After founding the Ford Motor Company, the American industrialist Henry Ford (1863-1947) developed a system of mass production based on the assembly line and the conveyor belt which produced a low-priced car within reach of middle-class Americans.
The oldest of six children, Henry Ford was born on July 30, 1863, on a prosperous farm near Dearborn, Mich. He attended school until the age of 15, meanwhile developing a dislike of farm life and a fascination for machinery. In 1879 Ford left for Detroit. He became an apprentice in a machine shop and then moved to the Detroit Drydock Company. During his apprenticeship he received $2.50 a week, but room and board cost $3.50 so he labored nights repairing clocks and watches. He later worked for Westinghouse, locating and repairing road engines.
His father wanted Henry to be a farmer and offered him 40 acres of timberland, provided he give up machinery. Henry accepted the proposition, then built a first-class machinist's workshop on the property. His father was disappointed, but Henry did use the 2 years on the farm to win a bride, Clara Bryant.
Ford began to spend more and more time in Detroit working for the Edison Illuminating Company, which later became the Detroit Edison Company. By 1891 he had left the farm permanently. Four years later he became chief engineer; he met Thomas A. Edison, who eventually became one of his closest friends.
Ford devoted his spare time to building an automobile with an internal combustion engine. His first car, finished in 1896, followed the attempts, some successful, of many other innovators. His was a small car driven by a two-cylinder, four-cycle motor and by far the lightest (500 pounds) of the early American vehicles. The car was mounted on bicycle wheels and had no reverse gear.
In 1899 the Detroit Edison Company forced Ford to choose between automobiles and his job. Ford chose cars and that year formed the Detroit Automobile Company, which collapsed after he disagreed with his financial backers. His next venture was the unsuccessful Henry Ford Automobile Company. Ford did gain some status through the building of racing cars, which culminated in the "999," driven by the famous Barney Oldfield.
By this time Ford had conceived the idea of a low-priced car for the masses, but this notion flew in the face of popular thought, which considered cars as only for the rich. After the "999" victories Alex Y. Malcomson, a Detroit coal dealer, offered to aid Ford in a new company. The result was the Ford Motor Company, founded in 1903, its small, $28,000 capitalization supplied mostly by Malcomson. However, exchanges of stock were made to obtain a small plant, motors, and transmissions. Ford's stock was in return for his services. Much of the firm's success can be credited to Ford's assistants—James S. Couzens, C. H. Wills, and John and Horace Dodge.
By 1903 over 1,500 firms had attempted to enter the fledgling automobile industry, but only a few, such as Ransom Olds, had become firmly established. Ford began production of a Model A, which imitated the Oldsmobile, and followed with other models, to the letter S. The public responded, and the company flourished. By 1907 profits exceeded $1,100,000, and the net worth of the company stood at $1,038,822.
Ford also defeated the Selden patent, which had been granted on a "road engine" in 1895. Rather than challenge the patent's validity, manufacturers secured a license to produce engines. When Ford was denied such a license, he fought back; after 8 years of litigation, the courts decided the patent was valid but not infringed. The case gave the Ford Company valuable publicity, with Ford cast as the underdog, but by the time the issue was settled, the situations had been reversed.
In 1909 Ford made the momentous decision to manufacture only one type of car—the Model T, or the "Tin Lizzie." By now he firmly controlled the company, having bought out Malcomson. The Model T was durable, easy to operate, and economical; it sold for $850 and came in one color—black. Within 4 years Ford was producing over 40,000 cars per year.
During this rapid expansion Ford adhered to two principles: cutting costs by increasing efficiency and paying high wages to his employees. In production methods Ford believed the work should be brought by conveyor belt to the worker at waist-high level. This assembly-line technique required 7 years to perfect. In 1914 he startled the industrial world by raising the minimum wage to $5 a day, almost double the company's average wage. In addition, the "Tin Lizzie" had dropped in price to $600; it later went down to $360.
Ford was now an internationally known figure, but his public activities were less successful than his industrial ones. In 1915 his peace ship, the Oskar II, sailed to Europe to seek an end to World War I. His suit against the Chicago Tribune for calling him an anarchist received unfortunate publicity. In 1918 his race for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat met a narrow defeat. Ford's saddest mistake was his approval of an anti-Semitic campaign waged by the Ford-owned newspaper, the Dearborn Independent.
When the United States entered World War I, Ford's output of military equipment and his promise to rebate all profits on war production (he never did) silenced critics. By the end of the conflict his giant River Rouge plant, the world's largest industrial facility, was nearing completion. Ford gained total control of the company by buying the outstanding stock.
In the early 1920s the company continued its rapid growth, at one point producing 60 percent of the total United States output. But clouds stirred on the horizon. Ford was an inflexible man and continued to rely on the Model T, even as public tastes shifted. By the middle of the decade Ford had lost his dominant position to the General Motors Company. He finally saw his error and in 1927 stopped production of the Model T. However, since the new Model A was not produced for 18 months, there was a good deal of unemployment among Ford workers. The new car still did not permanently overtake the GM competition, Chevrolet; and Ford remained second.
Ford's last years were frustrating. He never accepted the changes brought about by the Depression and the 1930s New Deal. He fell under the spell of Harry Bennett, a notorious figure with underworld connections, who, as head of Ford's security department, influenced every phase of company operations and created friction between Ford and his son Edsel. For various reasons Ford alone in his industry refused to cooperate with the National Recovery Administration. He did not like labor unions, refused to recognize the United Automobile Workers, and brutally repressed their attempts to organize the workers of his company.
Ford engaged in some philanthropic activity, such as the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. The original purpose of the Ford Foundation, established in 1936 and now one of the world's largest foundations, was to avoid estate taxes. Ford's greatest philanthropic accomplishment was the Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich.
A stroke in 1938 slowed Ford, but he did not trust Edsel and so continued to exercise control of his company. During World War II Ford at first made pacifist statements but did retool and contribute greatly to the war effort. Ford's grandson Henry Ford II took over the company after the war. Henry Ford died on April 7, 1947.
Ford's own books, written in collaboration with Samuel Crowther, provide useful information: My Life and Work (1922), Today and Tomorrow (1926), and Moving Forward (1930). The writings on Ford are voluminous. The most authoritative on the man and the company are by Allan Nevins and Frank E. Hill, Ford: The Times, the Man, the Company (1954), Ford: Expansion and Challenge, 1915-1933 (1957), and Ford: Decline and Rebirth, 1933-1962 (1963). The best short studies are Keith Theodore Sward, The Legend of Henry Ford (1948), and Roger Burlingame, Henry Ford: A Great Life in Brief (1955). More recent works are Booton Herndon, Ford: An Unconventional Biography of the Men and Their Times (1969), and John B. Rae, Henry Ford (1969). Of the books by men who worked with Ford, Charles E. Sorensen, My Forty Years with Ford (1956), is worth reading. See also William Adams Simonds, Henry Ford: His Life, His Work, His Genius (1943), and William C. Richards, The Last Billionaire: Henry Ford (1948).