Henry Ford was one of the foremost American industrialists and innovators of the 20th century, and founder of the Ford Motor Company. Ford was born on July 30th, 1863 on a farm in Michigan to William and Mary Ford. He was an eager to learn child and displayed leadership and tenacity from an early age. He was interested in machinery and took apart a watch that his father gifted him to see how it worked and then successfully put it back together again. Ford left home in 1879 to become an apprentice at a company that manufactured railroad cars in Detroit known as the Michigan Car Company.
In 1888, he married Clara Bryant and a few years later, Ford took up a job as a night engineer for the Edison Electric Illuminating Company. He was a keen and efficient worker and quickly rose through the ranks to become the chief engineer. It was at this time that he developed an interest in cars or “horseless carriages” as they were known back then. In 1896, after much experimentation and collaboration with friends, Ford was able to complete the first car he’d ever built called a “Quadricycle”. It had four heavy wheels and two gears, with no reverse. Ford improved upon this model and built a second car in 1898. He formed his own company but his first two attempts at running a business both ended in failure.
Undeterred, Ford continued to improve and perfect his cars and ventured into business a third time. The Ford Motor Company was incorporated on June 16, 1903 after getting financing from additional sources. Ford’s vision for his company was to hire and retain a hard working and talented work force. The first car produced by the newly incorporated company was called the “Model A” and this was followed by a variety of improved models. The “Model N” for instance, cost $600 and soon became the bestselling car in the country. However, Ford’s vision was to produce a car that everyone could afford, a car that would make private transport available for the common man.
To this end, he designed his most famous car, the “Model T” and launched it on October 1, 1908. What made it different was it was easy to operate, maintain, and handle. It was at this time that Ford introduced a new method of production, that is, the assembly line. This was the first time that assembly line production had been used in car manufacturing and it was an immediate success. Production costs went down drastically and the Model T became the cheapest available car at that time. Sales were at an all time high and the company had to relocate to bigger premises to keep up with the increased demand. However, the business started to face problems of extremely high turnover. Ford increased wages to almost twice the national average and this helped to a certain extent. In 1919, Ford bought out the other investors and became the sole owner of the company. His son Edsel was named the President but Ford himself was the one really running the show.
By the 1920s however, there were other giants in the industry, notably General Motors and Chrysler Corporation. The Ford Motor Company began losing share to the other players, but Ford refused to pay heed to his executives when they suggested revamping their models. The company also began to have union troubles. When Edsel Ford died in 1943, Henry Ford officially handed over the reins to his grandson Henry II while he himself retired. In his personal life Ford was a pacifist and openly spoke against World War I; he even agreed to fund a “Peace Ship” to Europe. However, his company entered the aviation business during World War I, building and supplying aircraft engines. He was often noted to hold anti-Semitic views; however, the Ford Motor Company was one of the few employers who hired Jews in its factory and did not discriminate against them. Ford was also a racing enthusiast and entered his Model T car in races. He published his autobiography called “My Life and Works” in 1922. He died at his estate in Dearborn at the age of 83 in 1947. He received several honors and awards including the Franklin Institute’s Elliott Cresson Medal in 1928. To this day, he is widely recognized as one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century.