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- This article is about the founder of the Ford Motor Company. For other people named Henry Ford, see Henry Ford (disambiguation).
Henry Ford (July 30, 1863 - April 7, 1947) was the founder of the Ford Motor Company and one of the first to apply assembly line manufacturing to the mass production of affordable automobiles. This achievement not only revolutionized industrial production, it had such tremendous influence over modern culture that many social theorists identify this phase of economic and social history as "Fordism."
Ford was born on a prosperous farm owned by his parents, William and Mary Ford, immigrants from County Cork, Ireland. He was the eldest of six children. As a child, Henry was passionate about mechanics. At 12, he spent a lot of time in a machine shop, which he had equipped himself. By 15, he had built his first internal combustion engine.
In 1879 he left home for the nearby city of Detroit to work as an apprentice machinist, first with James F. Flower & Bros., and later with the Detroit Dry Dock Co. After completion of his apprenticeship, Ford got a job with the Westinghouse company working on gasoline engines. Upon his marriage to Clara Bryant in 1888 Ford supported himself by running a sawmill.
In 1891 Ford became an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company, and after his promotion to Chief Engineer in 1893 he had enough time and money to devote attention to his personal experiments on internal combustion engines. These experiments culminated in 1896 with the completion of his own self-propelled vehicle named the Quadricycle.
After this initial success, Ford left Edison Illuminating and, with other investors, formed the Detroit Automobile Company. The Detroit Automobile Company, however, went bankrupt soon afterward because Ford continued to improve the design instead of selling cars. Ford raced his vehicles against those of other manufacturers to show the superiority of his designs. With the interest in his race cars, he formed a second company, the Henry Ford Company. During this period, he personally drove his Quadricycle to victory in a race against Alexander Winton, a well-known driver and the heavy favorite on October 10, 1901. Ford was forced out of the company by the investors, including Henry Leland in 1902, and the company was reorganized as Cadillac.
Henry Ford, with eleven other investors and $28,000 in capital, incorporated the Ford Motor Company in 1903. In a newly-designed car, Ford drove an exhibition in which the car covered the distance of a mile on the ice of Lake St. Clair in 39.4 seconds, which was a new land speed record. Convinced by this success, the famous race driver Barney Oldfield, who named this new Ford model "999" in honor of a racing locomotive of the day, took the car around the country and thereby made the Ford marque well-known throughout the U.S. Henry Ford was also one of the early backers of the Indianapolis 500.
The Model T
In 1908, the Ford company released the Model T. From 1909 to 1913, Ford entered stripped-down Model Ts into races as well, finishing first (although later disqualified) in an "ocean-to-ocean" (across the USA) race in 1909, and setting a one-mile oval speed record at Detroit Fairgrounds in 1911 with driver Frank Kulick. In 1913, Ford attempted to enter a reworked Model T in the Indianapolis 500, but was told rules required the addition of another 1,000 pounds to the car before it could qualify. Ford dropped out of the race, and soon thereafter dropped out of racing permanently, citing dissatisfaction with the sport's rules and the demand on his time by the now booming production of the Model T.
Racing was, by 1913, no longer necessary from a publicity standpoint—the Model T was famous, and ubiquitous on American roads. It was in this year Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly belts into his plants, which enabled an enormous increase in production. By 1918 half of all cars in America were Model Ts. The design, fervently promoted and defended by Henry Ford, would continue through 1927 (well after its popularity had faded), with a final total production of fifteen million vehicles. This was a record which would stand for the next 45 years. (Henry Ford is often attributed as saying that his customers could get a Ford car in any color they liked—so long as it was black. There is no evidence that he ever actually spoke these words. However for ease of mass production, black was the only color which the Model T was available in directly from the factory.)
Henry Ford had very specific thoughts on relations with his employees. They were expected to work an eight-hour day, and in 1913 were paid a handsome $5 per day. The pay rate increased to $6 per day at the peak of Model T production in 1918; such a sum for laborers was, at the time, almost unheard-of. Ford also offered his employees an innovative profit-sharing plan.
Conversely, Ford was adamantly against labor unions in his plants. To forestall union activity, he hired Harry Bennett, titularly the head of the Service Department, who employed various intimidation tactics to squash union organizing. A sit-down strike by the United Auto Workers union in 1941 finally admitted collective bargaining at some Ford plants, but it was not until Henry Ford and Harry Bennett left the company for good in 1945 that it would fully unionize.
On January 1, 1919, Henry Ford turned the presidency of Ford Motor Company over to his son Edsel, although still maintaining a firm hand in its management—few company decisions under Edsel's presidency were made without being approved by Henry, and those few that were, Henry often reversed. Also at this time, Henry and Edsel purchased all remaining stock from other investors, thus becoming sole owners of the company. This began a period of decline for Ford Motor Company, since the stock buyout caused them to borrow heavily just before the postwar recession hit the country.
By the mid 1920s, sales of the Model T began to decline, in part because of the rise of consumer credit. Other auto makers offered payment plans through which consumers could buy their cars, which usually included more modern mechanical features and styling not available with the Model T. Despite urgings from his son Edsel, the company president, Henry Ford steadfastly refused to incorporate new features into the Model T or to form a customer credit plan (the former to keep prices low and affordable, the latter because he believed such plans were bad for the economy).
The Model A and later
By 1926, flagging sales of the Model T convinced Henry Ford of what Edsel had been suggesting for some time: a new model was necessary. The elder Ford pursued the project with a great deal of technical expertise in design of the engine, chassis and other mechanical necessities, while leaving it to his son to develop the body design. Edsel also managed to prevail over his father's initial objections in the inclusion of a hydraulic brake system and sliding-shift transmission. The result was the highly successful Ford Model A, introduced December, 1927 and produced through 1931, with a total output of over four million automobiles.
Henry Ford long had an interest in plastics developed from agricultural products, especially soybeans. Soybean-based plastics were used in Ford automobiles throughout the 1930s in plastic parts such as car horns, in paint, etc. This project culminated in 1942, when on January 13 Ford patented an automobile made almost entirely of plastic, attached to a tubular welded frame. It weighed 30% less than a standard car of the same size, and was said to be able to withstand blows ten times greater than could steel. The design never caught on.
On May 26, 1943, Edsel Ford died, leaving a vacancy in the company presidency. Henry Ford advocated the spot be taken by Harry Bennett. Edsel's widow Eleanor, who had inherited Edsel's voting stock, wanted her son Henry Ford II to take over the position. The issue was settled for a period when Henry himself, at the age of 79, took over the presidency personally. The company saw hard times during the next two years, losing $10 million a month. President Roosevelt considered a federal bailout for Ford Motor Company so that wartime production could continue.
The Dearborn Independent
Henry Ford devoted much of his semi-retirement from Ford Motors to the publication of a newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, which he purchased in 1919. The paper ran for around eight years, during which it introduced to the United States a work (not written by Ford himself) called "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion," which has since been discredited by virtually all historians as a forgery. The American Jewish Historical Society describes his ideas during this period as "anti-immigrant, anti-labor, anti-liquor and anti-Semitic".
Ford also published, in his name, several anti-Jewish articles for the Independent which were released in the early 1920s as a set of four bound volumes, cumulatively titled "The International Jew, the World's Foremost Problem." Denounced by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the articles nevertheless explicitly condemned pogroms and violence against Jews (Volume 4, Chapter 80), preferring rather to blame incidents of mass violence on the Jews themselves. These articles were written by several authors, including Ford's personal secretary of 34 years, Ernest Liebold. None were actually penned by Ford, though since he was the paper's publisher they required his tacit approval.
Ford closed the Dearborn Independent in December 1927 and later retracted the International Jew and the Protocols. On January 7, 1942, Henry Ford wrote a public letter to the ADL denouncing hatred against the Jews and expressing his hope that anti-Jewish hatred would cease for all time. Some claim that Ford neither wrote or signed this letter and have called the sincerity of his apology into question. His writings continue to be used as propaganda by various groups, often appearing on anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi websites.
Henry Ford, center, is awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle by Nazi diplomats.
(Fair use of AP photo.)
Henry Ford and Nazism
There is some evidence that Henry Ford gave Adolf Hitler financial backing when Hitler was first starting out in politics. This can in part be traced to statements from Kurt Ludecke, Germany's representative to the U.S. in the 1920s, and Winifred Wagner, daughter-in-law of Richard Wagner, who said they requested funds from Ford to aid the National Socialist movement in Germany. However, a 1933 Congressional investigation into the matter was unable to substantiate one way or the other that funding was actually sent.
The Ford Motor Company was active in Germany's military buildup prior to World War II. In 1938, for instance, it opened an assembly plant in Berlin whose purpose was to supply trucks to the Wehrmacht. In July of that year, Ford was awarded (and accepted) the Grand Cross of the Order of the German Eagle (Großkreuz des Deutschen Adlerordens). Ford was the first American and the fourth person given this award, at the time Nazi Germany's highest honorary award given to foreigners. Earlier the same year, Benito Mussolini had been decorated with the Grand Cross. The decoration was given "in recognition of [Ford's] pioneering in making motor cars available for the masses." The award was accompanied by a personal congratulatory message from Adolf Hitler. [Detroit News, July 31, 1938.]
The Ford Foundation
Henry Ford, with his son Edsel, founded the Ford Foundation in 1936 as a local philanthropy in the state of Michigan with a broad charter to promote human welfare. The Foundation has grown immensely and by 1950 had become national and international in scope.
The final days
At the end of the war, the elder Henry, in ill health, ceded the presidency to his grandson on September 21, 1945 and went into retirement. He passed away at the age of 83 at Fair Lane, his estate in Dearborn, and is buried at the Ford Cemetery in Detroit.
see also: William Mayo