Henry Ford was born on 30 July 1863 as the first of six children of William and Mary Ford on a farm near Dearborn, Michigan. He was educated during the winters in a one-room district school, and helped on the family farm in summer. His mother died when he was 12. He went around the countryside doing repair work for free, mainly for the opportunity to tinker with machinery. At the age of 16 he walked to Detroit and apprenticed himself to a mechanic for $2.50 a week. His board was $3.50, and to have more cash available, he worked four hours every night for a watchmaker for $2 a week. He occasionally returned to help on the farm.
Later on he worked in an engine shop and set up steam engines that were used on farms. By 1884 he took charge of a farm that his father gave him. He married Clara Bryant in 1888 and settled down. Ford supported himself and his wife by running a sawmill, but after 2 years he went back to Detroit and worked as night engineer for the Detroit Edison Illuminating Company. His promotion to Chief Engineer in 1893, gave him adequate time and money to devote attention to his personal experiments on internal combustion engines.
Ford built his first car in a small shed behind his house. After experimenting in his leisure time hours for years, he finished the construction of this first automobile, the Quadricycle, in 1896. It had a two-cylinder engine over the rear axle, which developed four horsepower, a single seat fitted in a boxlike body, an electric bell for a horn, and a steering lever instead of a steering wheel. It had only two forward speeds without a reverse. Although he was not the first to construct a self-propelled motor vehicle with a gasoline engine, he was one of several automotive pioneers who made the USA to be a nation of motorists. He drove the Quadricycle through the streets of Detroit. From 1888 to 1899 he was a mechanical engineer, and later chief engineer, with the Edison Company.
In 1899 Ford assisted in establishing the Detroit Automobile Company, which built cars to order. He sought to build in quantity at a price within the reach of many people, but his partners objected, and he withdrew. In 1903 he started the Ford Motor Company with no more than $28,000 raised in cash. The funds came from eleven other shareholders. One investor put just $2,500 forward, of which only $1,000 was in cash. Eventually he drew more than $5,000,000 in dividends, and he received in excess of $30,000,000 when he sold all his holdings to Ford in 1919. Ford’s first Model A appeared on the market in Detroit.
Model T from Ford
Nine years later (1908) the Ford Company introduced the celebrated Model T. It was built until 1927, when the Model T was discontinued in favour of a more advanced model. Ford produced and sold about 15 million cars. Within the following couple of years, Ford’s superiority as the biggest automobile producer and seller in the USA was gradually lost to his competitors. This came about, as Ford was slow to adopt the principle of introducing new models every year. It was the tendency in the automobile industry. By 1918, more than fifty percent of all cars in the USA were Model Ts. To meet the growing demand for this Model, the company opened a large factory in 1910 in Highland Park, Michigan. He began with standardized interchangeable parts and assembly-line techniques at this factory.
He also introduced the first moving assembly line at Highland Park, and though he was neither the inventor nor the first to employ such practices. He was primarily the person responsible for its general adoption at automobile plants, and for the resultant vast expansion of the American industry.
By early 1914 this improvement had largely increased productivity, but resulted in a monthly labour turnover of 40-60% at his plant. It was the result of the disagreeable monotony of assembly-line work and production quotas allotted to assembly labourers. Ford overcame this hurdle by doubling the standard daily wage $5. It lead to higher stability in his labour force and a substantial reduction in operational costs.
Initially motor manufacturers just bought the necessary parts, and assembled the cars. Ford’s idea however, was to make every part that went into his cars. He acquired iron and coalmines, forests, mills, and factories to produce and shape his metals, fuel, glass, wood, and leather. He had his own railroad and ships lines as well as an airfreight service to transport his materials.
Ford became active in several other fields besides he manufacturing of motorcars and airplanes. In 1915 he hired a “Peace Ship”, The Oscar II, and sailed for Norway on a pacifist mission to end World War I. He was accompanied to Europe by a number of people with similar hopes, and attempted without any success to persuade the governments to end World War I. During both World Wars his company was a major producer of war material.
To mass-produce cars was Ford’s principle wish, and therefore he replaced labourers with machines wherever possible. Every worker had one task only, which he did over and over again until it became mechanical. The conveyor lines brought the job to the man instead of wasting time where the worker had to go to the job. Ford also cut shipping costs – parts were shipped from the main plants in Detroit and were assembled into cars at branch plants.
Ford also won fame as a philanthropist and pacifist. He established an eight-hour day, a minimum wage of $5 daily (later raised to $6), and a five-day week. He was nominated for the office of U.S. senator from Michigan in 1918 but lost his bid in the election. In 1919 he built the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit at a cost of $7.5 million. It had fixed rates for service and physicians and nurses on salary. In the same year he became the publisher of the Dearborn Independent, which at first published anti-Semitic material. Under extensive public disapproval, he decided that publication of such articles should be discontinued. A public apology was made to the Jewish people. He also began the Edison Institute, which includes Greenfield Village and the Edison Institute Museum and trade schools.
In 1926 Ford turned his attention to air transport and developed the Tri-Motor airplane, and in 1927 he moved the final assembly line from Highland Park plant to the Rouge. The production of the Model T came to an end, and the Model A was introduced. In 1932 Ford built his first V-8 Ford.
During 1933 he successfully withstood first efforts to unionise workers at Ford plants. This event followed the 1930’s policy of the yearly changeover, and his company was unable to regain the position it formerly held.
Ford was granted government contracts early in 1941 whereby he had, inter alia, to manufacture parts for bombers and, later entire aircraft. He then launched the establishment of a big factory in Michigan, where he started with production in May 1942. By the end of World War II (1945) this factory had manufactured more than 8000 planes. In 1945 Ford handed the presidency of the company to his 28-year-old grandson, Henry Ford II.
By 1945 when Ford was more than 80 years old, he retired frm active involvement in his gigantic enterprises. He died on 7 April 1947 at Fair Lane, his Dearborn home, and left a personal fortune estimated at $500 to $700 million, bequeathing the largest portion of his holdings in the Ford Motor Company to the Ford Foundation.