Henry Ford

Henry Ford with his Model T. Getty Images

Who Was Henry Ford?

Henry Ford became an icon of a self-made man. He began life as a farmer's son and quickly became rich and famous. Although an industrialist, Ford remembered the common man. He designed the Model T for the masses, installed a mechanized assembly line to make production cheaper and faster, and instituted the $5 per day pay rate for his workers.


July 30, 1863 -- April 7, 1947

Henry Ford's Childhood

Henry Ford spent his childhood on his family's farm, located just outside of Detroit, MI.
When Henry was twelve, his mother died during childbirth. For the rest of his life, Henry tried to live his life as he believed his mother would have wanted, often citing lessons she had taught him before her death. Although close to his mother, Henry had a strained relationship with his father. While his father hoped Henry would someday take over the family farm, Henry preferred to tinker.

Ford, the Tinkerer

From an early age, Henry loved to take things apart and put them back together again just to see how they worked. Especially adept at doing this with watches, neighbors and friends would bring him their broken watches to fix. Although good with watches, Henry's passion was machines. Henry believed that machines could ease the life of a farmer by replacing farm animals. At age 17, Henry Ford left the farm and headed to Detroit to become an apprentice.

Steam Engines

In 1882, Henry finished his apprenticeship and was thus a full-fledged machinist.
Westinghouse hired Henry to demonstrate and operate their steam engines on nearby farms during the summers. During the winters, Henry stayed on his father's farm, diligently working on building a lighter steam engine.

It was during this time that Henry met Clara Bryant. When they married in 1888, Henry's father gave him a large piece of land on which Henry built a small house, a sawmill, and a shop to tinker in.

Ford's Quadricycle

Henry gave up farm life for good when he and Clara moved back to Detroit in 1891 so that Henry could learn more about electricity by working at the Edison Illuminating Company. In his free time, Ford worked on building a gasoline engine ignited by electricity. On June 4, 1896, Henry Ford, at age 32, completed his first successful horseless carriage, which he called the Quadricycle.

Founding the Ford Motor Company

After the Quadricycle, Henry started working on making even better automobiles and making them for sale. Twice, Ford joined with investors to establish a company that would manufacturer automobiles, but both the Detroit Automobile Company and the Henry Ford Corporation disbanded after only a year in existence.

Believing that publicity would encourage people to by cars, Henry started building and driving his own racecars. It was at racetracks that Henry Ford's name first became well known.

However, the average person didn't need a racecar, they wanted something reliable. While Ford worked on designing a reliable car, investors organized a factory. It was this third attempt at a company to make automobiles, the Ford Motor Company, that succeeded. On July 15, 1903, the Ford Motor Company sold its first car, a Model A, to Dr. E.

Pfennig, a dentist, for $850. Ford continually worked to improve the cars' design and soon created Models B, C, and F.

The Model T

In 1908, Ford designed the Model T, specifically designed to appeal to the masses. It was light, fast, and strong. Henry had found and used Vanadium steel within the Model T which was much stronger than any other steel available at the time. Also, all Model T's were painted black because that paint color dried the fastest.

Since the Model T quickly became so popular that it was selling faster than Ford could manufacture them, Ford began looking for ways to speed up the manufacturing.

In 1913, Ford added a motorized assembly line in the plant. The motorized conveyor belts moved the car to the workers, who would now each add one part to the car as the car passed them.

The motorized assembly line significantly cut the time, and thus cost, of manufacturing each car. Ford passed on this savings to the customer. Although the first Model T was sold for $850, the price eventually dropped to under $300. Ford produced the Model T from 1908 until 1927, building 15 million cars.

Ford Advocates for His Workers

Although the Model T had made Henry Ford rich and famous, he continued to advocate for the masses. In 1914, Ford instituted a $5 a day pay rate for his workers, which was nearly double what workers were paid in other auto factories. Ford believed that by raising the workers' pay, the workers would be happier (and faster) on the job, their wives could stay home to care for the family, and the workers were more likely to stay with the Ford Motor Company (leading to less down-time for training new workers).

Ford also created a sociological department in the factory that would examine workers' lives and try to make it better. Since he believed he knew what was best for his workers, Henry was very much against unions.


Henry Ford became an icon of the self-made man, an industrialist who continued to care for the common man. However, Henry Ford was also anti-Semitic. From 1919 to 1927, his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, published about a hundred anti-Semitic articles in addition to an anti-Semitic pamphlet called "The International Jew."

The Death of Henry Ford

For decades, Henry Ford and his only child, Edsel, worked together at the Ford Motor Company. However, friction between them steadily grew, based nearly entirely on differences of opinion over how the Ford Motor Company should be run. In the end, Edsel died from stomach cancer in 1943, at age 49. In 1938 and again in 1941, Henry Ford suffered strokes. On April 7, 1947, four years after Edsel's death, Henry Ford passed away at age 83.
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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Henry Ford." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/henry-ford-1779249. Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2017, March 3). Henry Ford. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/henry-ford-1779249 Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Henry Ford." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/henry-ford-1779249 (accessed May 27, 2018).