Henry Ford was born on July 30, 1863, in Greenfield Township, Michigan. His father, William, was born in County Cork, Ireland while his mother, Mary, was born in Michigan. William Ford was a farmer who had always wanted his son to take over on the farm. However, Henry hated that line of work and once wrote, “I never had any particular love for the farm, it was the mother on the farm I loved.”
Even as a young teen, Ford was always very skilled at assembling different items. He would dismantle and reassemble the timepieces of friends which soon gained him the reputation of a watch repairman. In 1879, Ford left home to work as an apprentice machinist in at the James F. Flower and Brothers. company in Detroit. After completing a stint with Flower and Brothers, he was hired at the same position at the Detroit Dry Dock Company.
After a few years, Ford returned home to work on the farm. While there he became quite skilled at working on steam engines, in particular, the portable steam engine built by Westinghouse. Westinghouse later hired him to service all of their steam engines. While working with Westinghouse, Ford decided to study bookkeeping at Goldsmith, Bryant and Stratton Business College in Detroit.
In 1891, Ford became an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company, and was quickly promoted to Chief Engineer in 1893. At this point, Ford found himself with some extra free time and money that decided to devote his attention to his own experiments on gasoline engines. After a few years of experimenting, Ford completed his first self-propelled vehicle called the Ford Quadricycle which he test drove on June 4, 1896.
Later in 1896, Ford attended a meeting of Edison Executives where he was introduced to Thomas Edison. Edison had no problem with Ford’s automobile experiments and actually encouraged Ford to build another vehicle, which was completed in 1898.
Ford received financial backing from William H. Murphy, who was known as the Detroit lumber baron. With this backing, Ford resigned from the Edison Company and started the Detroit Automobile Company in August 1899. The Detroit Automobile Company produced vehicles that were higher in price than what Ford wanted not to mention the fact that the quality level wasn’t where he wanted it to be either. Due to these issues, the Detroit Automobile Company shut down in 1901.
In October 1901, Ford designed, built and raced a 26-horsepower automobile with the assistance of Harold Willis. It was a huge success and led to Murphy along with other investors who had been previously involved in the Detroit Automobile Company deciding to form the Henry Ford Company in November of that same year.
During 1902, Murphy decided to bring Henry M. Leland into the Henry Ford Company as a consultant. Ford did not like this decision at all and was so upset that he left the company shortly afterwards. After Ford left the company, they changed the name of the business to the Cadillac Automobile Company.
After leaving the Henry Ford Company, Ford partnered with Tom Cooper, a former racing cyclist, to produce racing machines. They produced the 80-plus horsepower racer, which Barney Oldfield drove to victory in a race during October 1902. Building on this success, Ford teamed up with Alexander Malcomson, an old friend and local coal dealer. The two partnered to create Ford and Malcomson, Ltd. in order to design and manufacture an inexpensive automobile. Using the financing from Malcomson, the two were able to lease factory space and contract with a machine shop owned by John and Horace Dodge to supply them with over 160 thousand dollars in parts. However, due to slow sales, Ford and Malcomson were unable to pay the Dodge brothers. Because the brothers were getting impatient for their money, Malcomson brought another group of investors on board and convinced the Dodge Brothers to accept a portion in the new company in lieu of payment. As a result, Ford and Malcomson, Ltd. was reincorporated as the Ford Motor Company on June 1903. The original investors in the Ford Motor Company were Ford, Malcomson, the Dodge Brothers, John S Gray, Malcomson’s uncle, James Couzens, Malcomson’s secretary, and John W. Anderson and Horace Rackham, two of Malcomson’s lawyers.
Under the newly incorporated Ford Motor Company, Ford demonstrated his newly-designed car on the ice of Lake St. Clair. He was able to drive one mile in 39.4 seconds which set a new land speed record of 91.3 miles per hour. Barney Oldfield named this new Ford automobile “999” in honor of the fastest locomotive of the day. Oldfield took the model “999” around the country and made the Ford brand known everywhere in America.
On October 1, 1908, the Ford Model T made its debut. The Ford Model T was a revolutionary car in several ways. It had the steering wheel on the left, which was soon copied by several other companies. The four cylinders were cast in a solid block, the suspension used two semi-elliptic springs, and the car was simple to drive and easy and cheap to repair. The ford Model T was affordable to the regular man, only costing 825 dollars (21,990 dollars 2017) and the price dropped every year it was in production.
By the 1920s, the majority of Americans knew how to drive the Model T. One of the reasons for this was the ability Ford had to create major publicity about his car. He made sure that the Detroit papers always had stories and advertisements about the new car. Ford also loved to market to farmers because they used the vehicle as a commercial device to help their farming business. Due to these factors and several others, for several years, sales posted 100 percent gains over the previous year.
One of the reasons that sales were able to increase so much while at the same time the vehicle price was lowering, was due to Ford’s ability to produce a lot of cars each day. In 1913, Ford introduced the moving belt assembly line into his factories. This allowed for an enormous increase in production. Another reason his factories were so successful was the 5 dollars per day (120 dollars 2017) pay he introduced to his workers. This was double the rate of most workers. Ford did not like the constant turnover that he saw in his factories. The 5 dollar a day pay worked like a charm. Every mechanic and trained worker in the city of Detroit flocked to Ford to get a job. This lowered his training cost and increased productivity. Another incentive that Ford offered was a profit-sharing program. If a person worked at Ford for at least 6 months and conducted their lives in a manner in which Ford’s social development program approved, they were eligible for the program. This meant no heavy drinking or gambling and good fathers and husbands. Ford employed 50 investigators and support staff to maintain employee these standards. Amazingly, most Ford employees qualified for the program.
Due to his success in business, Henry Ford became a popular figure all over America, especially in Michigan. President Woodrow Wilson wanted Ford to run as a Democrat for the United States Senate from the state of Michigan. Ford did run in 1918 and was defeated by the Republican candidate, Truman Newberry. However, it was one of the closest elections in the history of the State of Michigan, and Ford did not spend a dime on the election. Ford stated, “If they want to elect me, let them do so, but I won’t make a pennies investment.”
Henry Ford did not like labor unions at all. He believed that the union leaders did more harm than good for employees. Most labor union leaders wanted to restrict production as a means to foster more employment. Ford viewed this as a negative idea because he knew that the more productivity he had in his factories the more he was able to prosper and hire people.
Ford tried several different intimidation tactics to kill any kind of union organizing. Ford chose Harry Bennett to head the Service Department. Bennett’s responsibilities included making sure to squash any union uprising. On May 26, 1937, Bennett’s security men beat up several UAW representatives. Meanwhile, the supervising police chief who was on scene did not intervene. This incident became famous throughout the country and became known as The Battle of the Overpass.
Eventually during the late 1930s and early 1940s, Edsel Ford, who at the time was president of the company, knew that Henry Ford had to come to some sort of agreement with the unions to prevent any more violence or work disruptions. Henry Ford wanted nothing to do with unions so he kept Bennett in charge to make sure that no union agreement was ever reached. However, after several years of resisting, Henry Ford finally gave in and Ford Motor Company became the last auto maker to recognize the United Auto Workers Union.
With World War II on the horizon, in 1939, Ford, a well-known anti-Semite, claimed that the torpedoing of U.S. Merchant ships by the German submarines was the result of conspiratorial activities undertaken by financiers who were war-makers. When Ford mentioned “financiers,” he was referring to Jewish people. Ford also openly did business with Nazi Germany which included the manufacturing of war materials. Ford had previously sponsored a weekly newspaper, during the 1920s, that published very strong anti-Semitic views. However, during this time period, Ford was among the few major corporations that was actively hiring black workers so he was not accused of discrimination.
Once the US entered the war, Ford directed the Ford Motor Company to construct a massive new purpose-built factory at Willow Run near Detroit. Ford broke ground at this new facility in the Spring of 1942 and the first B-24 came off the line in October 1942. During the war, at its peak, the Willow Run Factory produced 650 B-24s per month. By 1945, it took only 18 hours to complete a B-24 which broke down to one every 58 minutes.
In 1943, Edsel Ford became sick and passed away. Ford became enraged when his personal doctors said they could not heal him. Once Edsel died, Henry took back control of the company, but for the most part, in name only. The company was primarily controlled by senior executives. The senior executives were led by Charles Sorensen who was an important engineer and production executive at Ford. After a short time, Henry Ford started to grow jealous of the publicity that Sorensen received resulting in Ford forcing Sorensen out of his position.
Towards the end of World War II, with Henry still in charge, his company was losing 10 million dollars a month (138,400,000 dollars 2017). It was getting so bad that Franklin Roosevelt almost had the government take over the factory to ensure that war production would not be interrupted. In 1945, Henry Ford gave the company to his grandson Henry Ford II.
Henry Ford was one of the most successful manufacturers to ever live. He took a small company to one of the largest in the world. At one point, he had dealerships on six different continents and over one-third of the world’s population drove one of his automobiles. On April 7, 1947, Henry Ford passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage at Fair Lane (his estate in Dearborn, MI). Thousands of people lined up to view his casket. At one point during his viewing, over 5 thousand people an hour walked past to see him in person one last time.