Henry Ford was born on a farm
in what is now Dearborn, Michigan, on July 30,
1863. Although he never cared for farming, he was
from an early age very handy with farm machinery.
He developed a reputation for being able to fix a
variety of farm implements, and, at the age of
15, he even built his own steam engine.
In 1879 Ford left the farm and
moved to Detroit, where he became a machine-shop
apprentice at the Detroit Edison Company. After
three years he returned to Dearborn, where he
spent the next few years operating and repairing
steam engines, working in a Detroit factory,
overhauling his father's farm implements, and
occasionally working on the family farm. He
married Clara Bryant in 1888, and the couple's
only child, Edsel Bryant, was born in 1893. In
1891 he became an engineer for the Edison
Illuminating Company, and became its chief
engineer in 1893.
The Ford Motor
Ford's first venture into the world of
automobiles came in 1893, when he built an
internal combustion, one-cylinder gasoline
engine. His first actual automobile was the
Quadricycle, which he built in 1896. It was a
self-propelled, four-wheeled vehicle that was
steered with a tiller and had only two forward
speeds. In 1899, he left Edison to run the
Detroit Automobile Company, which produced only a
few cars a day at a factory on Mack Avenue in
Detroit. Here, groups of two or three men worked
on each car from components made to order by
other companies. Each group was responsible for
producing one car at a time, a very expensive and
inefficient process. Ford wanted to incorporate
the use of standardized parts and an assembly
line process to make the production line more
efficient, but his bosses disagreed.
A desire to produce cars more
efficiently led Ford to quit Detroit in 1901 and
organize the Henry Ford Company, with himself as
chief engineer. Disputes with his financial
bankers led him to resign in 1902, after which
the company became the Cadillac Motor Company.
Still having trouble convincing
financial backers that he could manufacture a
good quality car at a far cheaper price than his
competitors, Ford began building race cars. He
then challenged other manufacturers to race their
cars against his. His successes proved his
concept, and in 1903 he was able to obtain enough
capital to establish the Ford Motor Company. The
first Model A was sold to a local doctor on July
20, 1903, and an automotive institution was born.
Ford introduced the Model T in
1908. Easy to operate, maintain, and handle, the
car sold for $850, almost half the cost of other
cars of the day. The Model T proved successful
from the beginning, and by 1915 Ford had managed
to reduce the production costs so much that he
was able to lower the price to $290. By the time
the last Model T rolled off the assembly line in
1927, some 15 million of them had been sold.
In 1910, Ford opened a large factory in
Highland Park, Michigan, that finally realized
his dream of combining precision manufacturing
with standardized and interchangeable parts and a
clear division of labor. The moving assembly line
was added in 1913.
In 1914, in order to attract
and keep the best workers, Ford increased base
pay from $2.50 to $5.00 per day and reduced the
work day from 9 to 8 hours.
In 1917, Ford began construction of the
Rouge River Plant. The largest industrial complex
in the world at the time, the complex would
eventually include a steel mill, glass factory,
and automobile assembly line. Virtually
everything required to build and assemble a Model
T was manufactured on the premises. The final
assembly line was transferred from Highland Park
in 1927. In 1930, the Rogue River Plant covered
6,952,484 square feet and employed 81,000 men.
Although Henry Ford believed in
treating his workers well and rewarding them for
jobs well done, he was a vehement opponent of
labor unions and worked hard to keep the United
Auto Workers from unionizing his plants. A 1937
"battle" between Ford security staff
and United Auto Workers organizers, however,
resulted in a court order barring Ford from
interferring with union activity. He finally
agreed to a contract with the UAW in 1941.
Despite the success of his
Model T, Ford was almost always at odds with his
financial backers. Ford usually solved these
disputes by simply buying out individual
investors, and by 1919 he and his son had
majority ownership of the company. Edsel Ford
became president of Ford Motor Company that same
year, a position he held until his death in 1943;
Henry Ford succeeded his son as president, but
turned the job over to his grandson, Henry Ford
II, in 1945.
In 1905, Ford served as the
first vice president of the Society of Automotive
Engineers, an organization he helped found for
the purpose of introducing standardized parts to
the automotive industry in general.
In 1915, Ford and about 170
others went to Europe in hopes of ending World War I;
they were unsuccessful.
In 1918, Ford made an
unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate. Although he
never ran for another political office, he was
always very outspoken on political subjects of
An early promoter of the use of
aviation technology, he helped develop the Tri-Motor
airplane in 1926.
In 1929, Ford dedicated the
Edison Institute of Technology and Greenfield
Village. The Village was a sort of living museum
in rural Michigan that featured a series of small
factories where people could work and farm during
different seasons. The Institute conducted
research into the use of agricultural products in
industrial production, including soybean-based
plastic automobile components.
During World War II,
Ford gained a reputation for being anti-Semitic
due to his criticism of Jews and his apparent
tolerance of German nationalism.
Henry Ford died at Fair Lane,
his Dearborn home, on April 7, 1947.
The Henry Ford Museum www.hfmgv.org
National Inventors Hall of Fame www.invent.org/hall_of_fame/60.html
A Science Odyssey: People and
World War I
World War II
Questions or comments about