Henry Ford

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“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”


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.

Although Ford did not invent the automobile or the assembly line,[1] he developed and manufactured the firstautomobile that many middle class Americans could afford. In doing so, Ford converted the automobile from an expensive curiosity into a practical conveyance, that would profoundly impact the landscape of the twentieth century. His introduction of the Model T automobile revolutionized transportation and American industry. As the owner of theFord Motor Company, he became one of the richest and best-known people in the world. He is credited with “Fordism“: mass production of inexpensive goods coupled with high wages for workers. Ford had a global vision, with consumerism as the key to peace. His intense commitment to systematically lowering costs resulted in many technical and business innovations, including a franchise system that put dealerships throughout most of North America and in major cities on six continents. Ford left most of his vast wealth to the Ford Foundation and arranged for his family to control the company permanently.

Ford was also widely known for his pacifism during the first years of World War I, and also for being the publisher of antisemitic texts such as the book The International Jew.[2]

Early life

Henry Ford was born July 30, 1863, on a farm in Greenfield Township, Michigan.[3] His father, William Ford (1826–1905), was born in County Cork, Ireland, to a family that was originally from Somerset, England,[4] His mother, Mary Ford (née Litogot) (1839–1876), was born in Michigan as the youngest child of Belgianimmigrants; her parents died when she was a child and she was adopted by neighbors, the O’Herns. Henry Ford’s siblings were Margaret Ford (1867–1938); Jane Ford (c. 1868–1945); William Ford (1871–1917) and Robert Ford (1873–1934).

His father gave him a pocket watch in his early teens. At 15, Ford dismantled and reassembled the timepieces of friends and neighbors dozens of times, gaining the reputation of a watch repairman.[5] At twenty, Ford walked four miles to their Episcopal church every Sunday.[6]

Ford was devastated when his mother died in 1876. His father expected him to eventually take over the family farm, but he despised farm work. He later wrote, “I never had any particular love for the farm—it was the mother on the farm I loved.”[7]

In 1879, Ford left home to work as an apprentice machinist in Detroit, first with James F. Flower & Bros., and later with the Detroit Dry Dock Co. In 1882, he returned to Dearborn to work on the family farm, where he became adept at operating the Westinghouse portable steam engine. He was later hired byWestinghouse to service their steam engines. During this period Ford also studied bookkeeping at Goldsmith, Bryant & Stratton Business College in Detroit.[8]


In 1891, Ford became an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company. After his promotion to Chief Engineer in 1893, he had enough time and money to devote attention to his personal experiments on gasoline engines. These experiments culminated in 1896 with the completion of a self-propelled vehicle which he named the Ford Quadricycle. He test-drove it on June 4. After various test drives, Ford brainstormed ways to improve the Quadricycle.[11]

Also in 1896, Ford attended a meeting of Edison executives, where he was introduced to Thomas Edison. Edison approved of Ford’s automobile experimentation. Encouraged by Edison, Ford designed and built a second vehicle, completing it in 1898.[12] Backed by the capital of Detroit lumber baron William H. Murphy, Ford resigned from the Edison Company and founded the Detroit Automobile Company on August 5, 1899.[12] However, the automobiles produced were of a lower quality and higher price than Ford wanted. Ultimately, the company was not successful and was dissolved in January 1901.[12]

With the help of C. Harold Wills, Ford designed, built, and successfully raced a 26-horsepower automobile in October 1901. With this success, Murphy and other stockholders in the Detroit Automobile Company formed the Henry Ford Company on November 30, 1901, with Ford as chief engineer.[12] In 1902, Murphy brought in Henry M. Leland as a consultant; Ford, in response, left the company bearing his name. With Ford gone, Murphy renamed the company the Cadillac Automobile Company.[12]

Teaming up with former racing cyclist Tom Cooper, Ford also produced the 80+ horsepower racer “999” which Barney Oldfield was to drive to victory in a race in October 1902. Ford received the backing of an old acquaintance, Alexander Y. Malcomson, a Detroit-area coal dealer.[12] They formed a partnership, “Ford & Malcomson, Ltd.” to manufacture automobiles. Ford went to work designing an inexpensive automobile, and the duo leased a factory and contracted with a machine shop owned by John and Horace E. Dodge to supply over $160,000 in parts.[12] Sales were slow, and a crisis arose when the Dodge brothers demanded payment for their first shipment.

Ford Motor Company

Henry Ford with Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone.Fort Myers, Florida, February 11, 1929.

In response, Malcomson brought in another group of investors and convinced the Dodge Brothers to accept a portion of the new company.[12] Ford & Malcomson was reincorporated as the Ford Motor Company on June 16, 1903,[12] with $28,000 capital. The original investors included Ford and Malcomson, the Dodge brothers, Malcomson’s uncle John S. Gray, Malcolmson’s secretaryJames Couzens, and two of Malcomson’s lawyers, John W. Anderson and Horace Rackham. Ford then demonstrated a newly designed car on the ice of Lake St. Clair, driving 1 mile (1.6 km) in 39.4 seconds and setting a new land speed record at 91.3 miles per hour (146.9 kilometres per hour). Convinced by this success, the race driver Barney Oldfield, who named this new Ford model “999” in honor of the fastest locomotive of the day, took the car around the country, making the Ford brand known throughout the United States. Ford also was one of the early backers of the Indianapolis 500.

Model T

The Model T was introduced on October 1, 1908. It had the steering wheel on the left, which every other company soon copied. The entire engine and transmission were enclosed; the four cylinders were cast in a solid block; the suspension used two semi-elliptic springs. The car was very simple to drive, and easy and cheap to repair. It was so cheap at $825 in 1908 ($21,650 today) (the price fell every year) that by the 1920s, a majority of American drivers had learned to drive on the Model T.[13]

Ford created a huge publicity machine in Detroit to ensure every newspaper carried stories and ads about the new product. Ford’s network of local dealers made the car ubiquitous in almost every city in North America. As independent dealers, the franchises grew rich and publicized not just the Ford but the concept of automobiling; local motor clubs sprang up to help new drivers and to encourage exploring the countryside. Ford was always eager to sell to farmers, who looked on the vehicle as a commercial device to help their business. Sales skyrocketed—several years posted 100% gains on the previous year. Always on the hunt for more efficiency and lower costs, in 1913 Ford introduced the moving assembly belts into his plants, which enabled an enormous increase in production. Although Ford is often credited with the idea, contemporary sources indicate that the concept and its development came from employees Clarence Avery, Peter E. Martin, Charles E. Sorensen, and C. Harold Wills.[14] (See Piquette Plant)

Ford assembly line, 1913

Sales passed 250,000 in 1914. By 1916, as the price dropped to $360 for the basic touring car, sales reached 472,000.[15](Using the consumer price index, this price was equivalent to $7,020 in 2008 dollars.)

By 1918, half of all cars in America were Model T’s. All new cars were black; as Ford wrote in his autobiography, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black”.[16] Until the development of the assembly line, which mandated black because of its quicker drying time, Model Ts were available in other colors, including red. The design was fervently promoted and defended by Ford, and production continued as late as 1927; the final total production was 15,007,034. This record stood for the next 45 years. This record was achieved in 19 years from the introduction of the first Model T (1908).

President Woodrow Wilson asked Ford to run as a Democrat for the United States Senate from Michigan in 1918. Although the nation was at war, Ford ran as a peace candidate and a strong supporter of the proposed League of Nations.[17] Ford was defeated in a close election by the Republican candidate, Truman Newberry, a former United States Secretary of the Navy.

Henry Ford turned the presidency of Ford Motor Company over to his son Edsel Ford in December 1918. Henry retained final decision authority and sometimes reversed his son. Henry started another company, Henry Ford and Son, and made a show of taking himself and his best employees to the new company; the goal was to scare the remaining holdout stockholders of the Ford Motor Company to sell their stakes to him before they lost most of their value. (He was determined to have full control over strategic decisions.) The ruse worked, and Henry and Edsel purchased all remaining stock from the other investors, thus giving the family sole ownership of the company.[18]

By the mid-1920s, sales of the Model T began to decline due to rising competition. 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 Edsel, Henry refused to incorporate new features into the Model T or to form a customer credit plan.[19]

Model A and Ford’s later career

By 1926, flagging sales of the Model T finally convinced Henry to make a new model. He pursued the project with a great deal of technical expertise in design of the engine, chassis, and other mechanical necessities, while leaving the body design to his son. Edsel also managed to prevail over his father’s initial objections in the inclusion of a sliding-shift transmission.[20]

The result was the successful Ford Model A, introduced in December 1927 and produced through 1931, with a total output of more than 4 million. Subsequently, the Ford company adopted an annual model change system similar to that recently pioneered by its competitor General Motors (and still in use by automakers today). Not until the 1930s did Ford overcome his objection to finance companies, and the Ford-owned Universal Credit Corporation became a major car-financing operation.[21]

Ford did not believe in accountants; he amassed one of the world’s largest fortunes without ever having his company audited under his administration.

Labor philosophy

The five-dollar workday

Time magazine, January 14, 1935

Ford was a pioneer of “welfare capitalism“, designed to improve the lot of his workers and especially to reduce the heavy turnoverthat had many departments hiring 300 men per year to fill 100 slots. Efficiency meant hiring and keeping the best workers.[22]

Ford astonished the world in 1914 by offering a $5 per day wage ($120 today), which more than doubled the rate of most of his workers.[23] A Cleveland, Ohio newspaper editorialized that the announcement “shot like a blinding rocket through the dark clouds of the present industrial depression.”[24] The move proved extremely profitable; instead of constant turnover of employees, the best mechanics in Detroit flocked to Ford, bringing their human capital and expertise, raising productivity, and lowering training costs.[25][26] Ford announced his $5-per-day program on January 5, 1914, raising the minimum daily pay from $2.34 to $5 for qualifying workers. It also set a new, reduced workweek, although the details vary in different accounts. Ford and Crowther in 1922 described it as six 8-hour days, giving a 48-hour week,[27] while in 1926 they described it as five 8-hour days, giving a 40-hour week.[28] (Apparently the program started with Saturday being a workday and sometime later it was changed to a day off.)

Detroit was already a high-wage city, but competitors were forced to raise wages or lose their best workers.[29] Ford’s policy proved, however, that paying people more would enable Ford workers to afford the cars they were producing and be good for the local economy. He viewed the increased wages as profit-sharing linked with rewarding those who were most productive and of good character.[30] It may have been Couzens who convinced Ford to adopt the $5-day.[31]

The profit-sharing was offered to employees who had worked at the company for six months or more, and, importantly, conducted their lives in a manner of which Ford’s “Social Department” approved. They frowned on heavy drinking, gambling, and (what today are called) deadbeat dads. The Social Department used 50 investigators, plus support staff, to maintain employee standards; a large percentage of workers were able to qualify for this “profit-sharing.”

Ford’s incursion into his employees’ private lives was highly controversial, and he soon backed off from the most intrusive aspects. By the time he wrote his 1922 memoir, he spoke of the Social Department and of the private conditions for profit-sharing in the past tense, and admitted that “paternalism has no place in industry. Welfare work that consists in prying into employees’ private concerns is out of date. Men need counsel and men need help, often special help; and all this ought to be rendered for decency’s sake. But the broad workable plan of investment and participation will do more to solidify industry and strengthen organization than will any social work on the outside. Without changing the principle we have changed the method of payment.”[32]

Labor unions

Ford was adamantly against labor unions. He explained his views on unions in Chapter 18 of My Life and Work.[33] He thought they were too heavily influenced by some leaders who, despite their ostensible good motives, would end up doing more harm than good for workers. Most wanted to restrict productivity as a means to foster employment, but Ford saw this as self-defeating because, in his view, productivity was necessary for any economic prosperity to exist.

He believed that productivity gains that obviated certain jobs would nevertheless stimulate the larger economy and thus grow new jobs elsewhere, whether within the same corporation or in others. Ford also believed that union leaders had a perverse incentive to foment perpetual socio-economic crisis as a way to maintain their own power. Meanwhile, he believed that smart managers had an incentive to do right by their workers, because doing so would maximize their own profits. Ford did acknowledge, however, that many managers were basically too bad at managing to understand this fact. But Ford believed that eventually, if good managers such as he could fend off the attacks of misguided people from both left and right (i.e., both socialists and bad-manager reactionaries), the good managers would create a socio-economic system wherein neither bad management nor bad unions could find enough support to continue existing.

To forestall union activity, Ford promoted Harry Bennett, a former Navy boxer, to head the Service Department. Bennett employed various intimidation tactics to squash union organizing.[34] The most famous incident, on May 26, 1937, involved Bennett’s security men beating with clubs UAW representatives, including Walter Reuther.[35] While Bennett’s men were beating the UAW representatives, the supervising police chief on the scene was Carl Brooks, an alumnus of Bennett’s Service Department, and [Brooks] “did not give orders to intervene.”[36] The incident became known as The Battle of the Overpass.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Edsel—who was president of the company—thought Ford had to come to some sort of collective bargaining agreement with the unions because the violence, work disruptions, and bitter stalemates could not go on forever. But Henry, who still had the final veto in the company on a de factobasis even if not an official one, refused to cooperate. For several years, he kept Bennett in charge of talking to the unions that were trying to organize the Ford Motor Company. Sorensen’s memoir[37] makes clear that Henry’s purpose in putting Bennett in charge was to make sure no agreements were ever reached.

The Ford Motor Company was the last Detroit automaker to recognize the United Auto Workers union (UAW). A sit-down strike by the UAW union in April 1941 closed the River Rouge Plant. Sorensen recounted[38] that a distraught Henry Ford was very close to following through with a threat to break up the company rather than cooperate, but his wife Clara told him she would leave him if he destroyed the family business. In her view, it would not be worth the chaos it would create. Henry complied with his wife’s ultimatum, and even agreed with her in retrospect.[38] Overnight, the Ford Motor Company went from the most stubborn holdout among automakers to the one with the most favorable UAW contract terms.[38] The contract was signed in June 1941.[38]

Ford Airplane Company

Ford, like other automobile companies, entered the aviation business during World War I, building Liberty engines. After the war, it returned to auto manufacturing until 1925, when Ford acquired the Stout Metal Airplane Company.

Ford 4-AT-F (EC-RRA) of the Spanish Republican Airline, L.A.P.E.

Ford’s most successful aircraft was the Ford 4AT Trimotor, often called the “Tin Goose” because of its corrugated metal construction. It used a new alloy called Alclad that combined the corrosion resistance of aluminum with the strength ofduralumin. The plane was similar to Fokker‘s V.VII-3m, and some say that Ford’s engineers surreptitiously measured the Fokker plane and then copied it. The Trimotor first flew on June 11, 1926, and was the first successful U.S. passenger airliner, accommodating about 12 passengers in a rather uncomfortable fashion. Several variants were also used by the U.S. Army. Ford has been honored by the Smithsonian Institution for changing the aviation industry. 199 Trimotors were built before it was discontinued in 1933, when the Ford Airplane Division shut down because of poor sales during the Great Depression.


This profile is partly adapted from a Wikipedia entry on Henry Ford, available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.