Henry Ford, born
July 30, 1863, was the first of William and Mary Ford's six children.
He grew up on a prosperous family farm in what is today Dearborn, Michigan.
Henry enjoyed a childhood typical of the rural nineteenth century, spending
days in a one-room school and doing farm chores. At an early age, he
showed an interest in mechanical things and a dislike for farm work.
In 1879, sixteen-year-old
Ford left home for the nearby city of Detroit to work as an apprentice
machinist, although he did occasionally return to help on the farm.
He remained an apprentice for three years and then returned to Dearborn.
During the next few years, Henry divided his time between operating
or repairing steam engines, finding occasional work in a Detroit factory,
and over-hauling his father's farm implements, as well as lending a
reluctant hand with other farm work. Upon his marriage to Clara Bryant
in 1888, Henry supported himself and his wife by running a sawmill.
In 1891, Ford became
an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit. This event
signified a conscious decision on Ford's part to dedicate his life to
industrial pursuits. His promotion to Chief Engineer in 1893 gave him
enough time and money to devote attention to his personal experiments
on internal combustion engines.
culminated in 1896 with the completion of his own self-propelled vehicle-the
Quadricycle. The Quadricycle had four wire wheels that looked like heavy
bicycle wheels, was steered with a tiller like a boat, and had only
two forward speeds with no reverse.
Although Ford was
not the first to build a self-propelled vehicle with a gasoline engine,
he was, however, one of several automotive pioneers who helped this
country become a nation of motorists.
After two unsuccessful
attempts to establish a company to manufacture automobiles, the Ford
Motor Company was incorporated in 1903 with Henry Ford as vice-president
and chief engineer. The infant company produced only a few cars a day
at the Ford factory on Mack Avenue in Detroit. Groups of two or three
men worked on each car from components made to order by other companies.
Henry Ford realized
his dream of producing an automobile that was reasonably priced, reliable,
and efficient with the introduction of the Model T in 1908. This vehicle
initiated a new era in personal transportation. It was easy to operate,
maintain, and handle on rough roads, immediately becoming a huge success.
By 1918, half of
all cars in America were Model Ts. To meet the growing demand for the
Model T, the company opened a large factory at Highland Park, Michigan,
in 1910. Here, Henry Ford combined precision manufacturing, standardized
and interchangeable parts, a division of labor, and, in 1913, a continuous
moving assembly line. Workers remained in place, adding one component
to each automobile as it moved past them on the line. Delivery of parts
by conveyor belt to the workers was carefully timed to keep the assembly
line moving smoothly and efficiently. The introduction of the moving
assembly line revolutionized automobile production by significantly
reducing assembly time per vehicle, thus lowering costs. Ford's production
of Model Ts made his company the largest automobile manufacturer in
The company began
construction of the world's largest industrial complex along the banks
of the Rouge River in Dearborn, Michigan, during the late 1910s and
early 1920s. The massive Rouge Plant included all the elements needed
for automobile production: a steel mill, glass factory, and automobile
assembly line. Iron ore and coal were brought in on Great Lakes steamers
and by railroad, and were used to produce both iron and steel. Rolling
mills, forges, and assembly shops transformed the steel into springs,
axles, and car bodies. Foundries converted iron into engine blocks and
cylinder heads that were assembled with other components into engines.
By September 1927, all steps in the manufacturing process from refining
raw materials to final assembly of the automobile took place at the
vast Rouge Plant, characterizing Henry Ford's idea of mass production.
1863 Born July
30 in Greenfield Township, Michigan.
1879 Leaves family farm for Detroit to work in machine shops.
1888 Marries Clara Bryant of Greenfield Township and moves to 80-acre
farm in what is today Dearborn.
1891 Secures position
as engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company; returns to Detroit.
1893 Edsel Bryant Ford, only child of Henry and Clara Ford, born.
1896 Completes his first automobile, the Quadricycle, and drives it
through the streets of Detroit.
1899 Ends eight years of employment with the Edison Illuminating Company
to devote full attention to the many manufacture of automobiles. Made
chief engineer and partner in the newly formed Detroit Automobile Company
which produced only a few cars.
1901 Henry Ford Company organized with Ford as engineer. Ford resigns
over dispute with bankers in 1902 and the company becomes the Cadillac
Motor Car Co.
1903 Ford Motor Company is officially incorporated. Ford's first Model
A appears on the market in Detroit.
1908 Ford begins manufacturing the famous Model T.
1910 Begins operations at factory in Highland Park, Michigan.
1913 Introduces first moving automobile assembly line at Highland Park.
1914 Announces his plan to share the Ford Motor Company's profits with
workers, paying them $5.00 for an eight hour day.
1915 The Oscar II, Ford's "Peace Ship," sets sail for Norway
on a pacifist expedition to end World War I.
1917 Begins construction of industrial facility on the Rouge River in
1918 Loses his bid for the U.S. Senate.
1919 Edsel B . Ford, son of Henry Ford, is named president of Ford Motor
1921 Ford Motor Company dominates auto production with 55 percent of
industry's total output.
1926 Focuses on air transportation and develops the Tri-Motor airplane.
1927 Transfers final assembly line from Highland Park plant to the Rouge.
Production of the Model T ends, and the Model A is introduced.
1929 Dedicates his Edison Institute of Technology and Greenfield Village
with a celebration of 50 years of the electric light.
1932 Builds first V-8 Ford car.
1933 Successfully resists first efforts to unionize workers at Ford
1937 "Battle of the Overpass" occurs between Ford security
staff and United Auto Workers union organizers. As a result, the court
orders Ford not to interfere with union activity.
1941 Ford Motor Company signs a contract with UAW.
1943 Edsel B. Ford
dies at age 49.
1947 Henry Ford
dies at age 83, at Fair Lane, his Dearborn home
Born in Dearborn, Michigan, he enjoyed tinkering with machinery from
a young age. While working for the Edison Illuminating Co., he experimented
with internal combustion engines and "gasoline buggy" designs.
In 1899 he left Edison to enter the nascent automobile industry. After
his initial venture folded, he formed the Ford Motor Company in 1903
and soon made it the undisputed industry leader. While other manufacturers
saw cars as luxury items for the wealthy, Ford stressed efficient mass
production of sturdy, affordable vehicles for the growing middle-class
market. In 1908, he introduced the Model T, which dominated the industry
for over a decade. In the 1920s, however, Ford fell behind its competitors
in both technological development and consumer savvy (most famously,
by its refusal to offer the Model T in any color but black). The introduction
of the Model A in 1928 improved the company's standing, though it never
regained the overwhelming market dominance of earlier years.
Henry Ford (1863-1947)
career made him a capitalist folk hero to many. He reveled in his celebrity
and pronounced his views on the great issues of the day. In 1915, he
organized the "Ford Peace Ship," a group of pacificist who
sailed to Europe in a vain attempt to mediate between the warring nations.
In 1918, he lost a campaign for the Senate. In the 1920s, he published
virulently anti-Semitic articles in company newspapers, and in the 1930s
expressed admiration for Hitler. Ford also took an innovative approach
to labor relations, paying significantly higher wages than competitors
but also fiercely, often violently, resisting unionization. By 1940,
Ford had amassed a fortune in excess of one billion dollars, much of
which he gave to charity through his philanthropic foundations.
This article is about the founder of the Ford Motor Company; for articles
on other people named Henry Ford, see Henry Ford (disambiguation).
Henry Ford (July 30, 1863 - April 7, 1947) was the founder of the Ford
Motor Company and one of the first to apply assembly line manufacturing
to the mass production of affordable automobiles. This achievement not
only revolutionized industrial production, it had such tremendous influence
over modern culture that many social theorists identify this phase of
economic and social history as "Fordism."
Ford was born on
a prosperous farm owned by his parents, William and Mary Ford, immigrants
from County Cork, Ireland. He was the eldest of six children. As a child,
Henry was passionate about mechanics. At 12, he spent a lot of time
in a machine shop, which he had equipped himself. By 15, he had built
his first internal combustion engine.
In 1879 he left home for the nearby city of Detroit to work as an apprentice
machinist, first with James F. Flower & Bros., and later with the
Detroit Dry Dock Co. After completion of his apprenticeship, Ford got
a job with the Westinghouse company working on gasoline engines. Upon
his marriage to Clara Bryant in 1888 Ford supported himself by running
In 1891 Ford became an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company,
and after his promotion to Chief Engineer in 1893 he had enough time
and money to devote attention to his personal experiments on internal
combustion engines. These experiments culminated in 1896 with the completion
of his own self-propelled vehicle named the Quadricycle, which he test-drove
on June 4th that year (this was also the first automobile he ever drove).
After this initial success, Ford left Edison Illuminating and, with
other investors, formed the Detroit Automobile Company. The Detroit
Automobile Company, however, went bankrupt soon afterward because Ford
continued to improve the design instead of selling cars. Ford raced
his vehicles against those of other manufacturers to show the superiority
of his designs. With the interest in his race cars, he formed a second
company, the Henry Ford Company. During this period, he personally drove
his Quadricycle to victory in a race against Alexander Winton, a well-known
driver and the heavy favorite on October 10, 1901. Ford was forced out
of the company by the investors, including Henry M. Leland in 1902,
and the company was reorganized as Cadillac.
Henry Ford, with eleven other investors and $28,000 in capital, incorporated
the Ford Motor Company in 1903. In a newly-designed car, Ford drove
an exhibition in which the car covered the distance of a mile on the
ice of Lake St. Clair in 39.4 seconds, which was a new land speed record.
Convinced by this success, the famous race driver Barney Oldfield, who
named this new Ford model "999" in honor of a racing locomotive
of the day, took the car around the country and thereby made the Ford
marque well-known throughout the U.S. Henry Ford was also one of the
early backers of the Indianapolis 500.
The Model T
In 1908, the Ford company released the Model T. From 1909 to 1913, Ford
entered stripped-down Model Ts into races as well, finishing first (although
later disqualified) in an "ocean-to-ocean" (across the USA)
race in 1909, and setting a one-mile oval speed record at Detroit Fairgrounds
in 1911 with driver Frank Kulick. In 1913, Ford attempted to enter a
reworked Model T in the Indianapolis 500, but was told rules required
the addition of another 1,000 pounds (450 kg) to the car before it could
qualify. Ford dropped out of the race, and soon thereafter dropped out
of racing permanently, citing dissatisfaction with the sport's rules
and the demand on his time by the now booming production of the Model
Racing was, by 1913, no longer necessary from a publicity standpoint—the
Model T was famous, and ubiquitous on American roads. It was in this
year Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly belts into his plants,
which enabled an enormous increase in production. By 1918 half of all
cars in America were Model Ts. The design, fervently promoted and defended
by Henry Ford, would continue through 1927 (well after its popularity
had faded), with a final total production of fifteen million vehicles.
This was a record which would stand for the next 45 years. Ford said
"Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so
long as it is black."
Henry Ford had
very specific thoughts on relations with his employees. They were expected
to work an eight-hour day, and in 1913 were paid a handsome $5 per day.
The pay rate increased to $6 per day at the peak of Model T production
in 1918; such a sum for laborers was, at the time, almost unheard-of.
Ford also offered his employees an innovative profit-sharing plan.
was adamantly against labor unions in his plants. To forestall union
activity, he hired Harry Bennett, titularly the head of the Service
Department, who employed various intimidation tactics to squash union
organizing. A sit-down strike by the United Auto Workers union in 1941
finally admitted collective bargaining at some Ford plants, but it was
not until Henry Ford and Harry Bennett left the company for good in
1945 that it would fully unionize.
On January 1, 1919,
Henry Ford turned the presidency of Ford Motor Company over to his son
Edsel, although still maintaining a firm hand in its management—few
company decisions under Edsel's presidency were made without being approved
by Henry, and those few that were, Henry often reversed. Also at this
time, Henry and Edsel purchased all remaining stock from other investors,
thus becoming sole owners of the company. This began a period of decline
for Ford Motor Company, since the stock buyout caused them to borrow
heavily just before the postwar recession hit the country.
In about 1920, Ford
purchased a vast tract of land in Brazil, Fordlândia, to grow
rubber for his car tyres in. It proved a financial disaster and by the
time he sold in in 1945, he had lost a fortune.
By the mid 1920's, sales of the Model T began to decline, in part because
of the rise of consumer credit. Other auto makers offered payment plans
through which consumers could buy their cars, which usually included
more modern mechanical features and styling not available with the Model
T. Despite urgings from his son Edsel, the company president, Henry
Ford steadfastly refused to incorporate new features into the Model
T or to form a customer credit plan (the former to keep prices low and
affordable, the latter because he believed such plans were bad for the
The Model A and
By 1926, flagging sales of the Model T convinced Henry Ford of what
Edsel had been suggesting for some time: a new model was necessary.
The elder Ford pursued the project with a great deal of technical expertise
in design of the engine, chassis and other mechanical necessities, while
leaving it to his son to develop the body design. Edsel also managed
to prevail over his father's initial objections in the inclusion of
a hydraulic brake system and sliding-shift transmission. The result
was the highly successful Ford Model A, introduced December, 1927 and
produced through 1931, with a total output of over four million automobiles.
Henry Ford long
had an interest in plastics developed from agricultural products, especially
soybeans. Soybean-based plastics were used in Ford automobiles throughout
the 1930s in plastic parts such as car horns, in paint, etc. This project
culminated in 1942, when on January 13 Ford patented an automobile made
almost entirely of plastic, attached to a tubular welded frame. It weighed
30% less than a standard car of the same size, and was said to be able
to withstand blows ten times greater than could steel. The design never
On May 26, 1943,
Edsel Ford died, leaving a vacancy in the company presidency. Henry
Ford advocated the spot be taken by Harry Bennett. Edsel's widow Eleanor,
who had inherited Edsel's voting stock, wanted her son Henry Ford II
to take over the position. The issue was settled for a period when Henry
himself, at the age of 79, took over the presidency personally. The
company saw hard times during the next two years, losing $10 million
a month. President Roosevelt considered a federal bailout for Ford Motor
Company so that wartime production could continue.
The Dearborn Independent
Henry Ford devoted much of his semi-retirement from Ford Motor to the
publication of a newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, which he purchased
in 1919. The paper ran for around eight years, during which it introduced
to the United States a work (not written by Ford himself) called "Protocols
of the Learned Elders of Zion," which has since been discredited
by virtually all historians as a forgery. The American Jewish Historical
Society describes his ideas during this period as "anti-immigrant,
anti-labor, anti-liquor and anti-Semitic".
Ford also published,
in his name, several anti-Jewish articles for the Independent which
were released in the early 1920s as a set of four bound volumes, cumulatively
titled "The International Jew, the World's Foremost Problem."
Denounced by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the articles nevertheless
explicitly condemned pogroms and violence against Jews (Volume 4, Chapter
80), preferring rather to blame incidents of mass violence on the Jews
themselves. These articles were written by several authors, including
Ford's personal secretary of 34 years, Ernest Liebold. None were actually
penned by Ford, though since he was the paper's publisher they required
his tacit approval.
Ford closed the
Dearborn Independent in December 1927 and later retracted the International
Jew and the Protocols. On January 7, 1942, Henry Ford wrote a public
letter to the ADL denouncing hatred against the Jews and expressing
his hope that anti-Jewish hatred would cease for all time. Some claim
that Ford neither wrote or signed this letter and have called the sincerity
of his apology into question. His writings continue to be used as propaganda
by various groups, often appearing on anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi websites.
Henry Ford and Nazism
There is some evidence that Henry Ford gave Adolf Hitler financial backing
when Hitler was first starting out in politics. This can in part be
traced to statements from Kurt Ludecke, Germany's representative to
the U.S. in the 1920s, and Winifred Wagner, daughter-in-law of Richard
Wagner, who said they requested funds from Ford to aid the National
Socialist movement in Germany. However, a 1933 Congressional investigation
into the matter was unable to substantiate one way or the other that
funding was actually sent.
Ford Motor Company
was active in Germany's military buildup prior to World War II. In 1938,
for instance, it opened an assembly plant in Berlin whose purpose was
to supply trucks to the Wehrmacht. In July of that year, Ford was awarded
(and accepted) the Grand Cross of the Order of the German Eagle (Großkreuz
des Deutschen Adlerordens). Ford was the first American and the fourth
person given this award, at the time Nazi Germany's highest honorary
award given to foreigners. Earlier the same year, Benito Mussolini had
been decorated with the Grand Cross. The decoration was given "in
recognition of [Ford's] pioneering in making motor cars available for
the masses." The award was accompanied by a personal congratulatory
message from Adolf Hitler. [Detroit News, July 31, 1938.]
The Ford Foundation
Henry Ford, with his son Edsel, founded the Ford Foundation in 1936
as a local philanthropy in the state of Michigan with a broad charter
to promote human welfare. The Foundation has grown immensely and by
1950 had become national and international in scope.
The final days
At the end of the war, the elder Henry, in ill health, ceded the presidency
to his grandson on September 21, 1945 and went into retirement. He died
at the age of 83 at Fair Lane, his estate in Dearborn, and is buried
at the Ford Cemetery in Detroit.