Biography of Henry Ford, American Industrialist and Inventor

Ford Automobile Founder Henry Ford
Ford Motor Company founder and entrepreneur Henry Ford.

Bettmann / Getty Imges

Henry Ford (July 30, 1863–April 7, 1947) was an American industrialist and business magnate best known for founding the Ford Motor Company and promoting the development of the assembly line technique of mass production. A prolific innovator and shrewd businessman, Ford was responsible for the Model T and Model A automobiles, as well as the popular Fordson farm tractor, the V8 engine, a submarine chaser, and the Ford Tri-Motor "Tin Goose" passenger airplane. No stranger to controversy, the often outspoken Ford was also known for promoting anti-Semitism.

Fast Facts: Henry Ford

  • Known For: American industrialist, founder of the Ford Motor Company
  • Born: July 30, 1863 in Dearborn, Michigan
  • Parents: Mary Litogot Ahern Ford and William Ford
  • Died: April 7, 1947 in Dearborn, Michigan
  • Education: Goldsmith, Bryant & Stratton Business University 1888—1890
  • Published Works: My Life and Work
  • Spouse: Clara Jane Bryant
  • Children: Edsel Ford (November 6, 1893–May 26, 1943)
  • Notable Quote: “The only true test of values, either of men or of things, is that of their ability to make the world a better place in which to live.” 

Early Life

Henry Ford was born on July 30, 1863 to William Ford and Mary Litogot Ahern on the family’s farm near Dearborn, Michigan. He was the eldest of six children in a family of four boys and two girls. His father William was a native of County Cork, Ireland, who fled the Irish potato famine with two borrowed IR£ pounds and a set of carpentry tools to come to the United States in 1847. His mother Mary, the youngest child of Belgian immigrants, was born in Michigan. When Henry Ford was born, the United States was in the midst of the Civil War.

Young Henry Ford
Young Henry Ford, 1888. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Ford completed first through eighth grades in two one-room schoolhouses, the Scottish Settlement School and the Miller School. The Scottish Settlement School building was eventually moved to Ford's Greenfield Village and opened to tourists. Ford was particularly devoted to his mother, and when she died in 1876, his father expected Henry to run the family farm. However, he hated farm work, later recalling, “I never had any particular love for the farm—it was the mother on the farm I loved.”

After the 1878 harvest, Ford abruptly left the farm, walking off without permission to Detroit, where he stayed with his father's sister Rebecca. He took a job at the streetcar manufacturer Michigan Car Company Works, but was fired after six days and had to return home.

In 1879, William got Henry an apprenticeship at the James Flower and Brothers Machine shop in Detroit, where he lasted nine months. He left that job for a position at the Detroit Dry Dock Company, which was a pioneer in iron ships and Bessemer steel. Neither job paid him enough to cover his rent, so he took a night job with a jeweler, cleaning and repairing watches.

Henry And Edsel Ford In Model F
Father Henry and Son Edsel Ford sit in the rare Model F Ford. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Henry Ford returned to the farm in 1882, where he operated a small portable steam threshing machine—the Westinghouse Agricultural Engine—for a neighbor. He was very good at it, and over the summers of 1883 and 1884, he was hired by the company to operate and repair engines made and sold in Michigan and northern Ohio.

In December 1885, Ford met Clara Jane Bryant (1866–1950) at a New Year's Eve party and they married on April 11, 1888. The couple would have one son, Edsel Bryant Ford (1893–1943).

Ford continued to work the farm—his father gave him an acreage—but his heart was in tinkering. He clearly had a business in mind. Over the winters of 1888 through 1890, Henry Ford enrolled in Goldsmith, Bryant & Stratton Business University in Detroit, where he likely took penmanship, bookkeeping, mechanical drawing, and general business practices.

The Road to the Model T

Henry Ford Seated In His First Ford Auto
Henry Ford seated in his first Ford automobile on Grand Boulevard, Detroit in September of 1896. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

By the early 1890s, Ford was convinced that he could construct a horseless carriage. He didn't know enough about electricity, however, so in September 1891 he took a job with the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit. After his first and only son Edsel was born on November 6, 1893, Ford was promoted to chief engineer. By 1896, Ford had built his first working horseless carriage, which he named a quadricycle. He sold it in order to finance work on an improved model—a delivery wagon.

Henry Ford's 1897 patent for a carburetor.
Henry Ford's 1897 patent for a carburetor. US Patent and Trademark Office / Public Domain

On April 17, 1897, Ford applied for a patent for a carburetor, and on August 5, 1899, the Detroit Automobile Company was formed. Ten days later, Ford quit the Edison Illuminating Company. And on January 12, 1900, the Detroit Automobile Company released the delivery wagon as its first commercial automobile, designed by Henry Ford.

Ford Motor Company and the Model T 

Ford incorporated the Ford Motor Company in 1903, proclaiming, "I will build a car for the great multitude." In October 1908, he did so, as the first Model T rolled off the assembly line. Ford numbered his models by the letters of the alphabet, although not all of them made it to production. First priced at $950, the Model T eventually dipped as low as $280 during its 19 years of production. Nearly 15,000,000 were sold in the United States alone, a record that would stand for the next 45 years. The Model T heralded the beginning of the Motor Age. Ford's innovation was a car that evolved from a luxury item for the wealthy to an essential form of transportation for the “ordinary man,” which that ordinary man could afford and maintain by himself.

Thanks to Ford’s nationwide publicity effort, half of all cars in the United States were Model Ts by 1918. Every new Model T was black. In his autobiography, Ford famously wrote, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”

1908 Ford Model T
1908 Ford Model T. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Ford, who distrusted accountants, managed to amass one of the world's largest fortunes without ever having his company audited. Without an accounting department, Ford reportedly guessed how much money was being taken in and spent each month by separating the company's bills and invoices and weighing them on a scale. The company would continue to be privately-owned by the Ford family until 1956, when the first shares of Ford Motor Company stock were issued.

While Ford did not invent the assembly line, he championed it and used it to revolutionize manufacturing processes in the United States. By 1914, his Highland Park, Michigan, plant used innovative production techniques to turn out a complete chassis every 93 minutes. This was a stunning improvement over the earlier production time of 728 minutes. Using a constantly-moving assembly line, a subdivision of labor, and careful coordination of operations, Ford realized huge gains in productivity and personal wealth.

Ford Factory
Assembly line workers inside the Ford Motor Company factory at Dearborn, Michigan, c. 1928. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1914, Ford began paying his employees $5 a day, nearly doubling the wages offered by other manufacturers. He cut the workday from nine to eight hours in order to convert the factory to a three-shift workday. Ford's mass-production techniques would eventually allow for the manufacture of a Model T every 24 seconds. His innovations made him an international celebrity.

By 1926, faltering sales of the Model T finally convinced Ford a new model was needed. Even as production of the Ford Model T ended on May 27, 1927, Ford was working on its replacement, the Model A.

The Model A, the V8, and the Tri-Motor

Photograph of a Ford Model A
Ford Model A. Bettmann/Getty Images

In designing the Model A, Ford focused on the engine, chassis, and other mechanical necessities, while his son Edsel designed the body. With little formal training in mechanical engineering himself, Ford turned much of the actual design of the Model A to a talented team of engineers working under his direction and close supervision.

The first successful Ford Model A was introduced in December 1927. By the time production ended in 1931, more than 4 million Model As had rolled off the assembly line. It was at this point Ford decided to follow the marketing lead of his main competitor General Motors in presenting annual model enhancements as a means of boosting sales. During the 1930s, the Ford-owned Universal Credit Corporation became a major car-financing operation.

As the company’s design change for 1932, Ford set the auto industry on its ear with the revolutionary flathead Ford V8, the first low-price eight-cylinder engine. Variants of the flathead V8 would be used in Ford vehicles for 20 years, with its power and dependability leaving it an iconic engine among hot-rod builders and car collectors.

A 1930's era Ford Tri-Motor taxis at the Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture 2013.
1930's era Ford Tri-Motor. Getty Images News

As a lifelong pacifist, Ford refused to produce arms for either world wars, but he did make engines suitable for aircraft, jeeps, and ambulances. Made by the Ford Airplane Company, the Ford Tri-Motor, or "Tin Goose," was the mainstay of the earliest airplane passenger service between the late 1920s and early 1930s. Even though only 199 were ever built, Ford's all-metal construction, 15-passenger capacity planes suited the needs of almost all of the early airlines until newer, larger, and faster planes from Boeing and Douglas became available.

Other Projects 

Although best known for the Model T, Ford was a restless man and had a substantial number of side projects. One of his most successful was a farm tractor, called the Fordson, which he began developing in 1906. It was built on a Model B engine with a large water tank in place of a standard radiator. By 1916, he had built working prototypes, and when World War I started, he produced them internationally. The Fordson continued to be made in the U.S. until 1928; his factories in Cork, Ireland, and Dagenham, England, made Fordsons throughout World War II.

Right side view of a man sitting near an orchard, on a Fordson tractor.
Fordson farm tractor. Archive Photos/Getty Images

During World War I, he designed the "Eagle," a submarine chaser powered by a steam turbine. It carried an advanced submarine detection device. Sixty were put into service by 1919, but the costs of development were much higher than original estimates—for one thing, Ford had to excavate canals near his plants to test and transport the new ships.

Ford also built hydroelectric plants, eventually constructing 30 of them, including two for the U.S. government: one on the Hudson River near Troy, New York, and one on the Mississippi River at Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. He had a project called Ford Estates, in which he would buy up properties and rehab them for other purposes. In 1931, he bought the 18th-century manor Boreham House in Essex, England, and a surrounding 2,000 acres of land. He never lived there but set up Boreham House as an Institute of Agricultural Engineering to train men and women on new technologies. Another Ford Estates project was cooperative farming properties in several rural areas in the U.S. and U.K., where people lived in cottages and raised crops and animals.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Ford became one of the major U.S. military contractors, supplying airplanes, engines, jeeps, and tanks throughout World War II.

Later Career and Death

When Ford’s son Edsel, then president of Ford Motor Company, died of cancer in May 1943, the elderly and ailing Henry Ford decided to reassume the presidency. Now nearly 80 years old, Ford had already suffered several possible heart attacks or strokes, and was described as having become mentally unstable, unpredictable, suspicious, and generally no longer fit to lead the company. However, having had de facto control of the company for the last 20 years, Ford convinced the board of directors to elect him. With Ford serving until the end of World War II, Ford Motor Company declined sharply, losing more than $10 million a month—nearly $150 million today.

Mourners Filing Past Henry Ford in Casket
(Original Caption) All who loved Henry Ford, humble folk, his workmen and personalities, file past the bier, where the great industrialist's body lies in state, at the Greenfield Village, here in Dearborn. America's huge automotive industry and the city of Detroit paid homage to the man who made Michigan a great industrial center. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

In September 1945, with his health failing, Ford retired and ceded the presidency of the company to his grandson, Henry Ford II. Henry Ford died at age 83 on April 7, 1947, of a cerebral hemorrhage at his Fair Lane estate in Dearborn, Michigan. More than 5,000 people per hour filed past his casket at a public viewing held at Greenfield Village. Funeral services were held in Detroit's Cathedral Church of St. Paul, after which Ford was buried in the Ford Cemetery in Detroit.

Legacy and Controversy

Ford's affordable Model T irrevocably altered American society. As more Americans owned cars, urbanization patterns changed. The United States saw the growth of suburbia, the creation of a national highway system, and a population entranced with the possibility of going anywhere anytime. Ford witnessed many of these changes during his lifetime, all the while personally longing for the agrarian lifestyle of his youth.

Unfortunately, Ford was also criticized as an anti-Semite. In 1918, Ford purchased a then-obscure weekly newspaper called The Dearborn Independent, in which he regularly expressed his strongly anti-Semitic views. Ford required all of his auto dealerships nationwide to carry the Independent and distribute it to its customers. Ford's anti-Semitic articles were also published in Germany, prompting Nazi Party leader Heinrich Himmler to describe him as “one of our most valuable, important, and witty fighters.”

In Ford’s defense, however, his Ford Motor Company was one of the few major corporations known for actively hiring Black workers during the early 1900s, and was never accused of discriminating against Jewish workers. In addition, Ford was among the first companies of the day to regularly hire women and handicapped persons.

Sources and Further References

  • Bryan, Ford Richardson. "Beyond the Model T: The Other Ventures of Henry Ford." 2nd ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997.
  • Bryan, Ford R. "Clara: Mrs. Henry Ford.” Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2013.
  • Ford, Henry and Crowther, Samuel (1922). "My Life and Work." CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.
  • Lewis, David L. "The Public Image of Henry Ford: An American Folk Hero and His Company." Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1976.
  • Swigger, Jessica. "History Is Bunk: Historical Memories at Henry Ford's Greenfield Village." University of Texas, 2008.
  • Weiss, David A. "The Saga of the Tin Goose: The Story of the Ford Tri-Motor." 3rd ed. Trafford, 2013.
  • Wik, Reynold M. "Henry Ford and Grass-roots America." Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1973.
  • Glock, Charles Y. and Quinley, Harold E. “Anti-Semitism in America.” Transaction Publishers, 1983.
  • Allen, Michael Thad. “The Business of Genocide: The SS, Slave Labor, and the Concentration Camps.” University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
  • Wood, John Cunningham and Michael C. Wood (eds). "Henry Ford: Critical Evaluations in Business and Management, Volume 1." London: Routledge, 2003.

Updated by Robert Longley.

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Bellis, Mary. "Biography of Henry Ford, American Industrialist and Inventor." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Bellis, Mary. (2023, April 5). Biography of Henry Ford, American Industrialist and Inventor. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Biography of Henry Ford, American Industrialist and Inventor." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).