- Engineering & Materials
- Ford, Henry (1863–1947)
Ford, Henry (1863–1947)
U.S. automotive engineer and industrialist who, in the early 20th century, revolutionized the auto industry and manufacturing methods generally. His production of the Model-T popularized the car as a means of transport and made a considerable social and economic impact on society. His introduction of the assembly line (bringing components to the workers, rather than vice versa) gave impetus to the lagging Industrial Revolution.
Ford was born in Springwells, Michigan, on July 30, 1863. He attended rural schools and soon displayed a mechanical and inventive skill. Moving to Detroit at the age of 16, he obtained a job as a machinist's apprentice. During the next few years he worked for several different companies, and repaired watches and clocks in his spare time. After his apprenticeship Ford worked on the maintenance and repair of Westinghouse steam engines. In 1891 he was appointed chief engineer to the Edison Illuminating Company.
In about 1893 he constructed a one-cylinder gasoline (gasoline) engine and went on to build his first car in 1896. Three years later he resigned from Edison's and joined the Detroit Automobile Company. He left there in March 1902 and, with some financial backing, formed the Ford Motor Company on June 16, 1903.
The first Ford car sold almost as soon as it was produced; further orders came in, and production rose rapidly. In 1906, because of a disagreement with his business associates (the Dodge brothers), Ford became the majority stockholder and president of the company, and by 1919 he and his immediate family held complete control of it.
Despite his success with the car, Ford's nonindustrial activities met with little success. An expedition to Europe he organized in December 1915 aimed at ending World War I, proved to be a fiasco. His attempt to run as a democrat for a Senate seat in Michigan and subsequent defeat left him bitter about alleged irregularities in his opponent's campaign.
However, other of his activities have brought him a great deal of credit as a benefactor. He created Greenfield Village as a monument to the simple rural world—a world that his automobiles had done so much to destroy. In it, he reconstructed the physical surroundings and the crafts of an earlier era. Near the village is the Henry Ford Museum containing his fine collection of antiques. Ford also restored the Wayside Inn of Longfellow's poem, and his important collection of early motion pictures were donated to the National Archives. He endowed the Ford Foundation, established in 1936, as a private, nonprofitmaking corporation “to receive and adminster funds for scientific, educational, and charitable purposes.” Ford finally gave up the presidency of his company in 1945. He died in Dearborn on April 7, 1947.
Cars were in their infancy when Henry Ford produced his first automobile in 1896 and decided to make his reputation in the field of racing cars. His determination to do this led him to leave the Detroit Automobile Company and to work on his own. In a memorable race at Grosse Point, Michigan, in October 1901, his victory brought him the publicity he sought. Barney Oldfield, also driving a Ford racer, added to Ford's reputation and in 1904 Ford himself drove his “999” to set a world record of 39.4 sec for 1 mi/1.6 km over the ice on Lake St. Clair in January 1904.
The success of Ford's family cars was immediate. From the low-priced Model-N he went on to produce the Model-T, which first appeared in 1908. Over 19 years, 15 million were sold, and the car is regarded as having changed the pattern of life in the United States. It was one of the first cars to be made using assembly-line methods, and Henry Ford's name became a household word the world over.
The car itself was a sturdy black vehicle with a 4-cylinder 20 hp engine with magnetic ignition. A planetary transmission eliminated the gear-shift (and the danger of stripping the gears). “Splash” lubrication was used and vanadium steel, of high tensile strength but easy to machine, was employed in many of the car's parts. Ford himself was responsible for the overall concept, and many of the basic ideas embodied in the construction of the Model-T were his own. In 1914 Ford became the first employer of mass labor to pay $5 a day minimum wage to all his employees who met certain basic requirements.
Dictatorial in his attitude, he later dismissed many key individuals who had helped to build the company's early success. He relinquished presidency of the company in 1909 to his son Edsel but strongly resisted changes in production despite an increasing loss of the market to up-and-coming competitors like the General Motors Corporation and Chrysler. Eventually, Ford acknowledged the inroads the newcomers were making on his Model-T. Characteristically, he set out to beat them with a new design, and in January 1928 he produced the Model-A.
The new car was the first to have safety glass in its windshield as standard equipment. It was available in four colors and 17 body styles. Four-wheel brakes and hydraulic shock absorbers were incorporated in the car and it became a worthy successor to the Model-T. But Ford's previously undisputed leadership in the industry was not restored. Even the introduction of the V-8 engine—an engineering innovation at the time—did not halt the steady deterioration of Ford's share of the market.
When Edsel Ford died in 1943. Henry Ford resumed presidency of the company but in 1945 he surrendered it, for the last time, to his grandson and namesake, Henry Ford II.
From the Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography, © RM, 2020. All rights reserved. Published under license in AccessScience, © McGraw-Hill Education, 2000–2020. Helicon Publishing is a division of RM.