Life and Achievements of Henry Ford

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          Henry Ford is an important figure in American history as he embodies the American spirit of self reliance and the ingenuity which has helped to create in America, more inventions and inventors during the 20th century than any other country in the world. Ford grew from humble beginnings on a small farm in Michigan to possibly the most powerful and recognizable employer in America during the first quarter of the 20the century. Ford changed America forever as the implementation of the automobile, in large scales and at a price which millions of Americans could now afford a new automobile of their own, people sough the freedom which the automobile promised to give its consumers. With the implementation of the assembly line and other forms which helped to utilizes the efficient production of the automobile, prices dropped and the pay of his workers rose to an unheard of $5 a 1914 and then $6 a day in 1924. These prices, for its day, could not be rivaled anywhere in America for the American factory worker. Ford believed in practical terms. All of his cars were presented in the color black as it was the paint which dried faster.  He believed that the workers, who made his cars, ought to be able to afford them. Ford saw the need of the American soldier during WWII and sought to produce more planes and engines than any other CEO of comparable talent.  Ford saw the need for a hospital in Michigan, not just any hospital but one which still leads the state in important and life saving transplants of the lung, heart and kidneys. Ford also recognized that those who were not given the same opportunities that were afforded to him, simply because of their race and color of their skin, as was the case with George Washington Carver, supplied him with many of the important necessitates which Carver used to further his research. Ford recognized the need of the people as well as the genius of a select few and appreciated it. In this spirit, Henry Ford remains one of the most important figures in American history and in his spirit of self reliance, helps to propel the notion, that even with humble beginnings, in America, one can aspire to greatness.

Henry Ford was born on July 30, 1863 in a rural section of Michigan, only thirty minutes south of Detroit.[1] He was passionate about watches and anything that required mechanical thought in which to understand its workings. One of the first examples of this was with the case of Albert Hutchings watch. Albert was a friend of Henry’s and he had a watch which no longer worked. Henry stayed up all night and some of the next day in order to fully understand how that watch worked and before long, Ford had fixed the watch. This watch can still be viewed at the Henry Ford Museum as this watch instilled in him, a desire for machines and to better understands how they work and can be put to their most effective use. It would be this curiosity which would help Ford introduces some of the most innovative advances in the field of factory production work.

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Ford’s mother died in 1876, when Henry was only thirteen years old. This was a terrible blow to Henry and it now resided with his father to raise Henry. Henry’s father was from County Cord in Ireland.[2] In Ireland, perhaps more so than in other countries, land is so important and the pursuit of it is something which every Irish person longs to have and claim. As a result, Henry’s father pushed hard for him to become a farmer. Henry attempted this vocation but it soon proved too tedious and it was apparent that Ford lacked the patience which all farmers must have in order to yield a successful crop. In the end however, it would be his location which would behoove an opportunity to put this interest in machines to work. In 1879, Ford left home to work in a machine show in Detroit. Ford came back in 1882, at the insisting of his father to continue his work on the farm and for a summer, young Henry, unable to say NO to his father, obliged. However, even with the best of intentions, Henry concluded that even though he had an interest in agriculture, an interest which he would carry with him into his adult years, his desire to work in the field of machines could not be surpassed.

It cannot be said that Ford was interested specifically in the automobile industry as the automobile which we know it today, had not been invented.  Ford knew that the crude prototypes of the automobile, the steam cars, would create a desire from the public for more reliable and faster cars. In 1891, Ford became an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company and was promoted to chief engineer in 1893.[3] This began a long a relationship with the Edison Company and specifically, Thomas Edison, the idol of Henry Ford. Due to this job with the Edison Company, Ford had the money to tinker with some of his own ideas of invention and in 1896, completed his own self-propelled vehicle which he called the Quadricycle.  Even though Henry Ford was not the inventor of the automobile, he contributed more to its use and effectiveness than any other person of his time. The first step in America’s transformation to the automobile was with the formation of the Ford Motor Company in 1903. Ford, along with eleven other investors, coupled together, $28,000, formed his own company and began to make automobiles.  The first he sold was for $200.

In these early years of the 20th century, the automobile was seen as rich man’s toy with no lasting power on the American scene. In 1900, there were less than two thousand cars in the entire country and most were highly concentrated in the city of New York with more than half of them residing in Manhattan.  By themselves, the Astor family, had twenty three cars.[4] Not only were these cars very large and expensive to make, they were unreliable and would break down easily. In 1905, there were more than start up companies which were devoted to the production of automobiles.  Many of these names are known only to the faithful car enthusiast as they quickly vanished from the stage. The Ford Motor Company would not be one of these.  It was the genius and the practicality of Henry Ford, which would allow him to remain a mainstay on the stage of the automobile. “When the black model T rolled out in 1908, it was hailed as America’s everyman car- elegant in its simplicity and a dream machine not just for engineers but for marketing men as well.”  It had taken over four years in which to perfect the Model T but once it had been perfected; its impact was apparent and unmistakable.

From 1908 until 1925, Ford would sell more than 15 million of these cars and its impact on American life was absolute. This was due to the fact that these cars were so cheap.  The first Model T was priced at $825.[5] This was a little steep for the average working man whose salary did not exceed $2000 but was still much cheaper than much of his competitors. This was because of the practicality of the car. What made these cars even cheaper was the birth of the assembly line.  Henry Ford utilized the idea of the assembly line and it made him rich. Craftsmen used to work on one item at a time. From the cobblers in Europe to those that made carts and plows, each craftsman and artisan, would be instructed to work on the entire piece until completed. It was the same for the automobile as each car was constructed from start to finish, with the same small group of men. This required that the men possess more knowledge in order to complete the car and resulted in these automobiles being produced at a much slower pace. When Henry Ford came along, he used the assembly line in order to increase mass production of these cars, decrease turn around time and even though the pay of his workers were extremely high for its day, could pay less to his workers than what was required from a highly trained automobile engineer. In 1908, Ford, along with his engineers, conducted research in the best ways in which the assembly line could be utilized to the benefit of their company, their workers and the bottom line. Also, the time in which a car could be produced, was shortened from fourteen hours to just ninety minutes.  As a result, more cars could be produced which left Ford with a shorter turn around time, more cars and more profits.  As a result, the average price of the automobile dropped from $875 to $545 and then finally, to $325.[6] This was a huge factor in the success of the automobile and specifically, the Ford Company. The assembly line was made so effective because of the simple, yet efficient design by which it had been made. The chassis of the cars were pulled by a long mechanical chain and each chassis were separated from the each other with precision as the time that it took to assemble each part was precisely calculated. This called for the timing of the assembly line to mesh with all of the other workers on the line. The assembly line worked to perfection when absolute efficiency occurred.

These cars were not as elegant as a Stanley Steamer of a Studs Bearcat but with only the top 1% of the nation even being able to consider such a purchase, it became harder for the above mentioned companies to stay competitive and to meet their minimum selling quotas in order to stay in business. When Ford decreased the price of a new car to a level which millions of Americans could afford, he changed the identity of America. The automobile changes everything. Before, one would become a slave to the horse and buggy and could only pursue jobs in which travel was less than twenty miles. This limited the earning power of the individual and decreased his wages as well. However, when the Model T came onto the American stage, travel and distance became less of an impediment than ever before. These cars were reliable, sturdy and able to take the pounding of the thousands of miles of unpaved roads which were common place in America’s Midwest.

It is also important to realize the impact that the American automobile had on the economy. It is taken for granted today, especially when many of the cars that were built in America were made overseas but the car brings lots of jobs to Americans and to the American economy.  Ford is not the only one who should be credited with this but there have been fewer inventions which have given to the American people, more jobs and a greater freedom to earn a living wage, than Henry Ford. Not only did Ford lower the cost of these cars for the working man, he made sure that his working men and women would have the chance to own the cars which they manufacture. As a result, in 1914, Ford further passed on his profits to his workers by implementing a mandatory $5 a day wage for his workers.[7] Ford knew that the high turnover rate in which sometimes, three hundred workers were needed to fill one hundred slots, were bad for business and the profits of the company. Ford also realized that a good worker was a happy worker and was one of the first CEOs in America to voluntarily implement a 40 hour work week.[8] When others were fighting the pressure from the Progressive Movement, Ford enacted these reforms on his own. However, Ford did decide who was to receive these wages. Every man, over the age of 22, who had been with the company for at least six months and conducted their lives in an upstanding and moral way; abstaining from drinking and gambling, would be able to receive such benefits and Ford would employ more than one hundred and fifty undercover agents who were expected to tail any employee which Ford suspected of living a less than moral lifestyle. Ford was a social engineer, but he also protected his bottom line and made sure that his investments would yield a favorable return; which they did for decades. In order to remain competitive in the American economy, Ford realized that he would have to attract the best, the most content and the smartest workers and engineers that America had to offer. This measure was also to ensure that unions were kept out of the Ford Motor Company. However, this problem was non existent as Ford was paying, by far, the highest wages in the industry. As a result, The Ford Motor Company enjoyed a 48% share of the automobile market and the lasting impression of the American public for years to come. [9]

Henry Ford would continue his relevance among the car makers of the world. Ford was always the one to come to the defense of his automobile, its usefulness and portrays an optimism concerning technology and the role that machines he hoped would have in the future. “It has been asserted that a machine production kills the creativity of the craftsman. This is not true. The machine demands that the man be its master; it compels mastery more than the old methods did. The number of skilled craftsman in proportion to the working population has greater increased under the conditions brought abut by the machine.  They get better wages and more leisure in which to exercise their creative facilities.”[10]  Ford was one to capitalize on the freedom which the automobile gave to his customers; the American public and also, was socially inclined to treat his workers as if they were human beings and valuable commodities to his success. “There are two ways of making money- one at the expense of the others, the other by service to others… The second way pays twice- to the maker and the user, to the seller and the buyer… Nature and humanity supply too many necessary partners for that.  True riches make wealthier the country as a whole. [11]

Ford was also interested in the important issues which faced the world. Ford was known as a Pacifist and even campaigned for the United States Senate during the First World War in which he attempted to convince the American people that the pursuit of peace was advantageous to the American public and its interests. Ford also hosted large and prominent meetings of the most famous peace activists overseas in order to help spread this idea of pacifism. Ford would continue to feel this way as America was about to enter World War II. However, Ford had millions of supporters as America was nearly 80% against US involvement in European wars. The feelings of the country and that of Ford would change with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Ford was ready to support his country in the best way that he knew how. Ford stated: If it becomes necessary, the Ford Motor Company could, with the counsel of Lindbergh and Rickenbacker, under our own supervision and without meddling by government agencies, swing into the production of a thousand airplanes of standard design a day.”[12] This was exactly what was done and not only did the Ford Motor Company supply the designs for thousands of planes but also made 87,000 complete air crafts, thousands of superchargers and generators and 4300 military gliders.[13] Also, in support of the war effort, The Ford Motor Company also produced armored cars, jeeps and engines for experimental machines which the Army was working on at that time. The influence of Henry Ford in the achievement of arming America’s military with the best that technology could offer, was unmistakable.

Henry Ford continued his social activism by the formation of the Henry Ford hospital which outside of the car industry, served as one of his lifelong passions. The hospital was formed in 1915 and was modeled after the famous Mayo clinic. Many of its early physicians came from the Mayo Clinic as well as the Johns Hopkins Hospital as well. The hospital was instrumental, then as well as now, in the performance of heart, lung and kidney transplants. The lung transplant program within the Henry Ford museum, still serves as one of only two for the entire state of Michigan. In this, Henry Ford continued to spread his success and the caring for others that he had within his own life.

Another idea which Ford sought to spread among the scientists of his era was the assistance of other like minded men and women in the field of innovations which promised to help mankind.  One of these men was George Washington Carver. Carver had been born a slave but rose in the field of science and agriculture and despite the cultural norms of the way which served to impede his true potential, Carver had important and powerful friends. One of these friends was Henry Ford. Thomas Edison, under the assistance of Henry Ford, allowed Carver, $50,000 yearly stipend in order to continue his research as Washington did not only experiment on the uses of the peanut in the capacity of human consumption but also in the field of medicine. Ford recognized the potential that Carver had, as well as not being able to shake off his own agricultural background.

In another philanthropist endeavor, Ford, who was a great admirer of Thomas Edison as it was Edison who gave Ford his first big break in life by hiring him as his chief engineer, sought to capture and preserve for posterity, the achievements and greatness of Thomas Edison. In 1929, just two years before the death of Edison, Ford had Edison’s laboratory transplanted to Dearborn Michigan and made into a historical preservation, along side his own museum. In this, future generations can better appreciate the genius of American inventors and the motivations of self reliance ingenuity which helps to make America the home of more inventions and inventors in the 20th century, than any other country in the world.

Henry Ford saw the future before many of his predecessors were able to fathom its enormous potential. When the car was viewed as a rich man’s toy with little to no lasting power in America’s economy, Ford was able to recognize, that with a few improvements to the car and the ways in which it was built, the automobile could become one of the most important and far reaching inventions in American history. Ford, despite a meager beginning, was able to rise above the impediments of his childhood and become one of the most important business men and inventors of the 20th century.  This “can-do” spirit is what helps to embody the American spirit of self reliance and optimism in the future.  This was Henry Ford and despite his unparallel success, Ford did not forget the workers who helped to make him the powerful man that he was in America. In the recognition of this, Ford passed along his profits to his workers as he recognized that a content worker was an effective worker.  Paying his workers a higher wage than was seen as even being possible, Ford endeared himself to his workers most of the time. In his philanthropist ventures, Ford continued to place a lasting effect upon the world in which he lived. His pursuit of peace, yet contributing to the war effort when the nation called on his assistance, was what Ford tried to do best: make the world a little better. He accomplished this in ways that most people can only dream of achieving.


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Iaccoca, Lee. Larry King Live  New York: Reaired September 20, 2006

Kuralt, Charles.  On the Road: American Heritage. New York: CBS Productions  1991

 McAuliffe, Mary.  Henry Ford.  New York: A & E Productions  Biography.  Aired January 12, 2007

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Come and Visit Deerborn Michigan. Detroit: Michigan Tourism Printers.  1999

[1] Watt, Stephen.  The People’s Tycoon New York: Knopf Publishing. 2005 pg. 89

[2] Brinkley, Douglas Wheels For the World. New York: Penguin Books. 2003 pg. 88

[3] Brinkley, Douglas Wheels For the World. New York: Penguin Books. 2003 pg. 109

[4] Burns, Ric. The History of New York Boston: PBS Productions 1999

[5] Brinkley, Douglas Wheels For the World. New York: Penguin Books. 2003 pg. 199

[6]  McAuliffe, Mary.  Henry Ford.  New York: A & E Productions  Biography.  Aired January 12, 2007

[7] Kuralt, Charles.  On the Road: American Heritage. New York: CBS Productions  1991

[8]  McAuliffe, Mary.  Henry Ford.  New York: A & E Productions  Biography.  Aired January 12, 2007

[9] Kuralt, Charles.  On the Road: American Heritage. New York: CBS Productions  1991

[10] Watt, Stephen.  The People’s Tycoon New York: Knopf Publishing. 2005 pg. 201

[12] Kuralt, Charles.  On the Road: American Heritage. New York: CBS Productions  1991

[13]  McAuliffe, Mary.  Henry Ford.  New York: A & E Productions  Biography.  Aired January 12, 2007


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