Biography of Henry Ford, Industrialist and Inventor

Hanry Ford in front of a Model T
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Henry Ford (July 30, 1863–April 7, 1947) was an American industrialist, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, and the sponsor of the development of the assembly line technique of mass production. A prolific inventor and canny businessman, Ford was responsible for the Model T and Model A automobiles, as well as the immensely popular Fordson tractor, the V8 engine, a submarine chaser, and the "Tin Goose" passenger plane.

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 (1839–1876) and William Ford (1826–1905) (m. April 21, 1861)
  • Died: April 7, 1947 in Dearborn, Michigan
  • Education: Scotch Settlement School in Dearborn to the 6th grade, apprentice in a machine shop, and general business studies at Bryant & Stratton Business University in Detroit
  • Published Works: My Life and Work
  • Spouse: Clara Jane Bryant (m. 1888–1947)
  • Children: Edsel (November 6, 1893–May 26, 1943)

Early Life

Henry Ford was born on July 30, 1863, one of eight and the oldest of five children that survived to adulthood, to Mary Litogot Ahern and William Ford. William (1826–1905) was an Irish immigrant born in Clonakilty in County Cork who fled the Irish potato famine with two borrowed pounds and a set of carpentry tools. He settled in Detroit where a number of his uncles lived, and quickly accrued land.

At three years of age, Mary Litogot Ahern (1839–1876) and her three brothers were orphaned; Mary was adopted by a couple named Margaret and Patrick Ahern. She and William married on April 21, 1861: Mary's dowry included 90 acres and after they were married, their sizable farm totaled 250 acres. By the time Henry was born, they were among the most important and wealthy families in Dearborn.

Education

Henry was educated in two one-room schoolhouses, the Scottish Settlement School and the Miller School, and he finished six grades. The building was eventually moved to Ford's Greenfield village and opened to tourists. From his graduation in 1876, Henry worked on his father's farm. After the 1878 harvest, however, he abruptly left, 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 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.

Marriage and Future Plans

In December 1885, Ford met Clara Jane Bryant (1866–1950) at a New Year's Eve party and they married on April 11, 1888. Ford continued to work the farm—his father gave him an acreage—but his heart was in tinkering. He clearly had 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.

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 quadricyle. He sold it in order to finance work on an improved model—a delivery wagon.

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 Motors

Ford incorporated the Ford Motor Company in 1903, proclaiming, "I will build a car for the great multitude." In October 1908, he did so, the Model T—Ford numbered his models by the letters of the alphabet, although not all of them made it to production. First priced at $950, over 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. The Model T heralds the beginning of the Motor Age; Ford's innovation was a car evolved from a luxury item for the well-to-do to an essential form of transportation for the ordinary man, which that ordinary man could repair and maintain by himself.

Ford did not invent the assembly line, but 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, subdivision of labor, and careful coordination of operations, Ford realized huge gains in productivity and personal wealth.

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. On May 27, 1927, production ended for the Ford Model T.

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 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.

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.

The Tri-Motor and the Model A

Ford refused to produce arms for either war, 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 almost all of the early airliners until newer. larger, and faster planes from Boeing and Douglas supplanted them.

By the late 1920s, Henry Ford finally began to take his automobile competition seriously. Although personally convinced that the Model T was all the car anyone would ever need, he recognized that the demand was there for a new car. In 1927, he reluctantly shut down manufacturing the Model T and began design on an entirely new car, the Model A. It was only competitive in the U.S. market for about four years.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Ford became one of the major U.S. military contractors, supplying airplanes, engines, jeeps, and tanks.

Legacy and Death

Ford was a shrewd businessman and very much of a showman, with a fairly thin skin. In 1919 he sued the Chicago Tribune for libel for writing an editorial in which the Tribune called him an "anarchist" and "ignorant idealist." He wrote and rewrote his biography multiple times beginning in 1922, and he sponsored the restoration of an idyllic rural town called Greenfield Village which was built in part to act as a tourist destination celebrating his life and work.

Yet, Ford continued to innovate. In 1932, Henry Ford introduced his last engineering triumph: his "en block," or one-piece, lightweight, inexpensive V-8 engine; and on January 13, 1942, he patented a plastic-bodied automobile—a car 30% lighter than metal cars.

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.

The last few years, Henry Ford visibly slowed down, and on April 7, 1947, he died in his home in Dearborn.

Controversy

There is unfortunately ample evidence that Ford was a bigot, whose writings include several statements referring to white supremacy. According to a recent article in Quartz, even though he hired black employees and paid them the same as white ones, he was concerned that they and his other workers would be infected by the evil of jazz music, so he suggested that square dancing could be put forward as an alternative place where white people could hang out. 

Sources

  • Bryan, Ford Richardson. "Beyond the Model T: The Other Ventures of Henry Ford." 2nd ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997.
  • "Clara: Mrs. Henry Ford. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2013.
  • Casey, Bob. "Henry Ford: Founder, Ford Motor Company." Henry Ford org. 
  • Ford, Henry. "My Life and Work." Ford's memoir was published several times and with numerous editions, the book was first written, in association with Samuel Crowther, in 1922.
  • Lewis, David L. "The Public Image of Henry Ford: An American Folk Hero and His Company." Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1976.
  • Pennacchia, Robyn. "America’s wholesome square dancing tradition is a tool of white supremacy." Quartz, December 12, 2017.
  • 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.
  • Wood, John Cunningham and Michael C. Wood (eds). "Henry Ford: Critical Evaluations in Business and Management, Volume 1." London: Routledge, 2003.