Just about everyone in the world has heard of the Ford name. Their cars are some of the most famous in the world, from race cars to mini vans and everything in between. But how much do you know about Henry Ford, his legacy, and his influence on the world as we know it? As the founder of the Ford Motor Company and basically the father of the assembly line, Henry Ford changed the way that many things were made in factories throughout the world. His inventions and vision as well as business smarts paved the way for many business owners throughout the 20th century.
Born on July 30, 1863, Ford’s family ran a farm in Greenfield near Detroit, Michigan. He was always a very inquisitive child, and when his father gave him a pocket watch in his early teens, it wasn’t long before he had taken it apart and reassembled it – along with the watches of several friends and family members. When Henry’s mother passed away in 1876, he began to realize that he would not stay on and run the family farm as his father wanted him to. So, in 1879, he left to work as an apprentice machinist in Detroit. After three years, he returned home to work on the farm for awhile and became an expert at operating the Westinghouse portable steam engine and was soon hired by Westinghouse to work on their engines. After taking a position as an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company, it wasn’t long before he rose to the Chief Engineer position where he finally had enough time and money to concentrate on his own personal experiments on gasoline powered engines. In 1896, he successfully created a self-propelled vehicle which he called the Ford Quadricycle. After a few test drives, he refined his new invention.
From here, he developed a passion for these gasoline powered vehicles, and after being encouraged by Thomas Edison, he founded the Detroit Automobile Company. The problem was that the automobiles that were produced were too high priced and lower quality than Ford wanted. He let the company dissolve in 1901. With the help of C. Harold Wills, he developed and raced a 26-horsepower automobile in 1901 and with this successful venture, he gained the backing of several stockholders to create the Henry Ford Company on November 30, 1901. After a new consultant was brought in that Ford disagreed with, he left and the company was renamed the Cadillac Automobile Company. After another odd car company fell through with the help of the Dodge brothers, Ford finally found another set of investors that would see through with his ideals. With the help of the Dodge brothers, Ford created the Ford Motor Company on June 16, 1903.
The Ford Motor Company was one of the very first to offer a $5 per day wage to workers, which more than doubled his workforce. He then was able to build a gigantic factory that would take in raw materials and then ship out the finished automobiles, such as the Model T in October 1, 1908. Ford ensured that the Model T was priced cheap enough, and continued to drop the price, so that almost every driver in America had to learn to drive the Model T.
When the automobiles that Ford was designing and building really began to take off, he developed an interest in auto racing and began to get involved in the sport, both as a driver and car builder. Of course, he later turned the wheel over to more seasoned, hired drivers. Although he fully supported the Indianapolis 500 and participated in many different races, he began to get disillusioned with the constantly changing rules of racing and finally dropped out altogether. Even though he left racing, he still made an extreme impact on the racing world as a whole and he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1996.
Of course, Ford’s interests in materials science and engineering only aided in making both the first automobiles as well as continuing to make them better constantly. He was extremely proud of the company’s adoption of vanadium steel alloys as well as the subsequent metallurgic R&D work. He also had a huge interest in plastics that were developed from different agricultural products, like soybeans. Due to this interest, he developed a personal friendship with George Washington Carver. Ford had soybean-based parts throughout his automobiles in the ’30s as well as patenting an automobile that was made just about entirely out of plastic that was on a tubular welded frame in 1942. This one car weighed 30% less than a steel car and could withstand blows ten times greater than normal steel, plus it ran on ethanol instead of gas. But, unfortunately for everyone today, the design never caught on.
On top of his obvious contributions to the automobile industry, he helped to make huge advances in engineering woods, such as particle board, helped to develop corn as a fuel source, such as ethanol, and helped develop potential uses for cotton. Henry Ford also paved the way for millions of people grill their food by being an instrumental in developing charcoal briquettes, under the brand Kingsford. On top of all of these contributions to both the automobile industry and more, he also made contributions to sociology with studies, inspirational references and writings. His inventions touched, and continues to touch millions of people, all around the world and shape the way that both fuels and the way that we travel.