The Life of Henry Ford
In the History Channel film The Men Who Built America, you’ll learn about the many achievements of Henry Ford. His innovations and contributions were cardinal to the 20th-century automobile industry.
Henry Ford, through his entity (Ford Motor Company), created cars that everyday Americans could afford and drive. He mass-produced light and durable automobiles for middle-class Americans at a time when cars were viewed as luxury items for the rich and elite.
At the start of the 20th century, cars served two purposes. They were either for racing in motorsport tournaments or a luxury item for the well-off to flaunt. People didn’t drive their vehicles. They hired drivers to operate them.
Ford’s vision was to make cars an everyday commodity that each American household could afford and use regularly. Here is the life story of this innovator and automobile industrialist.
The Birth and Childhood of Henry Ford
Henry Ford was born on July 30, 1863, in Springwells Township, Michigan, as the eldest child in a family of six children (two girls and four boys).
His father, William Ford, owned a massive farm where every family member worked, including his mother, Mary Ford. William Ford expected Henry to continue with the family’s farming business, but Ford Junior had no interest in farming.
Ford started his education journey at Springwells Middle School but disliked learning in stuffy classrooms. He preferred delving into things he was passionate about and on his own terms.
He reached the eighth grade and left school, never attending high school. By this time, Ford had developed a passion for mechanics. When he wasn’t helping out at the farm, he spent most of his time at a small machine shop.
“When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.” ~ Henry Ford
Henry Ford loved mechanics so much that he dismantled and put together a pocket watch gifted to him by his father when he turned 12.
He, shortly afterward, acquired a reputation in the neighborhood as a watch repairman. At 13 years old, Ford saw his first steam engine, igniting his passion for mechanics.
His mother, unfortunately, passed away two years later due to a sudden illness. Her death made him realize he had nothing to stay back for on the farm.
His desire to leave intensified, and after turning 16, he left for Detroit against his father’s wishes. On reaching Detroit, Ford got a job at a street car manufacturing company called Michigan Car Company Works. However, he was fired after working for six days.
Ford got another job as an apprentice in a machine shop called James Flowers & Brothers. He earned $2.60 per week, barely enough to live on, so he took up a night job as a watch and jewelry repairer. Ford worked in these positions until 1882, when he returned to his father’s farm at 19.
When Ford was back at his father’s farm, he began helping with farm chores despite having no desire for farming. He preferred to spend his time operating his father’s steam engine tractor.
Ford became so skilled at repairing and using his father’s steam engine that it caught the eye of the Westinghouse Engine Company of Schenectady. The company hired him to service and repair its steam tractor engines.
In 1886, Henry Ford married Clara Jane Bryant. The two met at a New Year’s Eve party the previous year and dated until Ford proposed.
Ford’s father gifted him 40 acres of land as a wedding gift. Rather than use this land for farming, Ford had a different idea.
“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.” ~ Henry Ford
In 1891, Ford and Clara relocated to a smaller house in Detroit. Ford also read about the gas engine in a British newspaper during this time. He found the gas engine more efficient than the steam engine since it didn’t require 30 minutes to start.
All the engine had to do was ignite with an electric spark. Ford was so fascinated with this engine that he began learning more about it. He applied for a job as a night engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company to learn more about this machine.
Ford’s role at the Edison Illuminating Company was to repair and fix engines anytime they developed a fault.
During his spare time, he would learn more about electricity and the gas engine. Ford created his first gas engine in 1903, around the time he and Clara got their first and only son, Edsel Bryant Ford.
In 1896, he crafted his first automobile, which he named the quadricycle, and sold it for $200. Although this automobile broke down frequently, it was a crucial first step to creating better and more efficient cars.
Failures and Successes
Henry Ford’s most significant success was his business, the Ford Motor Company, which he established in 1903. This entity was Ford’s third attempt at creating an automobile company. Ford founded his first company, the Detroit Automobile Company, in 1899 after building his second experimental car.
He enrolled William Murphy, a wealthy lumber merchant, to invest in this company by taking him for a test drive in his newly built vehicle. By this time, Henry had already left the Edison Illuminating Company.
Ford and Murphy worked together on building cars, but the two had conflicting visions. Murphy and other stakeholders wanted Ford to focus on passenger cars, which was not Ford’s idea.
The company also relied heavily on automobile parts supplied by different companies, so any late delivery by one supplier caused a halt in the entire process.
Production was slow, with the first car, the Delivery Wagon, taking six months to assemble. The company made only 20 Delivery Wagons. Ford left the company a year after founding it. It isn’t clear whether he was fired or voluntarily quit, but he frequently clashed with his stakeholders.
In 1901, Henry Ford established a second company, which he called the Henry Ford Company, and got investors to back him. This time, he wanted to focus on racing cars, but his investors were more interested in passenger luxury cars.
The company’s investors brought in another engineer, Henry Martyn Leland, to replace Ford. Henry Ford was so infuriated by this move that he resigned from the company a year later. He left with rights to his name. Ford’s second company is now known as the Cadillac Motor Company.
“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” ~ Henry Ford
Henry Ford established his third entity in 1903 and called it the Ford Motor Company. He was backed by 11 investors who granted him a $28,000 investment, enough to establish a factory at Mark Avenue, Detroit.
His vision for this entity was to create cars that middle-class Americans could afford. By this time, he had produced a new automobile, the Model A. However, Ford had one barrier standing in his way.
To manufacture and sell more Model As, Ford needed to obtain a license from the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers (ALAM). ALAM owned the patent for the automobiles. Ford submitted his license request to manufacture and sell automobiles, but ALAM rejected it.
The rejection disappointed Ford, but it didn’t deter his determination to manufacture cars for middle-class Americans. Ford found the patent ridiculous, openly defied it, and continued manufacturing automobiles.
ALAM sued Henry Ford for patent infringement, but the court ruled in favor of Ford. He was now free to manufacture and sell cars through his company.
Ford’s company proceeded to create Model N, and Model K. Ford became the company’s president in 1906 after the passing away of John S. Gray. He also developed the highly successful Model T, which sold until 1927.
Ford retired as president of the Ford Motor Company in 1918. His son, Edsel Ford, took over as company president, but Ford senior was still running the show from behind the curtains.
Henry Ford clashed periodically with investors over the company’s direction until finally, he decided to buy them all out and become the sole stockholder of the Ford Motor Company.
His son died suddenly in 1943, after which he reinstated himself as company president before retiring again in 1945. After that, his grandson, Henry Ford II, became the company’s president.
Besides his entity, the Ford Motor Company, Ford’s other significant lifetime achievement was the assembly line concept. Ford introduced the assembly line in his automobile production process in 1913 after building an assembly plant in Kansas, Missouri.
The assembly line concept essentially grouped workers and allowed each subset to assemble an automobile piece by piece rather than work on one car at a time. It reduced the cost and time required to produce cars. This concept is used in most automobile companies and facilities today.
Interesting Facts and Anecdotes
Henry Ford was once the fastest driver in the United States. After developing the Model A between 1901 and 1902, Ford challenged Alexander Winton, the fastest driver in America then, to a race.
He wanted to prove that his car was better than most ALAM-licensed cars of the time.
Alexander Winton’s car was manufactured by one of the biggest car makers in the United States. Winton was also a prominent member of ALAM, so defeating him would propel Ford to fame.
“Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.” ~ Henry Ford
Ford won the race, thus becoming the faster driver with the better car. He became famous among the public and drew the interest of more investors. This race enabled him to get 11 new backers for his third company.
Even though Ford’s management style relied on processes rather than people, he treated his employees well. Ford reduced working hours to eight per day and increased daily wages from $2.60 to $5. He paid his workers almost double the industry standard.
Ford later reduced working days to five a week after noticing that the assembly line concept had increased production by eightfold. Through the assembly line, Ford could still produce more cars in five days than most automobile manufacturers could in six.
The Death of Henry Ford
Henry Ford passed away at 83 years, on April 7, 1947, due to a cerebral hemorrhage in his residence in Dearborn.
His wife and household staff were by his bedside. Ford rests at St. Martha’s Episcopal Church in the family’s cemetery.
Henry Ford possessed many qualities that guided him toward success. He was:
Henry Ford believed in healthy competition. He couldn’t understand how one company could own the patent for the entire automobile industry in the United States.
ALAM acted as a monopoly by requiring automobile manufacturers to acquire a license.
Ford’s passion for mechanics fueled him to enter the automobile industry. He was genuinely passionate about repairing steam engines and manufacturing gas engines and automobiles.
The rejection by ALAM may have disappointed Ford, but it didn’t stop him from creating an automobile company. Ford also started his third entity after failing in the first two.
How can you apply the lessons Henry Ford learned in your business endeavors?
While you won’t always agree with investors on every business decision, find those who align with your vision. Ford left his first two companies because his partners didn’t align with his vision.
Believe in your skill and ability to do something. One of Ford’s favorite quotes was, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”
Ford showed he believed in himself and his car when he challenged Alexander Winton to a race.
Let your kids explore their interests. Allow your kids to find their passions and interests and support them as they pursue them.
Ford’s father expected him to continue with the family’s farming business, but Henry Ford had no desire for farming. His passion was mechanics.
“A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.” Henry Ford
1863: Henry Ford is born in Springwells Township, Michigan.
1875: Henry Ford dismantles and reassembles a pocket watch gifted to him by his father.
1879: Ford leaves for Detroit and gets a job at a street car manufacturing company.
1882: Ford returns to his father’s farm.
1886: Henry Ford marries Jane Clara Bryant.
1891: Ford and Clara relocate to Detroit, where Ford starts a job as a night engineer in the Edison Illuminating Company.
1893: Ford and Clara welcome their first and only son, Edsel Bryant Ford.
1896: Ford makes his first experimental car and names it the quadricycle.
1899: Ford leaves the Edison Illuminating Company and founds the Detroit Automobile Company with William Murphy.
1901: Ford establishes the Henry Ford Company after leaving his first company.
1903: Ford establishes the Ford Motor Company with 11 investors after leaving his second company.
1906: Ford becomes president of the Ford Motor Company.
1913: Ford introduces the assembly line concept to manufacture the Model T automobile.
1918: Ford retires as president of the Ford Motor Company. His son takes over.
1943: Ford gets reinstated as the company’s president after the sudden death of his son.
1945: Ford retires again as president of the Ford Motor Company. His grandson, Henry Ford II, becomes the company president.
1947: Ford passes away at 83 years due to a cerebral hemorrhage.
If you want a more in-depth and detailed story of the life of Henry Ford, You may want to pick up a book or two to get the full story.
Some of the books you’ll find from the link below include:
My Life and Work
by Henry Ford, Samuel Crowther, et al.
The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century
by Steven Watts, John H. Mayer, et al.
I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford
by Richard Snow
Even though Henry Ford passed away many years ago, you can still find news stories about his life and accomplishments.
Google News is an excellent way to see what’s in the News Related to Henry Ford because of its advanced search capabilities.
Videos posted on YouTube about Henry Ford’s life and work may interest you. So let Henry Ford’s life inspire you while you relax and enjoy the videos.