Henry Ford: A Life In Brief
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 Detroit.
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
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:
Publishing Company, 1979
Paradis, A. Henry Ford. New York: Putnam's Sons, 1968