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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

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Portrait of man with wavy hair wearing suit
Henry Ford’s first official Ford Motor Company portrait, 1904. / THF97952


Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. But more than any other single individual, he was responsible for transforming the automobile from an invention of unknown utility into an innovation that profoundly shaped the 20th century and continues to affect the 21st.

Innovators change things. They take new ideas—sometimes their own, sometimes other people’s—and develop and promote those ideas until they become an accepted part of daily life. Innovation requires self-confidence, a taste for taking risks, leadership ability, and a vision of what the future should be. Henry Ford had all these characteristics, but it took him many years to develop all of them fully.

Portrait of the Innovator as a Young Man


Ford’s beginnings were perfectly ordinary. He was born on his father’s farm in what is now Dearborn, Michigan, on July 30, 1863. At this time, most Americans were born on farms, and most looked forward to being farmers themselves. Early on, Ford demonstrated some of the characteristics that would make him successful. In his family, he became infamous for taking apart his siblings’ toys as well as his own. He organized other boys to build rudimentary waterwheels and steam engines. He learned about full-size steam engines by becoming acquainted with the engines’ operators and pestering them with questions. He taught himself to fix watches and used the watches themselves as textbooks to learn the basics of machine design. Thus, at an early age, Ford demonstrated curiosity, self-confidence, mechanical ability, the capacity for leadership, and a preference for learning by trial and error. These characteristics would become the foundation of his whole career.

Framed painting of a number of boys working with wood, machinery, and fire
Artist Irving Bacon depicted Henry Ford in his first workshop, along with friends, in this 1938 painting. / THF152920

Ford could simply have followed in his father’s footsteps and become a farmer. But young Henry was fascinated by machines and was willing to take risks to pursue that fascination. In 1879, he left the farm to become an apprentice at a machine shop in Detroit. Over the next few years, he held jobs at several places, sometimes moving when he thought he could learn more somewhere else. He returned home in 1882 but did little farming. Instead, he operated and serviced portable steam engines used by farmers, occasionally worked in factories in Detroit, and cut and sold timber from 40 acres of his father’s land.

By now, Ford was demonstrating another characteristic—a preference for working on his own rather than for somebody else. In 1888, Ford married Clara Bryant, and in 1891 they moved to Detroit. Ford had taken a job as night engineer for the Edison Electric Illuminating Company—another risk on his part, because he did not know a great deal about electricity at this point. He took the job in part as an opportunity to learn.

Black-and-white photograph of men standing among machinery outside a large brick building
Henry Ford (third from left, in white coat) with other employees at Edison Illuminating Company Plant, November 1895. / THF244633

Early Automotive Experiments: Failure and Then Success


Henry was a skilled student, and by 1896 had risen to chief engineer of the Illuminating Company. But he had other interests. He became one of the scores of other people working in barns and small shops trying to make horseless carriages. Ford read about these other efforts in magazines, copying some of the ideas and adding some of his own, and convinced a small group of friends and colleagues to help him. This resulted in his first primitive automobile, the Quadricycle, completed in 1896. A second, more sophisticated car followed in 1898.

Green cushioned seat on top of platform containing mechanics with four wheels and rudder
Henry Ford’s 1896 Quadricycle Runabout, the first car he built. / THF90760

Ford now demonstrated one of his most important characteristics—the ability to articulate a vision and convince other people to sign on and help him achieve that vision. He convinced a group of businessmen to back him in the biggest risk of his life—starting a company to make horseless carriages. But Ford knew nothing about running a business, and learning by doing often involves failure. The new company failed, as did a second.

To revive his fortunes, Ford took bigger risks, building and even driving a pair of racing cars. The success of these cars attracted additional financial backers, and on June 16, 1903, just before his 40th birthday, Henry incorporated his third automobile venture, the Ford Motor Company.

The early history of Ford Motor Company illustrates another of Henry Ford’s most valuable traits—his ability to identify and attract outstanding talent. He hired a core of young, highly competent people who would stay with him for years and make Ford Motor Company into one of the world’s great industrial enterprises.

Street scene with man in early, open car; also contains text
Print of Norman Rockwell's painting, "Henry Ford in First Model A on Detroit Street." / THF288551

The new company’s first car was called the Model A, and a variety of improved models followed. In 1906, Ford’s 4-cylinder, $600 Model N became the best-selling car in the country. But by this time, Ford had a vision of an even better, cheaper “motorcar for the great multitude.” Working with a small group of employees, he came up with the Model T, introduced on October 1, 1908.

The Automobile: A Solution in Search of a Problem


As hard as it is for us to believe, in 1908 there was still much debate about exactly what automobiles were good for. We may see them as a necessary part of daily life, but the situation in 1908 was very different. Americans had arranged their world to accommodate the limits of the transportation devices available to them. People in cities got where they wanted to go by using electric street cars, horse-drawn cabs, bicycles, and shoe leather because all the places they wanted to go were located within reach of those transportation modes.

Street scene with pedestrians and carriages; tall buildings line both sides of street
This Boston street scene, circa 1908, shows pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages on the road—but no cars. / THF203438

Most of the commercial traffic in cities still moved in horse-drawn vehicles. Rural Americans simply accepted the limited travel radius of horse- or mule-drawn vehicles. For long distances, Americans used our extensive, well-developed railroad network. People did not need automobiles to conduct their daily activities. Rather, the people who bought cars used them as a new means of recreation. They drove them on joyrides into the countryside. The recreational aspect of these early cars was so important that people of the time divided motor vehicles into two large categories: commercial vehicles, like trucks and taxicabs, and pleasure vehicles, like private automobiles. The term “passenger cars” was still years away. The automobile was an amazing invention, but it was essentially an expensive toy, a plaything for the rich. It was not yet a true innovation.

Henry Ford had a wider vision for the automobile. He summed it up in a statement that appeared in 1913 in the company magazine, Ford Times:

“I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one—and enjoy with his family the blessings of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

Two-page spread with text and image of family looking from a hill at a landscape, with a ghostly factory in the sky
This 1924 Ford ad, part of a series, echoes the vision expressed 11 years earlier by Henry Ford: “Back of all of the activities of the Ford Motor Company is this Universal idea—a wholehearted belief that riding on the people’s highway should be in easy reach of all the people.” / THF95501

It was this vision that moved Henry Ford from inventor and businessman to innovator. To achieve his vision, Ford drew on all the qualities he had been developing since childhood: curiosity, self-confidence, mechanical ability, leadership, a preference for learning by trial and error, a willingness to take risks, and an ability to identify and attract talented people.

One Innovation Leads to Another


Ford himself guided a design team that created a car that pushed technical boundaries. The Model T’s one-piece engine block and removable cylinder head were unusual in 1908 but would eventually become standard on all cars. The Ford’s flexible suspension system was specifically designed to handle the dreadful roads that were then typical in the United States. The designers utilized vanadium alloy steel that was stronger for its weight than standard carbon steel. The Model T was lighter than its competitors, allowing its 20-horsepower engine to give it performance equal to that of more expensive cars.

Page with text and image of car at top
1908 advertisement for the 1909 Ford Model T. In advertisements, Ford Motor Company emphasized key technological features and the low prices of their Model Ts. Ford's usage of vanadium steel enabled the company to make a lighter, sturdier, and more reliable vehicle than other early competitors. / THF122987

The new Ford car proved to be so popular that Henry could easily sell all he could make, but he wanted to be able to make all he could sell. So Ford and his engineers began a relentless drive both to raise the rate at which Model Ts could be produced and to lower the cost of production.

In 1910, the company moved into a huge new factory in Highland Park, a city just north of Detroit. Borrowing ideas from watchmakers, clockmakers, gunmakers, sewing machine makers, and meat processors, Ford Motor Company had, by 1913, developed a moving assembly line for automobiles. But Ford did not limit himself to technical improvements.

When his workforce objected to the relentless, repetitive work that the line entailed, Ford responded with perhaps his boldest idea ever—he doubled wages to $5 per day. With that one move, he stabilized his workforce and gave it the ability to buy the very cars it made. He hired a brilliant accountant named Norval Hawkins as his sales manager. Hawkins created a sales organization and advertising campaign that fueled potential customers’ appetites for Fords. Model T sales rose steadily while the selling price dropped. By 1921, half the cars in America were Model Ts, and a new one could be had for as little as $415.

Portrait of man wearing suit
Norval Hawkins headed the sales department at Ford Motor Company for 12 years, introducing innovative advertising techniques and increasing Ford’s annual sales from 14,877 vehicles in 1907 to 946,155 in 1919. / THF145969

Through these efforts, Ford turned the automobile from an invention bought by the rich into a true innovation available to a wide audience. By the 1920s, largely as a result of the Model T’s success, the term “pleasure car” was fading away, replaced by “passenger car.”

The assembly line techniques pioneered at Highland Park spread throughout the auto industry and into other manufacturing industries as well. The high-wage, low-skill jobs pioneered at Highland Park also spread throughout the manufacturing sector. Advertising themes pioneered by Ford Motor Company are still being used today. Ford’s curiosity, leadership, mechanical ability, willingness to take risks, ability to attract talented people, and vision produced innovations in transportation, manufacturing, labor relations, and advertising.

What We Have Here Is a Failure to Innovate


Green car with black top, with text on side: "The Fifteen Millionth Ford"
Henry Ford was slow to admit that customers no longer wanted the Model T. However, in 1927, he finally acknowledged that shift, and Henry Ford and his son, Edsel Ford, drove this last Model T—number 15,000,000—off the assembly line at Highland Park. / THF135450

Henry Ford’s great success did not necessarily bring with it great wisdom. In fact, his very success may have blinded him as he looked to the future. The Model T was so successful that he saw no need to significantly change or improve it. He did authorize many detail changes that resulted in lower cost or improved reliability, but there was never any fundamental change to the design he had laid down in 1907.

He was slow to adopt innovations that came from other carmakers, like electric starters, hydraulic brakes, windshield wipers, and more luxurious interiors. He seemed not to realize that the consumer appetites he had encouraged and fulfilled would continue to grow. He seemed not to want to acknowledge that once he started his company down the road of innovation, it would have to keep innovating or else fall behind companies that did innovate. He ignored the growing popularity of slightly more expensive but more stylish and comfortable cars, like the Chevrolet, and would not listen to Ford executives who believed it was time for a new model.

But Model T sales were beginning to slip by 1923, and by the late 1920s, even Henry Ford could no longer ignore the declining sales figures. In 1927, he reluctantly shut down the Model T assembly lines and began the design of an all-new car. It appeared in December 1927 and was such a departure from the old Ford that the company went back to the beginning of the alphabet for a name—it was called the Model A.

Two men wearing suits stand by car in indoor space with lights and banners
Edsel and Henry Ford introduce the new Model A at the Ford Industrial Exposition in New York in January 1928. Edsel had worked to convince his father to replace the outmoded Model T with something new. / THF91597

One area where Ford did keep innovating was in actual car production. In 1917, he began construction of a vast new plant on the banks of the Rouge River southwest of Detroit. This plant would give Ford Motor Company complete control over nearly all aspects of the production process. Raw materials from Ford mines would arrive on Ford boats, and would be converted into iron and steel, which were transformed into engines, transmissions, frames, and bodies. Glass and tires would be made onsite as well, and all of this would be assembled into completed cars. Assembly of the new Model A was transferred to the Rouge. Eventually the plant would employ 100,000 people and generate many innovations in auto manufacturing.

But improvements in manufacturing were not enough to make up for the fact that Henry Ford was no longer a leader in automotive design. The Model A was competitive for only four years before needing to be replaced by a newer model. In 1932, at age 69, Ford introduced his last great automotive innovation, the lightweight, inexpensive V-8 engine. It represented a real technological and marketing breakthrough, but in other areas Fords continued to lag behind their competitors.

Engine
The V-8 engine was Henry Ford’s last great automotive innovation. This is the first V-8 engine produced, which is on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF101039

By 1936, the company that once sold half of the cars made in America had fallen to third place behind both General Motors and the upstart Chrysler Corporation. By the time Henry Ford died in 1947, his great company was in serious trouble, and a new generation of innovators, led by his grandson Henry Ford II, would work long and hard to restore it to its former glory. Henry’s story is a textbook example of the power of innovation—and the power of its absence.


Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Henry Ford and Innovation: From the Curators.”

by Bob Casey, engines, advertising, Ford Rouge Factory Complex, Model Ts, entrepreneurship, engineering, manufacturing, cars, quadricycle, Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford

Ford's New-Model Quality Center MS37640[1]
Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company Archives.

Restored architectural gem stands out in its industrial space
You don’t usually associate large manufacturing factories with architectural beauty. Sightseers at the Ford Rouge Complex’s glass plant, however, might be inclined to think otherwise.

This plant looks different. No concrete, only rivets and steel. From inside, the high roof and floor-to-ceiling windows create an unusually airy, spacious atmosphere. Natural light can’t help but stream in, creating a softness and easy glow.

Designed by famed American industrial architect Albert Kahn, the Ford Rouge’s glass plant was built in 1923 as an automotive glass-production facility. “It was about achieving volume,” Don Pijor, launch manager at the Dearborn Truck Plant and site expert for the glass plant, said of the building’s original design. “This space was built with steel columns riveted together, which gives it much more usable real estate.”

In the late ‘90s, the 40,000-square-foot building was taken out of the complex’s production equation, its sweeping windows covered with aluminum and its new primary purpose as a warehouse. 

When the restoration process began in the mid-2000s, the original intent was to transition the building into office space. Pijor later helped persuade Ford Motor Company leadership to put the plant to better use as a prove-out and employee training building for the Ford F-150, the truck built at the Rouge’s Dearborn Truck Plant.

Careful decisions were made at every corner during the restoration. The building’s window glass, for example, had come from Europe, so the restoration team reached out overseas to the original manufacturer for the glass to replace the windows. Entry doors to a fire station that was part of the building’s layout were also replaced to replicate those of the original specs.

“It’s beautiful,” Cynthia Jones, The Henry Ford’s Ford Rouge Factory Tour manager, said of the glass plant today. “There’s lots of natural light, and even though the fire station doors are in an area the public doesn’t see, restoring them showed respect for the continuing history of the site.”

Today, the glass plant is a house for innovation, used for prototyping by Ford engineers and designers. As a result of its newfound purpose, the building’s glass at the lower levels is frosted so outsiders can’t see the confidential work being done inside.

Said Jones of balancing the building’s historical integrity with its modern uses, “When you’re making choices about restoring buildings, you look at product — what is it we’re making at this place and what does it need? You’re also employee-driven because if they can’t do their job well here, changes have to be made. Third, how does it affect the area around it? I think this site has that balance.”

Though the effectiveness of the plant’s current functions are at the forefront of any decision-making about its form, preserving its history is meaningful for the people who work there as well as for posterity. Added Pijor, “To sit in this space and watch flaming ore cars go by, it’s as if it has been like this for 100 years.”

THF113886Ford Rouge Glass Plant, 1927. THF 113886

National Historic Landmark
The Ford Rouge Complex was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978.

The rare designation (with just 2,500 historic landmarks nationwide) usually restricts future changes to a site. The Ford Rouge Complex, however, is recognized as remaining in continual operation, which means the designation can be maintained even as the site continues to evolve.

“It’s important for the public to be aware” of the designation, said Jones. The designation is marked at the complex’s entry with a plaque and a statue of Henry Ford.

Summer 2015 marked 100 years since Ford started acquiring the property which the Rouge now inhabits. “We’re carving out space within this giant industrial complex to recognize its history and the history of the hundreds of thousands of people that have been employed here,” said Jones.

manufacturing, glass, Ford Rouge Factory Complex, Ford Motor Company, design

Part of the virtual visit you can now make to the Ford Rouge Factory Tour within Google Cultural Institute.

We're very pleased to announce that we are launching a new partnership between The Henry Ford and the Google Cultural Institute, available to anyone with Internet access here. The Google Cultural Institute platform features over 1,000 cultural heritage institutions worldwide, and more than 6 million total artifacts, “putting the world’s cultural treasures at the fingertips of Internet users and … building tools that allow the cultural sector to share more of its diverse heritage online” (in Google’s own words). Continue Reading

African American history, Greenfield Village, Ford Rouge Factory Complex, by Ellice Engdahl, Google Arts & Culture

The Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit exhibit will be on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts from March 15, 2015 through July 12, 2015.  As a community partner for the exhibit, The Henry Ford has been digitizing selections from our collection that document Diego Rivera’s creation of the Detroit Industry frescoes and Diego and Frida’s time in Detroit.  Below are links to six sets within our digital collections that bring some additional context to the exhibition.

Detroit Industry Frescoes: The Backstory

Edsel Ford funded the Detroit Industry frescoes, and Diego Rivera was inspired by the Ford Rouge Factory.  As a result, Ford Motor Company, Edsel, Diego, and Frida became intertwined during the artists’ time in Detroit.  This set features behind-the-scenes photographs of Diego, Frida, and others involved in the project; photos of Diego’s original drawings for the murals; a photograph taken by Ford Motor Company at Diego’s request; and correspondence between the DIA and Ford Motor Company about supplying glass and sand for the work.

Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts with John "Viscount Hastings," Clifford Wight and William Valentiner, 1932-1933.

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Ford family, Ford Rouge Factory Complex, Ford Motor Company, Edsel Ford, Detroit Institute of Arts, by Ellice Engdahl, art