Ford’s Early Life and Education
Henry Ford (1863–1947) was born in former Springwells Township, Michigan, a now-defunct municipality that used to lie on the boundary between the cities of Detroit and Dearborn.
Ford’s father hailed from County Cork in Ireland, while his mother was of Belgian (Walloon) extraction.
Ford grew up on the family farm worked by his parents. He attended the local public schools, graduating from Springwells Middle School—which was a traditional, one-room schoolhouse—at the end of eighth grade.
Although Ford never attended high school, he did complete a bookkeeping course at a commercial school.
For his twelfth birthday, Ford’s father gave him a pocket watch. Ford was fascinated by the mechanism and taught himself how to take it apart and put it back together again, which he did numerous times over the next few years.
Ford even convinced his friends and neighbors to allow him to disassemble and reassemble their timepieces, to their consternation and amusement.
In 1876, when Ford was 13 years old, his mother died.
His mother’s death emotionally devastated the boy, stiffening his resolve to leave the family farm at the first opportunity.
Three years later, in 1879, when he was 16, Ford finally left the family farm to look for employment in Detroit. His first job was as an apprentice machinist.
Three years after that, in 1882, Ford returned to Dearborn to help his father with the family farm.
Ford turned his skill with machinery to investigating this state-of-the-art steam engine, soon becoming adept at repairing the device.
Ford built a workshop on the grounds of the farm. Throughout the 1880s, he tinkered with many types of engines, including a single-cylinder, four-stroke, gasoline-burning, internal combustion engine he obtained in 1885 that had been developed by the German engineer Nicolaus August Otto.
In 1887, Ford built the first of his own engines, which was a four-cycle, internal combustion device with a one-inch bore and a three-inch stroke.
In 1887, the German engineer Carl Friedrich Benz developed an automobile powered by a gasoline-fueled, internal-combustion engine.
In 1891, Ford went to work for Detroit’s branch of Thomas A. Edison’s electrical lighting company, the Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit. Within two years, Ford had been promoted to Chief Engineer with the company.
Throughout the 1890s, Ford continued to experiment on building automobile engines and chassis in his spare time, working in his own workshop.
In 1892, Ford completed his first automobile, which was powered by a two-cycle, internal-combustion engine with a two-and-a-half-inch bore and a six-inch stroke. The supporting chassis was fitted with a complex array of shafts, chains, belts, accelerator, brake, and clutch controls, tires, cooling systems, and much else.
Ford tested out this creation and its successors by driving them around the Dearborn area. By 1896, he estimated that he had logged 1000 miles in his various homemade vehicles.
That same year, Ford was introduced to his boos, Thomas A. Edison, and spoke to him about his experiments with automobiles. Edison encouraged him to continue with his work.
Three years later, in 1899, Ford decided to resign his job with Edison. He secured financial backing from a lumber baron named William H. Murphy and founded his own company, the Detroit Automobile Company.
Unfortunately, the move was premature. The cars Ford was producing at this point were too prone to failure and too expensive and the company soon went out of business.
In 1901, with the aid of the engineer, C. Harold Wills, Ford developed a new and more-powerful, 26-horsepower engine. Murphy and other investors set Ford up in a new company, this time called the Henry Ford Company. His title was Chief Engineer.
However, when Murphy attempted to bring the inventor and entrepreneur, Henry M. Leland, into the new company, Ford took umbrage and walked out, severing his ties with Murphy. Murphy and Leland then changed the company’s name to the Cadillac Automobile Company.
In 1903, Ford found several new investors and was able to start up yet another company, which he now named the Ford Motor Company.
In the meantime, Ford had developed a racing car, which the famous driver Barney Oldfield drove in a demonstration test on the winter ice of Lake St. Clair, clocking in at a speed of 91 miles per hour. He then sent Oldfield on a tour of the US to show off the car and to spread the Ford name.
In 1908, Ford rolled out the Model T—the model that changed everything.
The Model T introduced a galaxy of innovative features. First, the steering wheel was moved from the center to the left. Second, the entire engine assembly, as well as the transmission, were enclosed. Third, the four cylinders were cast in a solid block. And, finally, the suspension system made used of two semi-elliptic springs.
However, the main reasons why the Model T represented such a breakthrough was that (1) it was very simple to drive and to repair; and (2) it was relatively cheap.
The original 1908 model cost $825, which is approximately equivalent to $24,880 in today’s dollars. More importantly, the price of the Model T fell from year to year. By the mid-1920s, the car was so cheap that millions of consumers could potentially afford to buy one.
By 1918, half of all the automobiles in the US were Model T’s.
Ford continued to produce the Model T until 1927. The total number of units produced was in excess of 15,000,000.
How was Ford able to build the Model T so cheaply—the factor which was undoubtedly the secret to its incredible success?
The secret lay in the single best idea Ford ever had: namely, the assembly line. By moving the chassis along in front of a row of workmen, each of which performed only one task upon it, Ford was able to produce many more finished cars per day than any other manufacturer, using the same number of workmen.
This tremendous increase in productivity, of course, translated directly into a lower price tag on each finished Model T, which is what drove sales through the roof. In a nutshell, that was the key to Ford’s vision and his success.
Ford’s only desire had always been to build a cheap car for the average consumer. However, around this time, some of his executives finally prevailed upon him to introduce a more-expensive make to appeal to a more-upscale customer.
In 1922, Ford purchased the Lincoln Motor Co. from Henry Leland—the Lincoln was originally a make of Cadillac. The Lincoln became the Ford “luxury model” for decades.
In 1927, Ford finally introduced a replacement for the Model T, which became known as the Model A. That same year, he also opened a massive new manufacturing facility, the famous River Rouge plant in Dearborn.
In 1932, he equipped the Model A with a V-8 engine, making it by far the most powerful stock car on the market.
In addition to various technical innovations offered with the Model A, Ford also introduced—once again reluctantly, at his executives’ insistence—an innovative, in-house financing system, thus making the purchase possible for still more millions of consumers.
During the 1920s, Ford also briefly dabbled with building aircraft. His investments in that field did not last very long, but his interest in the idea would remain dormant, later to flower with the advent of World War II.
Although personally opposed to American entry into the Second World War, in 1942 Ford began converting his factories to war work. The plants mostly concentrated, naturally enough, on building jeeps and other types of military vehicles.
However, in 1940 Ford had already begun the construction of an aircraft manufacturing facility near the Michigan city of Ypsilanti. Named Willow Run, this factory opened in 1942, now dedicated to providing airplanes to the US military, notably, the B-24 Liberator heavy bomber.
In 1943, Ford’s only son, Edsel, died from cancer at the age of 49. Edsel, who had been titular President of Ford Motor Company since 1918, was increasingly in charge of all corporate decisions due to Ford’s advancing age and fragile health.
Ford never fully recovered from the blow of Edsel’s premature death. His mind was the first to go, but his body soon followed—just four years after the departure of his beloved son.
Henry Ford is mainly remembered, first, for his vision of building a cheap automobile for the masses and, second, for inventing the assembly line, which more than anything else made his vision into a reality.
He was also gifted at earning the respect and even affection of his employees, chiefly by paying them an extraordinarily generous wage for the time: $5 per day. He also pioneered the introduction of the 40-hour work week.
Finally, Ford was a kind of marketing and public relations genius.
All of those achievements certainly redound to Ford’s credit.
Unfortunately, however, in his old age Ford increasingly fancied himself what we would now call a “public intellectual,” feeling himself entitled to publish articles and books on the public issues of the day. However, he was not well-suited for this endeavor, either educationally or temperamentally.
No discussion of Ford ought to ignore the dark side of the man’s personality, which manifested itself both in his personal volatility and prickliness and also in his grandiosity and self-importance. The worst thing about these tendencies is the way he indulged himself in vocal pronouncements on public affairs having nothing to do with his business and, most egregious of all, in his anti-Semitism.
Ford bought a newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, just to be able to express his negative views on Jews. The anti-Semitic articles he wrote for that newspaper between 1920 and `1927 were then collected and published in a four-volume set titled The International Jew—The World’s Foremost Problem.
Of course, Ford was not the only famous American anti-Semite of his day. His sometimes-vicious writings reflect feelings that were unfortunately quite widespread. For example, Ford’s sentiments were shared by the famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh.
Nevertheless, Ford was one of the wealthiest and most-famous men in the country and his views carried an outsized weight. There is simply no gainsaying the harm he did and the moral depths to which he sank in his anti-Semitic diatribes.
Selected Books by Ford
Today and Tomorrow (1926).
My Philosophy of Industry (1929).
Moving Forward, with Samuel Crowther (1930).
The Ultimate Compendium of Henry Ford’s Best Sayings: A Quotes Reference Book, edited by Joseph Marty (2022).
Selected Books About Ford
Baldwin, Neil, Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate (2001).
Bates, Beth Tompkins, The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford (2012).
Brinkley, David, Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress (2003).
Burgan, Michael, Who Was Henry Ford? (2014).
Collier, Peter and David Horowitz, The Fords: An American Epic (1987).
Curcio, Vincent, Henry Ford (2013).
Dahlstrom, Neil, Tractor Wars: John Deere, Henry Ford, International Harvester, and the Birth of Modern Agriculture (2022).
Dahlinger, John Côté, The Secret Life of Henry Ford (1978).
Grandin, Greg, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (2009).
Guinn, Jeff, The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip (2019).
Higham, Charles, Trading with the Enemy: The Nazi-American Money Plot, 1933–1949 (2007).
Lee, Albert, Henry Ford and the Jews (1980).
Lewis, David L., The Public Image of Henry Ford: An American Folk Hero and His Company (1976).
MacGregor, J.R., Henry Ford – Auto Tycoon: Insight and Analysis into the Man Behind the American Auto Industry (2019).
Marquis, Samuel S., Henry Ford: An Interpretation (2007).
Piché, Gregory R., The Four Trials of Henry Ford (2019).
Snow, Richard, I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford (2013).
Sorensen, Charles E., My Forty Years with Ford (1956).
Watts, Steven, The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century (2005).
Winicott, Michael, Henry Ford: Entrepreneurship Lessons: Teachings from One of the Most Successful Entrepreneurs in the World (2015).