit. And by 1921, nearly 5.5 million Ford automobiles had been built.
In keeping with his vision to produce a car that the masses could easily afford, Ford introduced the continuous moving assembly line. He worked closely with his employees to figure out the correct pace that they could handle. The time to produce chassis went from a whopping six hours to 90 minutes, and with this time savings, by 1916, the one millionth Model T rolled off the assembly line and Ford was now producing 2,000 cars every day. The price of his cars dropped to $300, and he was able to corner 96 percent of the market for inexpensive cars.
Ford didn’t stop there with introducing changes. He introduced an eight-hour shift, which was below the industry standard, and had three eight-hour shifts each day at his factory. Because of labour problems, Ford introduced profit-sharing and a minimum wage of $5 a day for his workers, which was double the industry standard which ranged from $1.80 to $2.50 a day.
With the outbreak of World War I which Ford was against, he spoke up against it and used his resources to end it. He sailed on his “peace ship” to Europe to end the hostilities, but the media criticized him heavily for this. He made an unsuccessful bid for the US Senate as a democrat. He also bought the local newspaper, Dearborn Independent and pushed what was believed to be racist and isolationist views. In the 1920s he built an 1,100 acre factory and tried to introduce vertical integration but there were constant personality clashes with his workers. He became very dictatorial and ended up chasing away his very best executives.
The Ford Company started to slip and the Model Ts looked outdated alongside the more stylish cars produced by General Motors and Chrysler. This forced him to retire the Model T which he replaced with the Model A. Just when the company started to regain market share, the Great Depression arrived. World War II also tarnished Ford’s image, “[Ford] intimidated his workers through campaigns of espionage and subversion against labor unions. His fuzzy pro-Hitler remarks and turn to isolationism led many to label Ford a Nazi apologist.” Ford was adamantly against labour unions, and did everything in his power to undermine unionization.
Ford died in 1947 of a cerebral haemorrhage at age 83. What happened that would change someone so radically?
Henry Ford’s Steps to Success
- Ford’s mother taught him how to read and instilled in him the core values of responsibility, duty and self-reliance.
- Worked hard to realize his vision.
- For a long time, Ford was a leader in the automobile industry.
- Launched the era of the automobile and in doing so provided the tools necessary for the mass production of consumer goods.
- Associated with the creation of the assembly line, which allowed cars and other uniform products to be produced quickly and efficiently. Each worker was responsible for completing a single task.
- Production of the Model T automobile on an assembly line brought the low-priced automobile within reach of many middle-class Americans.
- Ford initially founded the Ford Foundation, one of the world’s largest philanthropic foundations, in 1936 to avoid estate taxes.
Why Henry Ford’s Contribution Matters
Henry Ford’s contribution matters because he revolutionized the automobile industry by producing inexpensive cars for the masses. He helped to change the way most people traveled.
Lessons from Henry Ford
- Don’t give up on your dreams.
- Keep on top of what is going in your industry.
- Do work that matters, not only to you, but also to humankind.
- Leave the world better than you found it.
Encyclopedia of World Biography
Business Leader Profiles for Students
Industrial Revolution: Biographies
Science and its Times
Development of the Industrial US: Biographies
Company Profiles for Students
Roaring Twenties Reference Library