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A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries
photo Henry Ford
1863-1947

Henry Ford's parents left Ireland during the potato famine and settled in the Detroit area in the 1840s. Ford was born in what is now Dearborn, Michigan. His formal education was limited, but even as a youngster, he was handy with machinery. He worked for the Detroit Edison company, advancing from machine-shop apprentice to chief engineer. In 1893, Ford built a gasoline engine, and within a few years, an automobile, still a novelty item of the rich or do-it-yourself engineers.

In 1899 Ford left Edison to help run the Detroit Automobile Company. Cars were still built essentially one at a time. Ford hoped to incorporate ideas from other industries -- standardized parts as Eli Whitney had used with gun manufacturing, or assembly line methods George Eastman tried in photo processing -- to make the process more efficient. This idea struck others in his field as nutty, so before long, Ford quit Detroit Automobile Company and began to build his own racing cars. They were good enough to attract backers and even partners, and in 1903, he set up the Ford Motor Company.

He still met resistance to his ideas for mass production of a car the average worker could afford. But he stuck to his goal and finally in 1908, began production of the Model T. Ford gradually adapted the production line until in 1913, his plant incorporated the first moving assembly line. Demand for the affordable car soared even as production went up: before Ford stopped making the model T in 1927, 15 million had been sold, and Ford had become the leading auto manufacturer in the country. In addition to the moving assembly line, Ford revolutionized the auto industry by increasing the pay and decreasing the hours of his employees, ensuring he could get enough and the best workers. During the Model T era, Ford bought out his shareholders so he had complete financial control of the now vast corporation. He continued to innovate, but competitors (growing more powerful though fewer in number) began to cut into Ford's market share.

Ford became interested in politics and as a successful and powerful business leader, was sometimes a participant in political affairs. In 1915, he funded a trip to Europe, where World War I was raging. He and about 170 others went -- without government support or approval -- to seek peace. The war lasted another three years. After the war Ford ran unsuccessfully for the Senate on the Democratic ticket. He never ran again, but was always outspoken on political subjects. He violently opposed labor organizations and actively worked against the United Auto Workers trying to unionize his plants. His criticism of Jews and a certain tolerance of German nationalism during World War II have left him with the reputation of an antisemite.

Ford and his family spent a good deal of time and money on charitable work. They set up an historical museum in Greenfield Village, Michigan, and most notably set up the Ford Foundation, which provides grants for research, education, and development.

"A bore is a fellow who opens his mouth and puts his feats in it."




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