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Henry Ford: Biography, Facts, Assembly Line & Accomplishments

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Henry Ford created the first functioning automobile for public use, forever changing transportation. In this lesson, we'll explore Ford's life and see how he revolutionized the American factory.

Roots of a Businessman

Henry Ford is one of those rare entrepreneurs who revolutionized the way people live. Many historians of American industry rank him as the most important inventor of the 20th century. His automobile not only altered transportation but changed the American factory system.

Ford was born in 1863 on his family's farm near Dearborn, Michigan, but he knew from an early age that farming wasn't the life for him. Ford moved to Detroit at age 16 to work as a machinist, but after marrying Clara Bryant in 1888, he returned to the family farm, where he tinkered on car designs in the barn. In 1891, the couple moved back to Detroit, where Henry worked for the Edison Illuminating Company as a night engineer. Two years later, the Fords welcomed their only child, Edsel, who would become company president after his father.

By 1896, Ford had advanced to the position of chief engineer of Edison Illuminating. However, he had continued to toy with automobile designs, and the same year as his promotion, he completed his first model, the Quadricycle, a gasoline-powered horseless-carriage. Also in 1896, Ford met Thomas Edison, who was intrigued by his designs and helped put Ford in contact with interested investors.

Ford left Edison Illuminating in 1899 to become superintendent of the Detroit Automobile Company, allowing him to devote his full attention to designing cars. However, sales lagged, and investors dissolved the company in 1900. Undeterred, Ford continued to design and hand-build cars, unaware that his fortune was about to take a turn.

The Big Three: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone
Ford, Edison, Firestone

Automobile Empire

Ford's big break came in 1901, when he entered one of his cars in a 10-mile sweepstakes race in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Ford's car beat that of legendary car designer, racer and millionaire Alexander Winston, garnering Ford the publicity and investors he needed to incorporate the Henry Ford Company.

Only a few months later, in March 1902, Ford left the company that bore his name following squabbles with stockholders over car designs. But by November, he was back in the spotlight, after his 999 race car, driven by racer Barney Oldfield, won the Manufacturer's Cup Challenge, again defeating Winston. The win gained Ford more investors, and in 1903, he launched Ford Motor Company, beginning production on the Model A.

Ford built several automobile models, but sales struggled until 1908, when the Model T, or 'Tin Lizzie', became an instant hit. He needed to shift away from producing race cars and luxury cars in favor of building for the general public. The Model T remained in continual production - with over 15 million made - until 1927. The design worked because it was simple, increasingly affordable, and famously came in one color - black.

In time, Ford branched out to build trucks, ambulances, boats, tanks, tractors and even aircraft. The latter was somewhat surprising since Ford swore he would never fly; however, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh convinced Ford to take his first flight. During the Second World War, the Ford Motor Company churned out thousands of B-24 bombers along with the individual parts needed to build thousands more.

Scientific Management

What made Ford's industrial production so successful was not only his product but his methods. Ford incorporated Frederick Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management to streamline production. Specifically, he utilized interchangeable parts, the assembly line, and division of labor.

The logic of interchangeable parts was not new, but Ford made certain that each car part was uniform and identically made for the same car model. In 1913, he created the first moving assembly line, whereby each worker specialized and built or assembled only one part of a car as it moved by them. It was like a series of jigsaw puzzles where each worker was assigned a different spatial area, and in the end, the entire puzzle was completed though no one person had worked on the entire form.

Ford's Highland Park plant became a streamlined factory, where time, machine, and worker were arranged according to scientific principles. Though it expedited production time, it also created monotonous, repetitive tasks and contributed to the decline of skilled craftsmen. To incentivize workers, Ford instituted a $5-a-day pay day, which doubled the pay scale of his competitors. He also routinely hired African American workers when many leading businessmen refused. But despite his progressive hiring practices, Ford remained a firm opponent of unions.

Assembly Line at the Highland Park Assembly Plant
Highland Park Assembly Plant

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