Henry Ford, the Man Who Changed America

American Icons,Made in America,People,Traditions
June 8, 2003

Henry Ford's ingenuity left a legacy far beyond the Model T

Henry Ford’s ingenuity and acumen left a legacy that reaches far beyond the Model T’s driver’s seat. In pioneering a car affordable to nearly everyone, Ford increased the minimum daily wage of his time, essentially creating a middle class, and changed forever the way the automotive industry produced and distributed cars. His stunning success didn’t occur because of a masterful business sense; he was more of an entrepreneur—an idea man. But his unconventional ways took his company to the top.

In the Beginning
Ford was born into a farm family in 1863 near Dearborn, Mich., and showed an early interest in mechanics. He fixed neighbors’ watches and built his first steam engine at 15.

He tinkered constantly, and as America’s first automobiles emerged, Ford focused on internal combustion engines. John W. Lambert invented the nation’s first gasoline-powered automobile in 1891; just five years later, Ford unveiled his own “horseless carriage,” which he named the “Quadricycle,” because it ran on four bicycle tires. The Quadricycle, which steered with a tiller much like a boat, had just two speeds with no reverse.

Ford at the time was chief engineer at Thomas Edison’s thriving Edison Illuminating Company, but his venturesome spirit led him to strike out on his own to try his hand at automotive engineering. Ford left with the encouragement of Edison, who later became one of his closest friends.

“He was always willing to take risks,” says Bob Casey, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.

“In 1901, when his first company went belly up, he built this race car and literally risked his life in a race to raise the public perception of him that (he) knew how to build these newfangled machines,” Casey says. “It was a pretty gutsy thing to do.”

With 11 other investors and $28,000 in capital, Ford founded the Ford Motor Company on June 16, 1903. A little more than a month later, the company sold its first car, to a Detroit doctor.

But Ford, unlike his competitors, began to envision automobiles as affordable to anyone, not just playthings for the rich.

Cars for the Common Man
“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,” according to Ford Motor Company’s published history. In determining what sort of car America needed, Ford went to his roots.

“He had been a farmer and thought, ‘What would farmers buy? Something cheap, reliable, easy to maintain, with high ground clearance.’ And that’s a Model T,” Casey says.

Ford didn’t invent the assembly line; when he started out, he didn’t even have the assembly line in mind. “The (question) was how to make an automobile more rapidly at a lower cost, and they stumbled across the assembly line idea,” Casey says. “Of course, they leaped on it and rode it.”

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