Henry Ford Biography – American Industrialist, Business Magnate, Ford Automobile, Legacy

Henry Ford Biography
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Henry Ford Biography and Legacy

Henry Ford was an American industrialist and business magnate, who founded the Ford Motor Company. He is one of the most influential entrepreneurs of all time, one who transformed the automobile industry forever.

Ford was the primary developer of the assembly line technique of mass production, and he created the first car that middle-class Americans could actually afford to buy.

Early Life

Henry Ford was born on 30th July 1863 in Springwells Township, Michigan, to William and Mary Ford.

In 1875, Ford, aged 12, received a pocket watch from his father, which he often dismantled and reassembled, eventually learning how to repair it. The same year, he saw the operation of a Nichols and Shepard road engine, which was the first vehicle other than horse-drawn that he had ever seen.

The following year, Ford’s mother died, leaving him devastated and shocked. His father wanted him to take and manage the family farm which was previously run and managed by his mother, but he had no interest in doing so. He despised farm work.

Working as an Apprentice Machinist

In 1879, Henry Ford, aged 16, left home and went to work as an apprentice machinist in Detroit. He first worked with James F. Flower and Bros. and then later on with the Detroit Dry Dock Co.

By 1882, Ford had returned to Dearborn to work on the family farm. It was here that he learned how to operate the Westinghouse Farm Engine, which was a small vertical-boiler steam engine built by the Westinghouse Company.

During this period, Ford also built a steam wagon and a steam car, eventually coming to the conclusion that steam was not suitable for light vehicles as the boiler was dangerous. He also figured out that experimenting with electricity was of no use, because of the expense of trolley wires.

Ford’s mastery of operating the steam engine led him to be hired by Westinghouse to service their steam engines.

Simultaneously, he also began studying bookkeeping at Goldsmith, Bryant & Stratton Business College in Detroit.

The 1880s

By the mid-1880s, Henry Ford had become a good and highly capable machinist.

In 1885, he repaired an Otto engine. And two years later, he built a four-cycle model with a three-inch stroke and a one-inch bore. Shortly thereafter, he began working on a two-cylinder engine as well.

On 11th April 1888, Ford, aged 25, married Clara Jane Bryant, with whom he would go on to have one son, Edsel.

During this period, Ford supported Clara and himself by running a sawmill and farming.

Working at the Edison Illuminating Company and Building Cars

In 1891, Henry Ford began working as an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit.

In 1892, Ford, aged 29, built his first motor car, which was powered by a two-cylinder, four-horsepower motor. The car included 28-inch wire bicycle wheels with rubber tires, a 3-gallon gasoline tank, a water jacket around the cylinders for cooling, and a foot brake. Between 1895 and 1896, he rode the car for about 1000 miles and was moderately satisfied with the way it ran.

In 1893, he was promoted to Chief Engineer in the Edison Illuminating Co., enabling him to earn enough money to divert some of his energy and attention to his experiments on gasoline engines.

By 1896, he had successfully completed a self-propelled vehicle, which he named the Ford Quadricycle. The same year, he attended a meeting of the company’s executives, where he met Thomas Edison. He informed Edison of his automobile experimentations and Edison approved of it and encouraged him to continue.

By 1898, Ford had finished building his second car.

Founding the Detroit Automobile Company

In 1899, after receiving the financial backing of twelve investors (among which were included lumber baron William H. Murphy and Detroit Mayor William Maybury) Henry Ford left the Edison Illuminating Company and established the Detroit Automobile Company.

This was Ford’s first business venture, and it proved to be much more difficult to run and manage than he had expected. Twenty cars of poor quality were manufactured, and the price of each was much higher than he wanted.

The company struggled and eventually floundered, dissolving in January 1901. A substantial amount of investment was lost in the process.

Establishing the Henry Ford Company

In October 1901, Henry Ford designed, built, and raced a 26-horsepower car with the help of engineer and businessman Childe Harold Wills.

Encouraged by the success of the car, the investors of the extinct Detroit Automobile Company decided to establish the Henry Ford Company in November 1901, with Ford as the Chief Engineer.

The following year, William Murphy hired machinist and engineer Henry Martyn Leland as a consultant. But Ford disagreed with the decision and decided to leave the company bearing his own name for good. This was his second failed attempt at running an automobile company.

After Ford’s departure, Leland changed the name of the company to Cadillac Automobile Company. Leland would also go on to establish another premier luxury vehicle brand, Lincoln.

Ford & Malcomson, Ltd.

After departing from the Henry Ford Company, Henry Ford teamed up with racing cyclist Tom Cooper to build the 80+ horsepower 999, which ended up winning a race in October 1902.

Once again, Ford managed to attract financial backing with the success of the 999, this time from Detroit coal dealer Alexander Young Malcomson. Together, they formed a partnership called Ford & Malcomson, Ltd., to produce cars.

This was Ford’s third attempt at running an automobile company and he looked for ways to produce affordable vehicles now. They leased a factory and entered into a contract with a machine shop owned by the Dodge brothers to supply around 160,000 dollars in parts.

Soon enough, they were confronted with a crisis. The sales were less and slow, and the Dodge brothers began demanding payment for their first shipment.

Ford Motor Company

The newly-formed partnership of Henry Ford and Alexander Malcomson was not yet financially stable enough to pay the Dodge brothers upfront. Instead, Malcomson managed to rope in another group of investors, and the two partners reincorporated as the Ford Motor Company in June 1903.

They also convinced the Dodge brothers to accept a portion of their new company. The other investors were mostly close contacts of Malcomson, such as his uncle John S. Gray (who was elected as President of the Company), his lawyers Horace Rackham and John W. Anderson, and his secretary James Couzens (who would go on to serve as the Mayor of Detroit and U.S Senator from Michigan).

Ford soon designed and built a new race car, whose speed he demonstrated by driving 1 mile in 39.4 seconds on the ice of Lake St. Clair, setting a new land speed record at 91. 3 miles per hour. It was the fastest locomotive of the time, compelling race driver Barney Oldfield to name it 999 and take it around the country to promote.

The car and its nationwide promotion played a significant role in making Ford a famous brand throughout America.

Breakthrough with the Ford Model T

On 1st October 1908, the Ford Model T made its debut in America.

The Model T was the first affordable car that made car travel affordable and common among the middle class. The vehicle cost 825 dollars (approximately 23,760 dollars today) when it was first introduced, and its price kept falling every year. The low price of the vehicle was partially a result of Ford’s efficient fabrication, including assembly line production instead of individual handcrafting.

The Model T had its steering wheel on the left side, which was soon copied by all the other car companies of the time. The engine and transmission were enclosed, the suspension used two semi-elliptic springs, and the four cylinders were cast in a solid block. Most importantly, the car was simple to drive and repair.

In order to promote the Model T, Henry Ford launched a huge publicity campaign in Detroit. He ensured that every newspaper carried ads or stories about the new model. The local dealers of the Ford Motor Company made the car common in almost every city in North America.

Ford also actively tried to sell to farmers, who looked at the vehicle as a commercial device to help their business.

As the cost of the car was reduced, sales increased substantially every year. By 1918, half of all cars in America were Model Ts.

In order to match the demand for the Model T, Ford introduced moving assembly belts into his plants, which allowed for an increase in production.

World War 1 Years

Henry Ford was against war and considered it a terrible waste, and he openly supported causes that opposed any kind of military intervention.

Ford believed that any kind of war was a waste of resources, time, and energy, that slowed down long-term economic growth. He understood well that small businesses were particularly affected as it took them years to recover, and that both the winning and losing sides suffered heavy unnecessary damages.

Being an influential industrialist, Ford argued that most businesses wanted to avoid wars and instead work toward manufacturing and selling useful goods, creating employment by hiring workers, and generating steady long-term profits.

During the war years, Ford criticized the people who financed the war. He even organized and launched a peace mission to Europe along with Hungarian-born Rosika Schwimmer, by funding a Peace Ship to Europe. However, the mission was a failure and received no government support.

Ford was an active supporter of President Woodrow Wilson‘s League of Nations and even funded campaigns to promote the league. He firmly believed that international trade and commerce led to international peace.

But in spite of Ford’s advocacy for peace, when the US entered the war in 1917, his company became a major supplier of weapons, especially the Liberty engine for warplanes and anti-submarine boats. This forced Ford to stop giving many of his opinions on foreign policy.

Post-War Years

In 1922, Henry Ford purchased the Lincoln Motor Co. from Henry Leland. And after allowing Leland and his son to manage the company for a short while, Ford expelled them.

Ford showed little interest in premium cars, instead preferring to concentrate on cheap and affordable ones. However, his son, Edsel, who by then was handed over the presidency of the Ford Motor Company, actively worked toward expanding Ford into the upscale market.

Ford Model A

By 1926, the sales of the Model T had begun to decline, thereby convincing Henry Ford to design and build a new model.

A team of engineers did most of the actual designing of the new model, with Ford only supervising them and giving them overall direction. This was mainly because even though Ford was a good engineer, he had little formal training in mechanical engineering and could hardly even read a blueprint.

The Ford Model A was introduced on 2nd December 1927 and remained highly successful till 1931, after which the company followed the example of rivals General Motors by adopting an annual model change system.

Improving Labor Conditions

In 1914, during a time when the employee turnover rate was extremely high, Henry Ford began offering a wage of 5 dollars per day to his workers, instead of the industry standard of 2.34 dollars per day.

Such a policy was unprecedented and shocked the other companies of the time, as it more than doubled the rate of his workers. Ford’s policy paid off, for his employee turnover not only drastically reduced but the policy also attracted the best mechanics and engineers in Detroit to Ford.

This influx of human resources and expertise greatly increased productivity and efficiency and reduced training costs. Another important effect of Ford’s policy was that his competitors were also compelled to raise wages for their workers so as not to lose them.

Due to the increase in their wages, many of Ford’s workers were able to afford the cars they helped produce, thereby boosting the local economy.

In 1926, Ford introduced another change to improve labor conditions. He reduced the workweek to a 5-day, 40-hour workweek, believing that giving enough leisure time to his workers will increase their productivity, and was an important and good business practice.

In this way, Ford became a pioneer of welfare capitalism as he tried to improve the conditions of his workers.

Decline in Health

In 1943, Edsel Ford, aged 49, died of cancer.

Immediately after his son’s death, Henry Ford, nearing 80 years now, assumed control of the company even though he was not physically and mentally healthy anymore. He suffered a series of strokes in the late 1930s, which left him debilitated and weak. His mental ability was also fading.

As Ford was unable to make astute decisions for the company anymore, the top executive slowly began to sideline him and make decisions on his behalf.

In September 1945, in the face of going bankrupt, Ford’s wife and Edsel’s widow convinced a reluctant Ford to cede control of the company to his grandson Henry Ford II.


On 7th April 1947, Henry Ford, aged 83, died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his estate in Dearborn.

A public viewing took place at Greenfield Village where around 5,000 people per hour filed past his casket.

Ford was interred at the Ford Cemetery in Detroit.


Henry Ford is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential entrepreneurs of all time. One who changed the culture and lifestyle of the American people.

It was because of the affordable cars produced by Ford that every middle-class and even lower-middle-class American is able to purchase a car for themselves. It is also because of this reason that car has become such an important aspect of the average American’s lifestyle.

Ford’s pioneering ways have also laid down the foundations of the minimum expected and accepted labor conditions across almost all industries, which has today become the norm. To this day, most industries follow the 5-day, 40-hour workweek.

Ford is often seen as the perfect example of the American Dream. He is seen as a man who seemed to represent the quintessential American entrepreneur and industrialist. Through his company and its practices, Ford completely revolutionized the automobile and transportation industry forever, laying down the foundations for other companies to build upon. The assembly line technique of mass-producing inexpensive goods along with increased wages for his workers came to be known as Fordism.

Ford’s desire and commitment to lower costs have resulted in several business and technical innovations, resulting in his being awarded 161 U.S. patents.

In his lifetime, Ford became one of the richest and most well-known figures in the world. Upon his death, he left most of his wealth to the Ford Foundation run by his family.

Henry Ford was without a doubt one of our greatest pioneers and innovators, who has influenced the world we live in, in a way only a few others have. His life also serves as an inspiration to everyone out there, proving that no matter how many times one fails in life, one can always start again, work hard, persevere, and achieve success.