Ford is a man who literally transformed the world. The car he built and the
changes he made on the techniques of industrial production revolutionized the
lives of people everywhere. At the height of his fame, in the 1920s, Ford was a
name known universally. "Fordismus" entered the European vocabulary
as a word for mass production; and a correspondent in the Soviet Union in 1927
commented that Ford's name was as well known as Lenin's or Trotsky's. He was
regarded as a symbol of industrial technology.
Ford himself came from a humble farming background.
Born July 30, 1363, in Dearborne, Michigan, near Detroit, young Henry hated
almost everything about farming except the machinery. When he was 16, he went
to Detroit to serve as an apprentice in a machine shop. He held a series of
jobs and became completely knowledgeable of the way different types of machines
He began to experiment with internal combustion
machines in his home workshop in 1891. He was one of many would-be-inventors
working on plans for the automobile; and he discussed his project with other
mechanics and businessmen working in Detroit. In 1896 Ford succeeded in
building an automobile powered by a gasoline engine which he had built in his
kitchen sink. Running on four horsepower, the car could reach a speed of 25
miles per hour.
Ford organized the Detroit Automobile
Company in 1899 and produced a small number of cars before
the company collapsed two years later. He designed and manufactured racing
cars, and in 1900, raced one model at 70 miles per hour.
In 1903, at the age of 40, and with an investment of $28,000,
Henry Ford established the Ford Motor Company. The automobile was still
considered a toy of the rich, and Ford set about to change this situation.
of manufacturing and business is set forth in his autobiography:
"Ask a hundred
people how they want a particular article made. About eighty will not know;
they will leave it to you. Fifteen will think that they must say something,
while five will really have preferences and reasons. The ninety-five, made up
of those who do not know and admit it and the fifteen who do not know but do
not admit it, constitute the real market for any product. The majority will
consider quality and buy the biggest dollar's worth of quality. If therefore
you discover what will give this 95 percent of the people the best all-round
service and then arrange to manufacture at the very highest quality and sell at
the very lowest price, you will be meeting a demand which is so large that it
may be called universal....The only further step required is to throw overboard
the idea of pricing on what the traffic will bear and instead go to the
common-sense basis of pricing on what it costs to manufacture and then
reducing the cost of
In the early years
of the company's existence, Ford was involved in legal battles challenging
patents which restricted his freedom to alter the internal combustion engine to
better suit the car he wished to build. Winning a clear victory in the courts,
Henry Ford established an early reputation as a foe of monopolies and the
champion of the common man.
The Model T Ford
was introduced in 1908. It was boxy and tinny-looking, as its nickname, the
"Tin Lizzie," implied; but it was within the purchasing power of
people who were not rich. It fulfilled the goal which Ford had set for
"I will build
a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family but
small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of
the best materials by the best men to be hired, after the simpliest designs
that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man
making a good salary will be unable to own one - and enjoy with his family the
blessing of hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces."
Ford was able to lower the price of the
Model T from the $850, which it cost when it first appeared, to $360 in 1916.
He did this by introducing mass production assembly line techniques. In 1913
Ford conducted his first test of assembly line manufacture. He drew up the
techniques which he had observed in a Chicago meat packing plant
where an overhead trolley moved the carcasses of
animals from one butcher to another; since each butcher had a special job, he
could do his cutting work faster and more efficiently than when he had to cut
up the whole animal by himself.
The assembly line revolutionized car production.
A chassis that formely took 12,5 hours to build in the shop, now rolled off the
assembly line in an hour and a half. This made it possible to triple the
production of Model T's within three years.
introduced the $5.00 wage for an eight-hour day. Such a salary was unheard of
in 1914, and he attracted both national and international attention when he
began this practice. He also introduced a plan which allowed his workers to
share in the profits of the company - the profit sharing plan which is used by many companies today.
accomplishments fit in well with the optimism and idealism of the period.
Alongside of the political reforms of the Progressive Era, as the years
preceeding World War I were called, Ford's commitment to the free market, to
making a socially useful product, and to technological advancement suggested
that a new and better way of life was at hand.
outbreak of war, Ford paid for the voyage of the Oscar // (popularly
known as the Ford Peace Ship) which brought a group of pacifists and feminists
to Scandinavia in 1916 to work toward
ending the war through
neutral mediation. He also offered a large prize for a history of war that
would "show war in all its horrors, instead of glorifying the slaughter -
a history that shall discourage war by telling of the great things of
Ford was a genuine folk hereto the American
people. He represented the virtues of an older, simpler agrarian society—hard
work, self-reliance, and thrift even though he contributed to the demise of
agrarian life. He was a colorful figure, and stories of his love of running
(long before the days of jogging) and his strange notions about diet (he
sometimes ate grass sandwiches) were well known. People had an idea of who
Henry Ford was - and he in turn, seemed to know what the American people wanted
in terms of a product.
During the 1920s,
however, the Ford Motor Company lost much of its popularity with the American
public. When other manufacturers introduced more stylish, relatively
inexpensive cars, Ford automobile sales began to drop. Though he closed his
factories for 18 months in 1927-28 to prepare for a new Ford car, the Model A,
he never regained his position of leadership in the car industry.
This was due either
to Ford's unwillingness or inability to change with the time. Already in his
sixties, his ideas seemed to become fixed. He said, at this time: "I don't
like books. They muss up my mind." And to a great extent, he became
and a prisoner of his
own prejudices. An early leader in, labor-management relations, Ford later
resisted the efforts of his workers to unionize
and enter into
collective bargaining. Only after a strike by his workers in 1941, did Ford, at
the age of 78, accept union membership for his
As owner of the
Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford accumulated more than $1 billion. Between the
years 1908 and 1947, when he died, he contributed more than $40 million to
charitable causes, such as public hospitals, and research institutions. He
established the Ford Foundation which continues to support various programs in
education, media, and culture. And he constructed Greenfield Village, near his
birthplace in Michigan, as a living museum representing the industrialization
figure, Ford saw his ideas adopted and applied throughout the world. Yet Ford
himself was frequently the target of criticism. When he ran for public office
in 1918, as Democratic candidate for Senator for the state of Michigan, he was
defeated. In his satire, Brave New World, Aldus Huxley used Ford's name
as a curse, and even the comic genius Charles Chaplin ridiculed Ford's
contributions in his film Modern Times.
Without a doubt, however, Ford was a technological genius.
Not a great inventor, he was able to borrow
ideas and apply them to new uses. In bringing the automobile to the
average worker, he altered the structure of society, its cities, and the
nations of the