Henry Ford - American Mastermind

9 Nov 2010

Henry Ford was an American inventor and innovator. He is credited with the invention of the assembly line and he changed the way people of his time viewed not only the automobile, but planes and other modes of transport.

     Henry Ford was born on a farm in Greenfield Township near Detroit, Michigan on the 30th of July, 1863. He had two brothers and two sisters. In his early teens Henry was given a pocket watch by his father and by fifteen he had taken apart and reassembled his friends and families watches dozens of times, earning the title - watch repairman. In 1876, Henry’s mother died and when his father started pressuring Henry to take over the family farm he replied, "I never had any particular love for the farm—it was the mother on the farm I loved." Two years later Henry left the family farm for an apprenticeship in machinery.
     In 1888 at the age of twenty-five Henry married Clara Ala Bryant. At the time he was running a sawmill as well as a small farm. They had one son together in 1893, which they named Edsel Bryant Ford.
     In 1891 Henry became an Engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company. After he was promoted to Chief Engineer in 1893 he began his own personal experiments with gasoline engines. He completed his first vehicle in 1896 which he called the Quadricycle. In that same year Henry met Thomas Edison and they formed a strong friendship. In fact, Henry was so fond of Thomas Edison that later on, he ordered Edison’s son to capture his father’s last breath in a test tube for him to keep. This test tube is still around, on display in the Henry Ford Museum. Thomas Edison approved of Henry’s experiments in the industry of mechanics and spurred on by his close friend Henry completed his second automobile in 1898.
     Now that Henry had started nothing could hold him back. With the backing of Detroit’s lumber baron, William H. Murphy, Henry started his own company, the Detroit Automobile Company. However, this company failed soon after, in January, 1901.
     Later on, in October 1901, Henry designed and successfully raced a 26-horsepowered automobile. On November the 30th 1901, Murphy and other stockholders started the Henry Ford Company, with Henry Ford as Chief Engineer. However, with the introduction of a new consultant Henry left the company which was promptly renamed the Cadillac Automobile Company.
     In October 1902 Barney Oldfield drove Henry Ford’s 80+ horsepowered racer, the “999”, to victory. Soon after this Henry formed a partnership, Ford & Malcomson Ltd, with his old friend Alexander Y. Malcomson, who was a Detroit-area coal dealer. With more partners joining the company was renamed as the Ford Motor Company on June 16th 1903. Shortly after, in a brand-new vehicle, Henry set a new land speed record of 147 km/h, covering 1.6 kilometers of ice of the Lake St. Clair.
     On October 1st 1908, Henry introduced the world to the Model T. It had the steering wheel on the left, a design other automobile manufacturers quickly copied and a fully enclosed 4-cylinder engine. Also, its suspension system used two semi-elliptic springs. The vehicle was easy to drive and cheap to repair and as the starting price was so cheap many Americans learnt how to drive the Model T.
     Henry announced the $5 per day program on January 5th 1914. This program raised the minimum pay from $2.34 up to $5 per day for qualified workers. He also set a new, shorter workweek. It started as six 8-hour days (48 hours) but in 1926 it changed to a five 8-hour day (40 hours) plan. Ford Motor Co.’s employee turnover reduced by so great a margin, they stopped recording it.
     By paying a minimum wage and giving regular day’s off Henry Ford gave ordinary people the time and money to expand their lives. More employees began buying Ford Motor Co.’s automobiles which stimulated the economy.    
     In 1915, Henry introduced the assembly line which enabled an amazing increase in production. By 1918, half of the automobiles in America were Model T’s. However every single one of the vehicles produced after 1915 were black, as this colour dried quicker on the production lines.
     Also, in 1918, Henry was asked by President Woodrow Wilson to run as a democrat for the United States Senate from Michigan. Although the country was at war Henry agreed and ran for a Michigan seat in the parliament. He lost by 4500 votes, out of 400, 000 votes state wide.
     In the December of 1918 Henry turned over the company’s presidency to his son, Edsel. As part of a ruse Henry started another company, taking the majority of Ford Motor Co.’s best engineers. The idea was to scare the remaining shareholders into selling up, as to not lose too much money when Ford Motor Company failed. The con worked and 16 years after it was formed, Ford Motor Co. was 100% Ford family owned.
     By the mid-20’s, sales of the Model T had started to decline due to rising competition which offered payment plans through which customers could buy their vehicles. These companies’ vehicles had more modern mechanical features and new stylish bodies. However, despite continuous urging by his son, Henry refused to add new features to the Model T, or form a customer credit plan.
     Eventually, by 1926, the sales of the Model T had dropped so low Henry began to design a new model. Henry busied himself configuring the engine, chassis and other mechanical necessities, leaving Edsel to design the bodywork. Henry also included a sliding-shift transmission in the new project.
     A year later, Ford Motor Co. released the Model A. It was an immediate success, selling all the way through to 1931, with a total of over 4 million vehicles sold. Shortly after the release of the new model, the Ford Motor Co. introduced the annual model change system. Later that decade, Henry reluctantly put in place a customer credit plan, the Universal Credit Corporation; it soon became a major vehicle-financing company.
     Henry disagreed greatly with labour unions. He believed they were too heavily influenced and despite their good motives they would end up doing more harm than good for the workforce. Henry promoted former Navy boxer Harry Bennett to head the Service Department. Bennett employed various tactics to squash union organizations. The most famous incident was in 1937; a bloody run-in between company security-men and union organizers. It became known as the Battle of the Overpass.
     During World War I, Ford Motor Co. entered the aviation industry by building Liberty engines. After the war the company returned to the automobiles but Henry purchased the Stout Metal Aeroplane Company. His first plane built was the Ford 4AT Trimotor, nicknamed the “Tin Goose” because of its corrugated metal construction. It used a new alloy called ‘Alclad’ that had the strength of duralumin but with the corrosion resistance of aluminium. The Trimotor first flew on June 11th 1926, and it was the first successful U.S. passenger airliner, accommodating 12 passengers; barely. Henry was honoured by the Smithsonian Institution for changing the aviation industry. 200 Trimotors were built up to 1933, when the Ford Aeroplane Division was shut down due to economic stress during the Great Depression.
     Although Henry was greatly opposed to wars, believing them to be a terrible waste, the Ford Motor Co. played a pivotal role in the Allied victory during World Wars I and II. Henry developed mass production lines for the B-24 Liberator Bombers, producing one an hour, at a peak of 600 per month in 24-hour shifts. Before Ford Motor Co. it took plane production factories a day to finish one plane, and that was under the best possible circumstances. At the time Ford Motor Co.’s ‘Willow Run’ factory was the largest assembly plant in the world with over 330, 000 m².           
     The Ford Motor Co. was the last automobile company to recognize the United Auto Workers Union (UAW). Henry did threaten to break up the company rather than cooperate but his wife told him that she would leave him if he did so. She wanted to see her grandchildren run the business on into the future. Practically overnight Ford Motor Co. went from one of the most stubborn holdouts in the automobile industry to one of the most favourable UAW contractors. The contract was signed in June 1941.
     In 1943 Edsel Bryant Ford died from stomach cancer and although he was suffering from dementia, had developed a suspicious character and was mentally unstable Henry took on the company’s presidency. By this point he had suffered from several cardiovascular attacks (variously reported as heart attacks or strokes) and was no longer fit to run the company; Ford Motor Co. began to lose more than $10 million a month. The co-owners took control, using Henry as a figurehead. Eventually Henry’s daughter-in-law with the help of his wife removed him from the presidency and put his grand-son, Henry Ford II, in his place.
     Forced into retirement Henry retreated to his Dearborn estate where he died on the 7th April, 1947. A public viewing was held in his hometown, Greenfield Village. Up to 5000 people, per hour, filed past his casket. His funeral service was held in Detroit’s Cathedral Church of St. Paul and he was buried in the Ford Cemetery.

     Henry Ford changed the way the world perceived automobiles. He changed them from a heavy, expensive, unreliable vehicle of the wealthy into a light, common, dependable mode of transport for the enjoyment of the lower classes.
     He showed the world the efficiency of the production line and he was honoured by several institutions. Henry Ford made a great impact on the world of transport and the adaptations of his work can be seen not only in the past, but also in the world today.        


Post a Comment