Innovator, Industrialist, Outdoorsman: Henry Ford Started It All

While always a dutiful contributor to the family farm, Henry's earliest exposure to his real passion—machinery and mechanics—came from visits to town with his father, where he saw some of the earliest technology of machines, engines and mills.

Henry Ford’s Beginnings

Born in Wayne County, Michigan, in an area that later became Dearborn, on July 30, 1863, Henry Ford was the oldest of six children. Although he chose to leave the family farm and pursue his own interests, Henry never strayed far from his roots.

In April 1888, Ford married Clara Bryant, a local girl and the foster child of—like Henry—Irish immigrant farmers. Success soon came to him as he took a position in 1891 as an engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company and fairly quickly climbed the ranks. Greater financial security along with more freedom to explore his own experiments came with his promotion to chief engineer in 1893—the same year his only child, Edsel, was born.

Although he had established a solid career with good prospects at Edison Illuminating, Ford was restless and ready to venture into the field of automotive engineering, in which he had long been experimenting. He had confidence enough in his ideas that he believed he could continue to support his family on them—and of course eventually, he proved right.

Driven by His Imagination

With his love for the outdoors and rural values, Ford might easily have remained in agriculture, but something even stronger pulled at Ford's imagination: mechanics, machinery, understanding how things worked and what new possibilities lay in store.

As a young boy, Ford took apart everything he got his hands on; he became known around the neighborhood for fixing people's watches. As he grew up, he explored every mechanical opportunity he could find, learning to fix steam engines and run mill operations. In the 1890s, he focused particularly on internal combustion engines.

Edison’s Encouragement

"Young man, that's the thing! You have it—the self-contained unit carrying its own fuel with it! Keep at it!" These early words of encouragement came from Thomas Edison, who was to become one of Henry Ford's closest friends. At their first meeting at a convention in 1896, Ford was still an unknown. But the enthusiasm of the famous and widely respected Edison surely fueled Ford's drive.

The friendship between Henry Ford and scientist and inventor Thomas Edison, which spanned more than 30 years, is almost legendary. From their earliest meetings, they encouraged and inspired one another, often contributing to each other's work.

In Edison, Ford found a sympathetic mind and true friendship that transcended the boundaries of mere celebrity or fame. The first publicly released '28 Model A Ford may have gone to the movie stars, but the first one ever produced went to Edison.

Difficult Beginnings

Henry Ford called his first vehicle the Quadricycle. It attracted enough financial backing for Ford to leave his engineer position at Edison Illuminating and help found the Detroit Automobile Company in 1899. The company faltered for a variety of reasons, and in 1901 Ford left to pursue his own work again. Later that year, the Henry Ford Company was born, but Henry Ford himself stayed with it only a few months. He left in early 1902 to devote more time to refining his vehicles.

Henry Ford spent much of the next year or so working on his racing cars and winning some high-profile races with them. The record setting attracted serious financial backing, along with smart business partners such as James Couzens, the company's first business manager. Couzens’s business acumen complemented Ford's mechanical talents, and in the early years he was largely responsible for important moves the company made in advertising, customer relations, dealer franchises and more.

Within a few months of the June 16, 1903 founding of Ford Motor Company, the first Ford, a Model A, was being sold in Detroit. Although there were 87 other car companies in the United States, it soon became clear that Henry Ford's vision for the automotive industry was going to work.

Bringing Cars to the Common Man

What made Henry Ford successful where others had failed (or succeeded on a much smaller scale)? It wasn't just his vehicles, excellent as they were—it was his unique understanding of the potential of those vehicles to transform society.

Before Ford, cars were luxury items, and most of his early competitors continued to view them that way, manufacturing and marketing their vehicles for the wealthy. Ford's great stroke of genius was recognizing that with the right techniques, cars could be made affordable for the general public—and that the general public would want them. Ford focused on making the manufacturing process more efficient so he could produce more cars and charge less for each.

Innovating a New Future

Some of Ford's greatest innovations came not in the cars themselves but in the processes for creating them, like his 1914 introduction of a moving conveyor belt at the Highland Park plant, which dramatically increased production. Starting construction on the Rouge plant in 1917 was the first step toward Ford's dream of an all-in-one manufacturing complex, where the processing of raw materials, parts and final automobiles could happen efficiently in a single place.

Ford was also unique in recognizing that his business was about more than just cars; it was about transportation, mobility, changing lifestyles. He anticipated the ripple effect from mass production to create more jobs that let more people afford the cost-effective cars he produced.

Ford pushed for more gas stations and campaigned for better roads, understanding conditions necessary for his product to make its mark. And his far-reaching vision opened his eyes to the global market, making Ford Motor Company an international enterprise far earlier than any of its competitors. At the height of Henry Ford's fame and business power, his company operated or sold in more than 30 countries around the world, including such far-reaching places as Indonesia, China, Brazil and Egypt, as well as much of Europe.

Providing Opportunities for a Better Society

Henry Ford's personal motto of "Help the Other Fellow" spilled over into his management style; he recognized that policies generous to his employees would result in happier workers and a better product. He claimed, however, not to believe in conventional charity; rather he preferred to provide opportunities for people to help themselves.

These are just some of the liberal innovations Ford implemented within his company:

  • The $5 workday, doubling the industry standard for a day's wages and bringing his hardworking employees closer to affording the cars they built. Ford considered it a way of sharing the company's profits with all those who had helped make those profits possible.
  • Employment policies that created opportunities for the physically and mentally handicapped and even ex-convicts.
  • A variety of educational facilities at the workplace, starting with the English Language School at the Highland Park plant in 1914, when he realized his largely immigrant workforce needed language skills and assistance.

A Fascinating Personality

As Ford Motor Company's public image developed, much of it began to focus on the personality of the company's charismatic leader. Ford made a fascinating subject for a variety of reasons. He wasn't a "behind-the-scenes" kind of executive; rather, he stayed actively involved in company operations and was frequently on hand at milestone events. He had a forceful, outspoken personality that often expressed itself in highly quotable remarks. Moreover, his wide-ranging interests led him to explore a variety of fields—aviation, film, politics (including a run for the U.S. Senate)—that led to associations with other celebrities and people of note.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that Ford's celebrity associations involved just smiling for the camera with the latest movie stars. The list of dignitaries and personalities with whom he exchanged letters is long and impressive. Moreover, Ford had meaningful relationships with many luminaries of his time. He shared an interest in agricultural experimentation with African American educator and agriculturalist George Washington Carver. He communicated with aviation pioneers such as Wilbur and Orville Wright and Charles Lindbergh, who were consultants to the company's aviation division. America's leaders relied on Ford Motor Company's wartime production, and Ford himself was well-acquainted with several U.S. presidents.

Life Beyond the Automobile

Cars were always central to Henry Ford's life: He built them, he raced them, he sold them. But there was so much more to the man than his automobiles. He was a man of many interests and had a highly developed sense of curiosity; he never stopped exploring new fields and learning about new subjects.

In many ways, for many years, Ford Motor Company was inseparable from the man who founded it, and Henry Ford's constant exploration of new areas and opportunities led the company into a variety of pursuits beyond just automobiles:

  • Ford always maintained strong ties to his rural upbringing and frequently looked for ways to support the work of farmers. In 1917, he and his son, Edsel, founded the Fordson ("Ford" and his "son") division to manufacture tractors that, like the Model T, would be lightweight and inexpensive.
  • Ford Motor Company's Motion Picture Department was established in 1914 with a staff of 24 that traveled worldwide producing promotional and educational short films. In the 1920s, the company was the world's largest producer of motion pictures—more than Hollywood or the New York studios! In that same period, half of all rural Americans saw a Ford film as their first motion picture ever.

Ford's fondness for small-town American life and culture is most comprehensively recorded in the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village (now part of what is called "The Henry Ford"), which together form the largest museum in the country. In 1929, Ford founded The Edison Institute, a combination school and museum to allow for education through the studying of artifacts and cultural history, not just books. As he collected pieces of Americana, historic buildings, and more, this project of Ford's evolved into the sprawling cultural complex that it is today. Company and tax records show that over his lifetime, Ford poured more than $10 million of his own money into it.

There was very little that Henry Ford didn't either dabble in or undertake seriously. He co-authored several books; he loved to dance and sparked a revival in old-fashioned American dancing and country fiddling; he participated actively in a variety of philanthropic ventures. What bound those interests together were curiosity and the will to learn.

A Business Leader

Henry Ford retired (for the first time) in 1919, when he handed over leadership of his company to his son, Edsel. Also In 1919, Henry, along with his wife and Edsel, acquired the stock of the company's minority shareholders for the astonishing (for 1919) sum of $105,820,894 and became the sole owners of Ford Motor Company—truly making it a family-owned business for the first time.

In 1943, after Edsel's death from cancer at age 49, Henry was persuaded to return as president of the company and showed remarkable energy for a man in his 80s—but many say he was never the same after the death of his beloved son.

On September 21, 1945, the Ford Motor Company board of directors was presented with a letter from Henry Ford, resigning as president of the company and recommending Henry Ford II, Edsel's eldest son and Henry's eldest grandson, as his successor. With that, Henry Ford permanently left behind the management of Ford Motor Company. He was 82 years old.

Henry Ford’s retirement found him as busy as ever, pursuing interests, accepting awards, satisfying his boundless curiosity. His last day was no different: He spent April 7, 1947, inspecting buildings and grounds around Dearborn that had been damaged by the worst floods in that area's history. The flood had cut off power to Ford's home, Fair Lane. He died in his bed that night by candlelight, in an odd re-creation of the electricity-free world into which he had been born.

An Immeasurable Legacy

The impact Henry Ford had on the world is almost immeasurable. His introduction of the automobile into the mass market transformed agricultural economies in the United States and even around the world into prosperous industrial and urban ones. Many historians credit him with creating a middle class in America. His mass production techniques provided work that many people (even the less educated) could do, and he paid them well for doing it. His high minimum wages were revolutionary at the time, but these "profit-sharing" programs set a precedent for fair distribution of company wealth that greatly influenced later management practices.

And of course, there were the cars themselves. Henry Ford's curiosity and enterprising nature were directly responsible for a long list of automotive innovations, many of which we take for granted today, from the V-8 engine to safety glass.

As an outdoorsman, Henry Ford was deeply conscious of the impact his industry had on the delicate natural world. He implemented practices that were progressive for his time—replacing wood with steel to conserve forests, using lighter materials to increase fuel efficiency, even prohibiting the use of crowbars to open wooden crates so as not to damage the potentially reusable lumber.