Article abstract: Combining ruthlessness with concern for the average worker, Ford revolutionized the early automobile industry by creating a low-priced car, the Model T, through the now famous assembly-line method. He also created the Ford Foundation, a nationwide philanthropy.
Using money that belonged to his wife Mary (née Litogot), William Ford, an Irish immigrant, bought a farm in Springwells township, near Dearborn, Michigan, and on July 30, 1863, Henry Ford was born there. In those years, the nation was divided by civil war: Abraham Lincoln was president of the twenty-four states of the Union, while Jefferson Davis was president of the eleven states of the Confederacy. Although content as a boy on the prosperous family farm, Henry did not want to spend his life as a farmer, and his independence and mechanical skills steered him in other directions. His interest in machines began early. He was never an inventor but rather someone who loved to tinker with anything that had moving parts. He would disassemble anything in the home to find out how it worked and then put it back together. At thirteen, Henry repaired his first watch, and he became obsessed with watch repair, fixing more than three hundred without ever charging a fee. Once he took a shingle nail and sharpened it on a grindstone to create a screwdriver. Then he made a pair of tweezers from one of his mother’s discarded corset stays. With these homemade tools, he took a watch apart, discovered the problem, and fixed it. Throughout his life he enjoyed repairing watches, and even as president of Ford Motor Company he delighted in repairing the watches of his visitors.
Henry had little use for school and learned almost nothing there except for the epigrams found in McGuffey’s readers. He never learned to spell, to write a formed hand, to read freely, or to express himself well in the simplest written sentence. Throughout his life, Ford rarely took notes, kept no diary, and refrained from most writing.
In 1876, the Ford family was shocked by the death of Henry’s mother, Mary Ford, at thirty-seven, a few days after giving birth to a stillborn child. The same year, however, also brought something magical to Henry: He saw his first self-propelled machine. While he and his father rode to Detroit on the farm wagon, Henry noticed ahead of them a machine with a portable engine and boiler mounted on wheels with a water tank. This huge iron monster could be operated by one man who stood on a platform behind the boiler, shoveled coal, operated the throttle, and steered.
In 1879, at the age of sixteen, Henry quit school, helped his father bring in the summer harvest, and moved to Detroit. In Detroit he lived with his aunt, Rebecca Ford Flaherty, whose daughter Jane had been a surrogate mother to the Dearborn Fords since the death of Mary Ford.
Henry began work at the James Flower and Brothers Machine Shop, not far from his aunt’s house. The machine shop was a perfect environment for the young Henry, since the Flower brothers manufactured everything in the line of brass and iron—globe and gate valves, gongs, steam whistles, fire hydrants, valves for water pipes, and the huge machinery for Detroit’s first waterworks. The shop also had a variety of machines to make and repair what was sold.
The machine shop paid $2.50 a week. Henry returned to his partiality for working on watches and made fifty cents a night working for a jeweler who hid him from customers so that they would not know how young the person was who repaired the watches. Thus, Henry had managed to combine his two main interests, and he dreamed of the future.
In 1880, in the following fall, Henry returned home to help his father with the harvest. Although he disliked the farm work, early in life he learned the values of hard work and responsibility. When he returned to Detroit late in the same year, he began working for the Detroit Drydock, where he came in contact for the first time with the internal-combustion engine. Henry stayed at the shipbuilding firm until 1882, when he was hired by Westinghouse to service steam engines. During the next few summers, he traveled all over Michigan servicing the Westinghouse engine, a machine that could be used for threshing or sawing wood. During this period, Henry’s dream of a vehicle moving under its own power began to take shape.
In winter, when the roads were snowed in, he experimented in a shop he set up on the farm. After several winters, he created a small “farm locomotive,” a pioneer tractor that had an old mowing engine for its chassis and a homemade steam engine. Later, Ford realized that the steam engine was too dangerous for an automobile.
On April 11, 1888, Ford married Clara J. Bryant, who remained his wife throughout his life. In 1891 the couple moved to Detroit, and two years later Ford was made chief engineer of the Edison Illuminating Company. On November 6, 1893, the Fords’ only child, Edsel Bryant, was born. Ford now had the responsibility of a family to add to his dreams for the future.
In 1895, Ford, by then a chief engineer at Edison, attended a banquet at which Thomas Alva Edison himself was present. Ford told him about his work and the dream of the automobile and asked the nearly deaf Edison if he thought there was a future in the internal-combustion machine. Edison replied, “Yes, there is a big future for any light-weight engine that can develop a high horsepower and is self-contained. . . . Keep on with your engine. If you can get what you are after, I can see a great future.” Ford’s morale skyrocketed and the “Wizard of Menlo Park” became his idol. Later, Ford and Edison would become good friends.
On a spring night in 1896, Ford completed his first car. Mounted on bicycle wheels, the automobile was too big to get out the door, so an excited Ford took an ax and knocked down a wall. At four o’clock in the morning, Ford made a test run around the block. His wife and the baby, Edsel, joined him; the Ford motor car was born.
In 1899, Ford began to organize the Detroit Automobile Company with a number of associates. Disagreements broke out among the backers, and Ford was forced to resign. After this initial debacle, Ford turned to building racing cars, a decision which apparently contradicted his belief in the primacy of two things: mechanical perfection and the common man. Building a race car may have served his search for mechanical perfection, but it had nothing to do with providing the common man with a car. Or did it?
Ford gained fame in 1901 when the “999,” driven by Barney Oldfield, broke all records over a three-mile course. Ford’s name became a household word, and a Detroit coal dealer named Alex...
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