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Henry Ford: The Innovator - Background Reading

When Henry Ford was born in 1863 in Dearborn, Michigan, just a few miles from Detroit, the roads were all dirt and the automobile did not exist. By the time he died in 1947, the U.S.—especially Detroit—was driven by cars. Henry was a pioneer in automobile manufacturing. He became fascinated with machines and engines at an early age. Beginning with the inner workings of watches, Henry tinkered endlessly, taking them apart, fixing them, and putting them back together. His attention soon turned to the steam engine, then to the gasoline engine.

Ford began his career working for the local power company, overseeing the production of electricity for Detroit. At night, he retired to the workshop behind his home where he toiled for hours each night on his dream vehicle: the Quadricycle. Looking like a black box on four bike tires, with a seat and a steering mechanism, it resembled a carriage without horses. Realizing that he was on the edge of something great, Ford knew that a speedy vehicle was the key to his future. If he could build a fast car, people might give him the startup money he needed to get his own automotive factory in business. Then he could pursue his real goal; to build reliable cars quickly and cheaply so that the working man, not just the rich, would be able to drive a car.

Success was slow in coming. In 1903, after his first two companies failed, the Ford Motor Company was formed. His tinkering, once confined to the small shop behind his house, now took place in his office at his auto factory.

After rethinking and redesigning his first autos, Henry and his company offered a few different models, but he still had to find the right combination of speed, weight and cost. Then, in 1908, the first Model T rolled out of his factory. It was capable of carrying the family yet operable by one person. It was stylish, at least if you liked black, because that soon became the only color offered. And, most importantly, it was cheap.

Ford came up with a better way to produce the cars in a faster, cheaper way: the moving assembly line. Although he did not invent it, he improved on the concept to a point never before thought possible. By the following year, Ford Motor Company had turned out over 10,000 Model Ts. Over the next two decades, more than 15 million "Tin Lizzies," as they were called, rolled out of the factory. Henry Ford became of the wealthiest and most famous men of his day.

Henry Ford was one of many automotive pioneers whose combined efforts revolutionized life in America. Some were inventors; some were innovators in production, business organization, design or marketing. they created a diverse industry, producing all sorts of cars for all sorts of needs. They put Detroit and Michigan on the map, helping to draw in workers and their families from all over the nation and from overseas. They employed thousands who made money and who spent it in Detroit. This rise in consumer spending resulted in new business and retail shops hungry to meet the rising demands. The sudden popularity and availability (to even working class families) of the automobile gave rise to road construction, traffic lights, auto repair shops, and eventually, the drive through window! But these contributions did not come without cost. The loss of personal service, environmental pollution and changing social mores were only part of the cost.

The assembly line system also had a human cost. Many workers felt that they were but cogs in the system. Machines were supposed to help workers, yet those on the assembly line felt that they had, in fact, become machines themselves. Each job was broken into dozens of simple tasks that required no thought, no skill, and could be done with great speed. To balance the demands of the factories, workers eventually organized into unions that successfully demanded a voice in how the work was done.

To read more about the assembly line and the $5 day (at the time, it was double the going wage) go to The Assembly Line and the $5 Day.

"Create a Car on an Assembly Line," "Henry Ford: The Innovator" and "The Assembly Line and the $5 Day" were developed by Tom Hopper for the Michigan Historical Museum.

Contact the Michigan Historical Museum.

Updated 08/18/2010

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