His Early Life as an Inventor
Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. He didn’t even invent the assembly line. 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 our lives today.
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.
His beginnings were perfectly ordinary. He was born on his father’s farm in what is now Dearborn, Michigan on July 30, 1863. Early on Ford demonstrated some of the characteristics that would make him successful, powerful, and famous. He organized other boys to build rudimentary water wheels and steam engines. He learned about full-sized steam engines by becoming friends with the men who ran them. He taught himself to fix watches, and used the watches as textbooks to learn the rudiments of machine design. Thus, young Ford demonstrated mechanical ability, a facility for leadership, and a preference for learning by trial-and-error. These characteristics would become the foundation of his whole career.
Ford could 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 the Michigan Car Company, a manufacturer of railroad cars in Detroit. Over the next two-and-one-half years he held several similar jobs, 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 where Henry had taken a job as night engineer for the Edison Electric Illuminating Company. Ford did not know a great deal about electricity. He saw the job in part as an opportunity to learn.
Henry was an apt pupil, and by 1896 had risen to chief engineer of the Illuminating Company. But he had other interests. He became one of scores of people working in barns and small shops across the country trying to build horseless carriages. Aided by a team of friends, his experiments culminated in 1896 with the completion of his first self-propelled vehicle, the Quadricycle. It had four wire wheels that looked like heavy bicycle wheels, was steered with a tiller like a boat, and had only two forward speeds with no reverse.
A second car followed in 1898. Ford now demonstrated one of the keys to his future success—the ability to articulate a vision and convince other people to sign on and help him achieve that vision. He persuaded a group of businessmen to back him in the biggest risk of his life—a company to make and sell horseless carriages. But Ford knew nothing about running a business, and learning by trial-and-error always involves failure. The new company failed, as did a second. To revive his fortunes Ford took bigger risks, building and even driving racing cars. The success of these cars attracted additional financial backers, and on June 16, 1903 Henry incorporated his third automotive venture, Ford Motor Company.
The Innovator and Ford Motor Company
The early history of Ford Motor Company illustrates one of Henry Ford’s most important talents—an ability to identify and attract outstanding people. He hired a core of young, able men who believed in his vision and would make Ford Motor Company into one of the world’s great industrial enterprises. The new company’s first car, called the Model A, was followed by a variety of improved models. In 1907 Ford’s four-cylinder, $600 Model N became the best-selling car in the country. But by this time Ford had a bigger vision: a better, cheaper “motorcar for the great multitude.” Working with a hand-picked group of employees he came up with the Model T, introduced on October 1, 1908.
The Model T was easy to operate, maintain, and handle on rough roads. It immediately became a huge success. Ford could easily sell all he could make; but he wanted to make all he could sell. Doing that required a bigger factory. In 1910 the company moved into a huge new plant in Highland Park, Michigan, just north of Detroit. There Ford Motor Company began a relentless drive to increase production and lower costs. Henry and his team borrowed concepts from watch makers, gun makers, bicycle makers, and meat packers, mixed them with their own ideas and by late 1913 they had developed a moving assembly line for automobiles. But Ford workers objected to the never-ending, repetitive work on the new line. Turnover was so high that the company had to hire 53,000 people a year to keep 14,000 jobs filled. Henry responded with his boldest innovation ever—in January 1914 he virtually doubled wages to $5 per day.
At a stroke he stabilized his workforce and gave workers the ability to buy the very cars they made. Model T sales rose steadily as the price dropped. By 1922 half the cars in America were Model Ts and a new two-passenger runabout could be had for as little as $269.
In 1919, tired of “interference” from the other investors in the company, Henry determined to buy them all out. The result was several new Detroit millionaires and a Henry Ford who was the sole owner of the world’s largest automobile company. Ford named his 26-year-old son Edsel as president, but it was Henry who really ran things. Absolute power did not bring wisdom, however.
Success had convinced him of the superiority of his own intuition, and he continued to believe that the Model T was the car most people wanted. He ignored the growing popularity of more expensive but more stylish and comfortable cars like the Chevrolet, and would not listen to Edsel and other Ford executives when they said it was time for a new model.
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 designing an all-new car. It appeared in December of 1927 and was such a departure from the old Ford that the company went back to the beginning of the alphabet for a name—they called it the Model A.
The new car would not be produced at Highland Park. In 1917 Ford had started construction on an even bigger factory on the Rouge River in Dearborn, Michigan. Iron ore and coal were brought in on Great Lakes steamers and by railroad. By 1927, all steps in the manufacturing process from refining raw materials to final assembly of the automobile took place at the vast Rouge Plant, characterizing Henry Ford’s idea of mass production. In time it would become the world’s largest factory, making not only cars but the steel, glass, tires, and other components that went into the cars.
Henry Ford’s intuitive decision making and one-man control were no longer the formula for success. The Model A was competitive for only four years before being replaced by a newer design. In 1932, at age 69 Ford introduced his last great automotive innovation, the lightweight, inexpensive V8 engine. Even this was not enough to halt his company’s decline. By 1936 Ford Motor Company had fallen to third place in the US market, behind both General Motors and Chrysler Corporation.
In addition to troubles in the marketplace, Ford experienced troubles in the workplace. Struggling during the Great Depression, Ford was forced to lower wages and lay off workers. When the United Auto Workers Union tried to organize Ford Motor Company, Henry wanted no part of such “interference” in running his company. He fought back with intimidation and violence, but was ultimately forced to sign a union contract in 1941.
When World War II began in 1939, Ford, who always hated war, fought to keep the United States from taking sides. But after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Ford Motor Company became one of the major US military contractors, supplying airplanes, engines, jeeps and tanks.
The influence of the aging Henry Ford, however, was declining. Edsel Ford died in 1943 and two year later Henry officially turned over control of the company to Henry II, Edsel’s son. Henry I retired to Fair Lane, his estate in Dearborn, where he died on April 7, 1947 at age 83.
Henry Ford’s Legacy
Henry Ford had laid the foundation of the twentieth century. The assembly line became the century’s characteristic production mode, eventually applied to everything from phonographs to hamburgers. The vast quantities of war material turned out on those assembly lines were crucial to the Allied victory in World War II. High wage, low skilled factory jobs pioneered by Ford accelerated both immigration from overseas and the movement of Americans from the farms to the cities. The same jobs also accelerated the movement of the same people into an ever expanding middle class. In a dramatic demonstration of the law of unintended consequences, the creation of huge numbers of low skilled workers gave rise in the 1930s to industrial unionism as a potent social and political force. The Model T spawned mass automobility, altering our living patterns, our leisure activities, our landscape, even our atmosphere.
Why He Innovated
There is a prophetic story of how the 13-year-old Henry Ford got a pocket watch for his birthday, and then proceeded to take it apart. He simply wanted to know how it worked. It was a character trait that marked the rest of Ford's life. He wanted to know how things worked and, just as important, why they didn’t work.
Ford was interested in every aspect of life around him. He explored innovative forms of education which, in time, lead to the founding of the Edison Institute, known today as The Henry Ford. In a single location, Ford brought together dozens of buildings and millions of artifacts. It was one of the largest collections of its kind ever assembled, as well as a bold and ambitious new way for people of all ages to discover and explore the richness of the American experience for themselves.
Henry Ford took inspiration from the past, saw opportunities for the future, and believed in technology as a force for improving people's lives. To him, technology wasn't just a source of profits, it was a way to harness new ideas and, ultimately, further democratize American life.