An absorbing life story of a farm boy who rose from obscurity to become the most influential American innovator of the 20th century, Henry Ford offers an incisive look at the birth of the American auto industry with its long history of struggles between labor and management, and a thought-provoking reminder of how Ford's automobile forever changed the way we work, where we live, and our ideas about individuality, freedom, and possibility.
Through his own fierce determination, Ford created the Model T, the most successful car in history, and introduced the groundbreaking $5-a-day wage, ushering in the modern world as we know it. But despite his success, Ford remained restless and driven, always seeking to control what lay just beyond his grasp. While creating a more urban, industrial age, Ford simultaneously longed for the simpler era he had helped destroy. One of the nation's richest men, he despised the wealthy and blamed Jews for what he deemed society's degeneration. A hero to many ordinary Americans, he battled his workers and bullied those who looked up to him -- including, and most tragically, his only son.
Henry Ford was born on a Michigan farm in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War. A natural-born tinkerer who loved machines, he hated the drudgery of rural life, setting out as a 16-year-old to pursue his dreams in Detroit. Ford worked long hours in one shop after another, forging a career as an expert machinist. But Ford's passion lay elsewhere -- building a horseless carriage became his off-hours obsession. With his gas-powered vehicle he named the "quadricycle," he attracted the attention of investors and started his first company in 1899. Unlike most carmakers at the dawn of the industry who saw the automobile as a plaything for the rich, Ford believed he could build an affordable vehicle for working people. His vision ran counter to that of his backers and they pulled the plug on his company. Ford's lifelong hatred for the wealthy was born.
Ambitious and driven, Ford was undaunted. He set out to make a name for himself in the new and dangerous sport of racecar driving. After a series of highly publicized victories, he was able to raise the money to incorporate the Ford Motor Company in 1903. Every several months, Ford introduced a new model. With Ford as their leader, the team experimented with innovative designs for igniting the engine and for a more flexible suspension system, and made use of steel that was lighter but tougher.
Finally, in October 1908, Henry Ford introduced his revolutionary Model T. Lightweight, durable and fast, the Model T could reach speeds of roughly 40 miles per hour, and at a time when the average car cost more than $2,000, the first Model T cost only $850. The response from the public was immediate and overwhelmingly positive.
With the unprecedented success of the Model T, Ford declared he would soon be producing 1,000 cars a day. Partly inspired by the meatpacking industry, Ford Motor adopted an assembly line method. Under the old system, the record time for building a Model T had been over 12 hours. Using the assembly line process, it took an hour and 33 minutes. By the fall of 1913, Ford had established the first automobile assembly line in the world and controlled nearly half of the American car market.
But there was a downside to Ford's new production process. Many workers found it so monotonous and physically exhausting, they quit after just a few days. Company managers calculated that every time they wanted to add 100 men to the rolls, they had to hire nearly 1,000. Desperate to retain his workforce, Ford responded with a revolutionary plan that would stun his employees and infuriate his rivals. In January 1914, he announced his company would double his workers' pay from $2.34 for a nine-hour day to $5 for just eight. Not only would his higher pay reduce turnover, Ford predicted, it would also increase business and propel a new generation of American workers into a shared life of abundance, leisure, and prosperity. Ford's announcement turned him into an international sensation overnight.
With his newfound celebrity, Ford made clear that his ambitions extended well beyond car manufacturing. Insisting that self-discipline had been critical to his success -- he rose at dawn and exercised every day, didn't smoke, and never drank or allowed alcohol in his house -- he expected the same from everyone around him. As one close associate observed, "cars are but the by-products of his real business, which is the making of men." Ford designed the $5-a-day wage with strings attached. He required his immigrant workers, who represented dozens of nationalities, to attend the company's English language school and sent inspectors from his "Sociological Department" to probe into the most intimate corners of workers' lives. If a man failed inspection, he was given time to amend his ways and his additional wages were held for him. If he failed a second time, he was fired.
Although Ford was now one of the richest men in the world, his hatred for the wealthy elite only increased. Determined to rid himself of parasitic investors he had eschewed since early in his career, Ford carried out an elaborate plan to trick his stockholders and take full control of his company. With increased power, his ego expanded.
Battered by the press after his inarticulate performance on the stand during a libel trial he initiated against the Chicago Tribune in 1919, Ford became more certain of his allegiance to the common people of America -- shopkeepers, village leaders, farmers. He purchased The Dearborn Independent, his hometown weekly, to share his incendiary ideas about Jews, whom he vilified as the power behind Wall Street, banks, and the degeneration of society. He distributed the newspaper through his hundreds of dealerships to spread his vitriolic anti-Semitic articles nationwide. By 1926, circulation had reached 900,000.
Buying up hundreds of acres in Dearborn, where he and his wife Clara had settled, he set out to create what became one of the largest factories in the world, known as the River Rouge plant, a massive industrial complex that included 15 miles of roadways, 93 buildings, and consumed more water per day than Detroit, Cincinnati and New Orleans combined. No sooner was the Rouge plant complete than Ford began to hate it. He retreated into a world of nostalgia and created a monument to the past, a living museum he dubbed "Greenfield Village." Increasingly, Ford spent more time at the Village than overseeing his company, where a battle brewed between management and workers over unfair labor practices. Any lingering perceptions of Ford as a benevolent employer had vanished at the Rouge, which was run by Ford's thuggish and violent security chief, Harry Bennett.
Ford's all-encompassing desire for control was perhaps no more evident than in his relationship with his only son, Edsel. Although Ford made Edsel president of Ford Motor when his son was just 25, Henry never allowed Edsel to take the reins, undermining him at every turn. In the 1920s, when Edsel finally stood up to his father, insisting that the Model T needed to be replaced with a more modern car, Henry never forgave him. Henry's withering cruelty continued until Edsel died at 49 -- a death many blamed on the unrelenting stress of trying to please his father. Shattered by Edsel's death, Henry Ford spent his final years a broken man.
Henry Ford is part of The Titans collection.
My American Experience
The United States has seen its share of industrial titans. Which of them do you think had the greatest impact on our country and our world? Henry Ford? Andrew Carnegie? Rockefeller? Or perhaps you think it is someone else? Share your story.