In 1863, at the height of the American Civil War, automotive engineer and industrialist Henry Ford was born on a farm in rural Michigan. The eldest of five children to parents who were both first generation immigrants, Henry was expected to take over the family farm from his father, but at a young age developed an interest in engineering after being given a pocket watch for his birthday. By the age of 15, he had constructed his own steam engine, and a year later left home for Detroit to work as an apprentice machinist. Over the next two decades, Ford made a name for himself as an industrious and creative designer and was promoted to Chief Engineer for Thomas Edison’s Illuminating Company in 1893. But his passion was for engines, and during this time Ford used his skills to design and build automobiles. Early attempts at creating a car company were met with failure, and it was not until 1903 that Henry created the Ford Motor Company and finally sold his first car in July.
By 1920, cars built by Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company made up roughly fifty-percent of the over nine-million vehicles on the road in the United States, and thirty-three percent of these were owned by farmers. Ford never forgot his roots on the farm, and the simplicity and affordability of his cars was designed with the farmer in mind. In fact, his affinity for the farm and the earth never left his mind. In 1919, Ford wrote “We are going back to this ideal of the land someday. Both as an economic measure and a plan whereby each man may get the most pleasure and profit out of life, all of us are going to be proud to be known as tillers of the land.”
While Ford Motor Company saw some success with early cars like the Model N, the Model R, and the Model S, the company’s dominance came with the simplicity of the Model T. Henry Ford’s goal was to build a lightweight yet durable automobile that would also be sold at an affordable price, and the Model T was designed specifically with those parameters in mind.
In addition to the innovation Henry Ford brought to the automobile itself, he also implemented changes that would reshape American manufacturing as a whole. While the first Model T’s sold for $850 in 1908, through Ford’s production line innovations he was able to bring the cost down to $575 by 1914. Ford had built the massive Highland Park Michigan factory in 1910 with the help of architect Albert Kahn, and it contained all aspects of manufacturing within its walls. He implemented a moving assembly line and broke all manufacturing processes down into simple tasks, and by 1914 had increased Model T production to nearly two-hundred and fifty thousand cars, up from just the ten-thousand of 1908.
That same year, Ford declared that he would double the pay of his employees to five dollars a day. Writers of the time couldn’t understand how or why Ford was doing this and labeled it a mistake. One possible reason was incentive, as employee turnover was high and the company had to hire 53,000 workers every year to ensure that the 14,000 positions needed were constantly filled. However, Daniel M.G. Raff of Harvard Business School argues that because of the unique production methods Ford used in his factories, the company was particularly vulnerable to worker’s strikes, and the high compensation was implemented to get ahead of the unions. Regardless of the reasons for doing so, Ford’s profit-sharing and five-dollar wage implementation did reduce turnover and increase production overall.
Henry Ford’s unique business mind had its downsides, however. Wanting full control, he bought out Ford Motor Company’s investors in 1919. However, as more luxurious car models from Chevrolet became popular, he stuck to the simplicity of the Model T past the car’s shelf life in the automobile market. In 1927, amidst declining sales numbers, he finally began producing the new Model A.
But Ford’s dominance of the automobile industry was over. General Motors and Chrysler had managed to catch up, and the Great Depression and pressure from the United Auto Workers Union had a great effect on his success. After World War II and the death of his son Edsel, he turned the company over to his grandson in 1945 and passed away two years later at the age of 83.
Henry Ford’s impact on the manufacturing industry is immense, as both his assembly line innovations and contribution to employee wage structure became the model for American business. His influence on the way of life for Americans was also tremendous, as the Model T made travel faster and less expensive, contributing to the growth of cities and the rise of the suburbs. He stands as an example of the American Dream, a hard working soul with roots in the earth, utilizing the rich resources and spirit of the country to find success and share it with others.
This essay was composed to fulfill requirements for a graduate level History course.
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