Inspiring Life of Henry Ford

Irish ForeFathers

The Ford family had its roots in Ireland though they had traces of English and Scottish blood in them. Its main occupation was agriculture.

In 1862, a young couple moved a house located at some distance to the south of the other Ford families. They were William and Mary Ford. ‘Grandma’ Holmes, was directing affairs and it was with her help, that this male child was born into the household. The infant was named Henry after his uncle. Henry was one of the eight children.

The Eternal Habit

The first few years of Henry’s boyhood were spent at home under his mother’s watchful eye. When he commenced school for the first time, he was eight years old. The Little Red Brick school in the Scot Settlement was a mile and a half away from the farm. Pretty Miss Emilie Nardin, the nineteen years old teacher, punished the young boy many times. He had to stand up in the corner for misbehaving, or to sit with a girl as punishment for whispering or passing comments during school. Ford attended a one-room school for eight years, when he was not helping his father with the harvest. Henry was naturally fast at figures and one of his teachers, F. R. Ward made him do sums in his head instead of on the blackboard. Thanks to him, Ford in later years, seldom had to put pencil to paper when working out a problem.

Mechanical Bent of Mind

Science, physics and chemistry – those were subjects too remote for the rural scholar. Mechanical knowledge had to be gleaned from experience, which was where young Henry got his. His first experiment was water – wheel, connected with an old coffee mill, which had been made fast to a nearby fence. A rake handle was the shaft and power was obtained by blocking the country ditch. Another early experiment was the operation of a turbine from a boiler. From a very early age, engines fascinated him. He often rode on his father’s wagon to the carding mill at Plymouth, hauling loads of wool, or he made a daylong trip to Detroit with loads of hay and grain. On such one trip, he met a traction engine chugging along the road. While the other men drew up to quiet the horses and chat, Henry studied the mechanism. It was his first glimpse of a self-propelled vehicle; it took him into automotive transportation later on. Many years later,

In Search of Fortune

After his mother’s death at a very young age of 37, Henry’s preference for engines and machinery instead of the endless round of chores and farm work continued to grow, and finally at the age of sixteen, he decided to leave home and seek his fortune in the city. He went to Detroit and got a job in a machine shop. After three years, during which he came in contact with the internal-combustion engine for the first time, he returned home, and worked part-time for the Westinghouse Engine. In spare moments, he did experiments in a little machine shop, which he had set up. Eventually, he built a small ‘farm locomotive’, a tractor that used an old moving machine for its chassis and a homemade steam engine for power.

Back To Detroit

Henry moved back to Detroit again nine years later as a married man. His wife, Clara Bryant, had grown up on a farm not far from Ford’s. Nineteen years old Henry met the dark, attractive girl, Clara, one New Year Eve, and fell in love, that eventually led to their marriage. Clara followed her husband’s experiments with deep interest on his farm locomotive and with a steam road carriage. Her poise, her modesty, and her unassuming friendliness were her characteristics, which made her the right partner for Ford.

fordOne day, as Clara played with the piano keys. She asked “What did you see in Detroit today, Henry ?”. In answer, he launched into a description of a new kind of engine, which was so compact and didn’t need steam to move pistons – no boiler.

Henry drew a diagram of it on a piece of paper so that his wife might understand its operation. Then he revealed the secret of his heart. “I’ve been on a wrong track,” he admitted honestly. “What I would like to do is an engine that will run by petrol, and have it do the work of a horse.”

He concluded, “but I can’t do it out here on the farm, I need other tools and money to pay for things. It would mean moving into Detroit.” The announcement was implicit. Clara made up her mind to leave the comfortable home and independent country life for the crowded quarters and the unknown hazards of the city, with only one intention to support and encourage her husband’s ambitious dream.

Foray Into Automobile Industry

During the next seven years he had various backers, some of whom formed the Detroit Automobile Company in 1899, which was later named as The Henry Ford Company. But all eventually left him in exasperation, because they all wanted a passenger car to introduce in the market, while Ford insisted always on improvement of model, saying, ‘it was not ready for customers’.

During these years, he also built several racing cars, including the ‘999’ racer driven by Barney Oldfield, which set several new speed records. In 1902, he left The Henry Ford Company, which later on was re-organized as The Cadillac Motor Car Company. After a year, he incorporated ‘The Ford Motor Company’, at that time with a mere $ 28,000 in cash put up by ordinary citizens, for Ford had, in his previous dealings with backers, antagonized the wealthiest men in Detroit. Ford was not a licensed manufacturer. He had been denied a license by the ‘Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers’, which threatened him to put him out of business. Ford fought back by the gathering the evidence and the court hearings took six years. He lost the original case in 1909, which he appealed and won in 1911. His victory had wide implications for the automobile industry, and the long fight made him an ‘American Hero.

Birth of T Model

“I will build a motor car for the great multitude”, he announced at the birth of Model ‘T’ in October 1908. In 19 years, he sold 15,500,000 cars in the United States, almost 1,000,000 more in Canada, and 250,000 in Great Britain, a total production amounting to half of the auto output of the world ! The motor age had arrived, thanks to Ford’s vision of the car, it was now an ordinary man’s utility, rather than a the rich man’s luxury.

Sharing Profits & Benefits

Ford Motor Company announced that it would pay eligible workers a minimum wage of $ 5 a day compared to an average of $ 2.34 paid to the other industrial workers. The year was 1914. Ford reduced the working day-hours from nine hours to eight, and implemented three-shift schedule. Ford became a worldwide celebrity overnight. People admired him as a great humanitarian; while some others criticized him as a mad socialist.

On the other hand, he continuously reduced the price of Model ‘T’, which used to cost $ 950 in 1908 to $ 290 in 1927. Such innovations changed the very structure of the society as a whole

Blossoming of a Dream

During its first five years, The Ford Company produced eight different models. By 1908 its output was 100 cars a day. The stockholders were ecstatic, but Ford was not satisfied and looked toward turning out 1,000 cars a day. The stockholders seriously considered court action to stop him from using profits for the expansion. The court said in 1919, “while Ford’s sentiments about his employees and customers are nice, a business is for the profit of its stockholders.” Ford, irate that a court and a few shareholders, whom he likened to parasites, could interfere with the management of his company, determined to buy out all the shareholders. He resigned from the post in December 1918 in favor of his son, Edsel Ford.

In March 1919, he announced a plan to organize a new company to write new chapters in the history of the industry.When asked what would become of the Ford Motor Company ? He said, “Why I don’t know exactly what will become of that, the portion of it that does not belong to me cannot be sold to me, that I know.” After that, he planned a huge new plant at Rouge river in Michigan. At the height of its success, the company’s holding stretched from the iron mines of northern Michigan to the jungles of Brazil, and it operated in 33 countries across the globe. Most remarkably, not one cent had been borrowed to pay for any of it. It was built out of profits from the ‘miracle’ Model ‘T’.

A Strict Controller

A similar pattern of authoritarian control and stubbornness marked Ford’s attitude towards his employees. The $ 5 a day that brought him so much attention in 1914, was no guarantee for the future, when in 1929 Ford increased the wages to $7 a day, and suddenly after three years, as a part of fiscal stringency imposed by falling sales and the great depression in the industry, it was cut to just $4 a day, below even to prevailing industry wages.

Ford freely employed company police, labor spies, and violence in a protracted efforts to prevent unionization and continued to do so even after General Motors and Chrysler had come to terms with UAW [United Automobile Workers].When UAW finally succeeded in organizing Ford workers in 1941, Ford once considered even shutting down everything before he was persuaded to sign a union contract.

An American ‘Hero’ Depart

After the death of his only son, Edsel, Henry resumed the presidency of the company. In spite of old age and infirmity, he held it until 1945, when he retired in favor of his grandson, Henry Ford II. At the time of his retirement his estimated wealth amounted to $ 700 million.

Ford died at his home ‘Paradise’ on April 7, 1947, exactly 100 years after his father had left Ireland for Michigan. His holdings in Ford stock went to the Ford Foundation.

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One Response to Inspiring Life of Henry Ford

  1. Auron says:

    Interesting post. I found an interesting fact on Ford the other day; he was refused credit from a bank before he made it big. The rejection letter sarcastically predicted the future and how the automobile could only be popular if changes such as even roads, gas stations and traffic lights came about.

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