Henry Ford | Biography of the Famous American Industrialist

Henry Ford was an American industrialist and business magnate who is most renowned for his contributions to the automobile industry. Born in a farming family, Ford showed his mechanical aptitude from an early age by repairing watches of family and friends. He became an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company in 1891 and in two years he rose to the position of chief engineer. By the end of the 19th century, he had quit his job and started working towards realizing his dream of creating an affordable automobile. In 1903, with the help of investors, Ford founded the Ford Motor Company. The famous Model T was introduced in 1908. It transformed the automobile industry and became the most popular car in the United States. Consequently Ford became one of the richest and best known businessmen in the nation. Know about the family, childhood, life, marriage, career and death of Henry Ford though his biography.

Family And Early Life

John Ford, the paternal grandfather of Henry, was born in Ballinascarthy, Ireland. He was forced to leave Ballinascarthy due to a famine and he ultimately settled his family on a farm in Dearborn, Michigan in the United States. In 1861, his son William Ford married Mary Litogot, daughter of Belgian immigrants. On July 30, 1863, Henry Ford was born on a farm in Greenfield Township, Michigan. He was the first surviving child of William and Mary Ford. They had lost their first son at birth in January 1862. William and Mary went on to have five more children: John, Margaret, Jane, William and Robert.

Henry Ford Parents
William Ford and Mary Litogot – Parents of Henry Ford

Henry was educated at a local one-room school for eight years. While he was in his teens, his father gave him a pocket watch. Henry was able to easily take it parts apart and reassemble them. Impressed by this feat, his friends and family often requested him to fix their watches and thus he soon gained the reputation of an expert watch repairman. In 1876, when Henry was in his early teens, his mother passed away leaving him devastated.

Henry Ford in 1883
Henry Ford in 1883

Henry’s father wanted him to eventually take over the family farm. However, Henry had little interest in the farm. He later said: “I never had any particular love for the farm – it was the mother on the farm I loved.” Thus at the age of 16, soon after his mother’s death, Henry left left home for the nearby city of Detroit. At Detroit, Henry found apprentice work as a machinist first with James F. Flower & Bros. and then with Detroit Dry Dock Co.

Marriage and Children

In 1882, Henry returned to Dearborn to work on the family farm for three years. During these three years, Ford became an expert at operating the Westinghouse portable steam engine. He continued to work occasional stints in Detroit factories. Moreover, he studied bookkeeping at Goldsmith, Bryant & Stratton Business College in Detroit.

Henry Ford and Clara Bryant Ford
Henry Ford with his wife Clara Bryant Ford

In 1885, Henry first met Clara Jane Bryant at a New Year’s dance in Michigan in 1885. Both Henry and Clara came from farm families and soon Henry started courting Clara. On April 11, 1888, the 24-year-old Henry Ford married Clara Jane Bryant on her 22nd birthday at her parent’s home in Greenfield Township, Michigan. 50 years later, Ford said that, “The greatest day of my life is when I married Mrs. Ford”. On November 6, 1893, the couple had their first and only child, a son named Edsel after Edsel Ruddiman, one of Henry’s closest childhood friends. Edsel Ford served as President of Ford Motor Company from 1919 till his death in 1943.

Early Career In The Automobile Industry

In 1891, Henry Ford secured the position of an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit. He found the job exciting as it gave him an opportunity to learn more about electricity. Ford quickly rose through the ranks in his new job and in two years he was appointed chief engineer of the Illuminating Company. Alongside this job, he also began working towards creating a gasoline-powered horseless carriage, or automobile. In 1896, at the age of 32, Ford completed his self-propelled vehicle, known as the Ford Quadricycle. Ford’s first car, the Quadricycle was a simple frame with an ethanol-powered engine and four bicycle wheels mounted on it.

The Ford Quadricycle
Henry Ford sits in the Ford Quadricycle, 1896

Subsequent tests and design tweaks, coupled with a successful meeting with Thomas Edison, encouraged Ford to design and build a second vehicle by 1898. This was also the year when Ford was awarded his first patent for a carburetor. Within the next year, Ford developed a third model car, raised money from investors and left the Edison Illuminating company to venture into entrepreneurship. Receiving backing from various investors, the Detroit Automobile Company (later the Henry Ford Company) was formed in 1899. Ford refused to put a car into production until he had perfected it. This made the investors impatient leading to Ford leaving the company in 1902.

Breakthrough With Model T

Henry Ford established the Ford Motor Company on June 16, 1903, with a capital of $28,000. Twelve investors invested in the company most notably John and Horace Dodge. Between 1903 and 1908, Ford produced the Models A, B, C, F, K, N, R, and S. On October 1, 1908, Ford introduced the Model T, which was an immediate success. Model T sported a unique design with the steering wheel on the left, which was soon picked up by every other car manufacturer. In addition to this, the car was smooth in functioning, easy to drive and extremely cheap to repair. As a result, sales of Model T skyrocketed, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 100% every year.

Ford Model T
1925 Ford Model T

There were more orders for Model T than the company could satisfy and this led to Ford putting into practice the techniques of mass production that would revolutionize American industry. These included the use of large production plants; standardized, interchangeable parts; and the moving assembly line. By 1914, sales of Model T had passed 250,000 and by 1916, prices had dropped to $360, shooting sales further to 472,000. By 1918, half of all cars in America were Model Ts. Production of Model T continued till 1927. The final total production was 15,007,034. This record stood for the next 45 years.

Later Career

Ford ultimately stepped down from the position of presidency of the Ford Motor Company. He, instead installed his son Edsel Ford in his place in December 1918. By the mid-1920s, the Model T encountered its first hurdles when sales began to decline due to rising competition. This was primarily due to the introduction of payment plans by other companies that allowed customers to easily buy cars with more features and better designs.

Henry Ford and Edsel Ford
Henry Ford with his son Edsel

By 1926, sales plummet even further, convincing Henry Ford to make a new model. By 1927, the Ford duo worked closely together to introduce the Ford Model A, that clocked a total output of more than 4 million cars in 4 years. However, the Model A was a relative disappointment. It was outsold by both General Motors’ Chevrolet and Chrysler’s Plymouth. By 1936, the Ford Motor Company had dropped to number three in the automobile industry.

Final Years And Death

Ford’s son Edsel passed away due to cancer in May 1943, leaving an elderly Ford to resume the presidency of the large company. Ford had been the subject of multiple heart attacks and strokes by this point and was also deemed to be mentally inconsistent. Therefore, he was not fit for such an immense responsibility and the move was opposed by most of the directors. But since they had never defied his authority in the past, even during the presidency of Edsel, they decided to let him have his way. The move turned out to be a short-term disaster when the company entered a period of decline, losing more than $10 million a month.

Henry Ford Grave
Grave of Henry Ford at the Ford Cemetery

Ford’s health continued to fail him and he ultimately retired from the role, installing his grandson Henry Ford II as the president of the company in September 1945. Henry Ford died on April 7, 1947, due to a cerebral hemorrhage at his estate in Dearborn, Michigan. He was 83 years old at the time. The public viewing of his funeral at Greenfield Village hosted thousands of attendees and Ford was buried in the Ford Cemetery in Detroit. His wife Clara Jane Bryant Ford died a few years later on September 29, 1950 and she was buried along with him in the Ford Cemetery.

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