Henry Ford (1863-1947) was an American industrialist and is best known for his pioneering achievements in the automobile industry. He was born on a farm near Dearborn, Michigan and educated in district schools. He became a machinist's apprentice in Detroit at the age of 16. From 1888 to 1899 he was a mechanical engineer, and later chief engineer, with the Edison Illuminating Company. In 1896, after experimenting for years on his own time, he completed the construction of his first automobile, the Quadricycle. In 1903, he founded the Ford Motor Company.
In 1913, Ford began using standardized interchangeable parts and assembly-line techniques in his plant. Although Ford did not invent the assembly line and was not the first to employ such practices, he was chiefly responsible for their general adoption. This lead to the great expansion of American industry and raised the American standard of living.
By early 1914, this innovation, although greatly increasing productivity, had resulted in a monthly labor turnover of 40 to 60 percent in his factory. This was largely due to the unpleasant monotony of assembly-line work and repeated increases in the production quotas assigned to workers. Ford met this difficulty by doubling the daily wage, raising it from about $2.50 to $5. This increased stability in his labor force and substantially reduced operating costs. These factors, coupled with the enormous increase in output made possible by new technological methods, led to an increase in company profits from $30 million in 1914 to $60 million in 1916.
In 1908, the Ford Company began production of the Model T. Until 1927, the company produced and sold about 15 million cars. Within a few years after 1908, however, Ford's dominance as the largest producer and seller of automobiles in the nation was gradually lost to his competitors. He was slow to adopt the practice of introducing a new model of automobile each year, which had become standard in the industry. During the 1930s, Ford adopted the policy of the yearly changeover, but his company was unable to regain the position it had formerly held.
In the period from 1937 to 1941, the Ford Company became the only major manufacturer of automobiles in the Detroit area that had not recognized any labor union as the collective bargaining representative of employees. At hearings before the National Labor Relations Board Ford was found guilty of repeated violations of the National Labor Relations Act. The findings against him were upheld on appeal to the federal courts. Ford was made to negotiate a standard labor contract after a successful strike by the workers at his main plant at River Rouge, Michigan, in 1941.
Early in 1941, Ford was granted government contracts to manufacture parts for bombers and then entire airplanes. He began construction on a huge plant at Willow Run, Michigan, where production began in 1942. Despite certain technical difficulties, by the end of World War II (1945) this plant had manufactured more than 8,000 planes.
Ford was active in several other fields besides automobile and airplane manufacturing. In 1915 he chartered a peace ship, which carried him and a number of like-minded individuals to Europe, where they attempted without success to persuade the hostile governments to end World War I. He was nominated for the office of U.S. Senator from Michigan in 1918 but was defeated in the election. In the following year, he erected the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit at a cost of $7.5 million and in 1919, he became the publisher of the Dearborn Independent, a weekly journal, which at first published anti-Semitic material. After considerable public protest, Ford directed that the publication of such articles be discontinued and that a public apology be made to the Jewish people.
Advancing age forced Ford to retire from the active direction of his gigantic enterprises in 1945. He died in 1947, in Dearborn. Ford left a personal fortune estimated at $500 to $700 million, bequeathing the largest share of his holdings in the Ford Motor Company to the Ford Foundation, a nonprofit organization.
"Ford, Henry," Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 99. © 1993-1998 Microsoft Corporation
Great Americans, Henry Ford, Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, 1973