Henry Ford grew up on a small farm near Dearborn, Michigan. As Henry
grew up, he spent most of his free time tinkering, and finding out exactly
how things work. A pastime that developed thinking and logic abilities.
But being a farmer’s boy, he had little spare time, for there were always
chores to be done. By twelve years of age, Henry was doing a man’s work on
the farm and had begun repairing machinery for neighbouring farmers. His
father pleased when Henry would repair a harness, reset a tool handle, or
make some hinges for furniture but he was not pleased however, when his son
repaired things for neighbours, as he often did, without charging them a
cent. It was one day when Henry saw a steam engine powering a farming
machine that he dreamed that one day he would build a smaller engine that
would power a vehicle and do the job that horse’s once did.
Shortly after Henry turned thirteen, his mother died. Henry became
very discontent with living on the farm but he stayed for another three
years. When he was sixteen he finished his studies at the district school.
Against his father’s will, Henry moved to Detroit, ten miles away.
In Detroit, Henry worked eleven hours a day at James Flower &
Brothers’ Machine Shop for only $2.50 a week. As this was not enough to
pay for board and room, Henry got an evening job at Magill’s Jewelry Shop
for $2 each week, at first only cleaning and winding the shop’s large stock
of clocks. Soon though, he was repairing them also.
After three years in Detroit, and ceaseless persuasion from his
father, Henry moved back to the farm at the age of nineteen. Farm work was
no more appealing than before. Henry did enjoy the birds and the wildlife
in the country, and he liked operating and repairing a steam threshing
machine so he stayed. At a dance on New Year’s Eve in 1885, Henry met a
dark-haired young woman, Clara Bryant, who lived only a few miles away. In
1888 Henry and Clara were married. As a gift, Mr. Ford gave Henry and his
bride forty acres of wooded land. Henry built a small cottage and they
lived off the land. Henry’s father thought Henry was content and had
settled down for life, but this was not to be so. All of Henry’s spare
time was still spent on engines. Three years after their marriage, Henry
saw an internal-combustion gas engine in Detroit. He decided that this is
the engine that he would have to use on his car. He had to move back to
For two years Henry worked nights as a steam engineer for the Edison
Illuminating Company. He worked every night from 6 P.M. to 6 A.M. and
earned $45 a month. After working hours he experimented on his gas engine.
His wages barely paid for living expenses and for tools and materials for
his tinkering. But his wife was cooperative and did not complain but
rather, encouraged him.
In November, 1983, a son was born to Henry and Clara, they named him
Edsel. A few weeks later, just before Christmas, Henry had completed his
engine. A successful testing of the engine excited Henry and he decided to
build one with two cylinders. Slightly over two and a half years later,
Henry had built his first horseless carriage with four bicycle wheels and
seat. His contraption would not fit out of the workshop so he simply
knocked out a portion of the wall. The car tested successfully, but was
very impractical as someone on a bicycle had to ride ahead to warn the
people with horses as the car startled them.
Henry quit his very promising job at the Edison Illuminating Company
on August 15, 1989. He was to head the new Detroit Automobile Company.
Instead of producing any cars though, Henry spent the money on improving
his design. The experimental models that he produced cost a great deal of
money and a little more than a year later, the Detroit Automobile Company
had failed. To gain supporters, Henry built a racing car. If he could win
a race, he could get backers and form his own company. Henry did
successfully win a race in October, 1901 and acquiring backers became no
longer a problem.
On November, 1901, the Henry Ford Company was formed. This company
fared no better than the previous. Ford still wanted to build a low-priced
car that ordinary people could afford to buy and drive. Ford would not
sacrifice his standards for the profit. (Much unlike his portrayal in Brave
New World). Finally in June, 1903, a third company, the Ford Motor
Company, was incorporated.
Ford continued working on his “cheap” design. It was ready shortly
after the new company’s formation and orders came in faster than they could
be filled. Ford, Charles Sorensen and a small group of dedicated engineers
began working on a “universal car.” By October, 1908, the Model-T had been
constructed. Again orders began coming in faster than they could be
filled. This presented Ford with his next challenge, to increase the
production rate of the automobiles. Sorensen and Ford finally came up with
the assembly line idea. Rather than having the men go to the work, the
work would come to the man, brought along on pulleys and chains overhead.
One problem bothered Ford increasingly, however. Assembly- line work
was monotonous and uninteresting. The Ford factory had a great turnover of
employees, and too much time was wasted in training new men. The men were
currently only being paid the minimum wage of $2 a day. Ford decided (much
to his colleagues’ displeasure and protest) that the men would be paid $5
and that the work day would be shortened to that of an eight-hour day.
Some people praised him as a great humanitarian. Others denounced Ford as
a madman, a crackpot, and a villain. One may have considered Ford unjust
in making his men work on the assembly line, this is not so. Ford had more
than doubled the wages of his men, shortened their work day, and thereby
tried to give the employees a share of the profits.
Ford eventually resigned as president of his company and gave control
to Edsel. Conflicts rose between Edsel and Henry. All his life, Ford had
been in charge, calling the shots. Now, even though Edsel was President in
name, none of the decisions went without Henry’s approval. Edsel had
wanted to produce a new model for several years, and finally Henry
consented. In December, 1927, the Model A was unveiled to the public.
Sales soared. This was last real success that Henry Ford saw in his
company. The great depression was coming, sales dropped, and labour unions
formed. Originally Ford had “factory police” to monitor the men and keep
away people related to union, but on June 18, 1941, the men went on strike
and Henry was handed a union contract. It spelled out the terms on which
his men would work, and even set the speed of the assembly line. Ford
refused to sign. Only after his wife threatened to leave him, did Henry
sign. He did not just sign, he gave them better terms. Henry felt a need
to dictate. He had always been in control, and this was time was no
exception. War broke out in December, 1941. Ford’s factories were
converted to plants that constructed war machines. Even in this time, Ford
kept his love for nature and the old times. Henry constructed a museum.
He even had his father’s old farmhouse rebuilt.It was in 1942 that his
son Edsel died of cancer. The shock nearly killed old Henry, but rather
than give up his hold on the Ford Motor Company, he made himself President
once more. He was old now, and in 1945 he relinquished all responsibility
to Edsel’s son, Harry II. The Ford Company took on new life under young
Henry, but Ford was not around to see it. In 1947 Henry Ford fell ill and
took to his bed. On April 27, alone with his wife and one servant, Henry
died at age eighty-four.
After his death, a foundation was formed to administer his vast
fortune. The foundation gave substantial support to various projects in
the arts, in medicine and in other important areas of American life. Ford
was a great man who revolutionized our world. Ford put the world on wheels,
and in so doing, he made it a smaller world.
Montgomery, E. Henry Ford: Automotive Pioneer. Illinois: Garrard
Publishing Company, 1979
Paradis, A. Henry Ford. New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1968