Professor Donald Elder: Fifty Greatest Americans: Henry Ford

Aug 20, 2015 by


An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Fifty Greatest Americans: Henry Ford

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Elder, I know of no other single American who has made a greater impact on American industry than his lifetime than Henry Ford. When and where was he born and what was his early childhood like?

Henry Ford was born in Greenfield Township, Michigan on July 30, 1863. He received only seven years of formal education before he stopped attending school at the age of sixteen, and as a result he was remarkably uniformed on a wide range of subjects.

For example, he thought that the Earth could not support the weight of tall buildings, and as a result American cities would someday literally crush the ground underneath them. His father was a farmer, but Ford never cared for the agricultural life, saying “there was too much work on the place.” This would become a source of friction between Ford and his father. The elder Ford hoped that his son would someday take over the operation of the family farm, but Henry refused to assume that role. He did, however, show a great deal of mechanical aptitude from an early age. He was especially adept at taking watches apart and reassembling them. This skill set would help Ford one day become a titan of industry.

2) His first job – and his first early endeavors- what were they like?

After he left school, Ford moved to nearby Detroit and became an apprentice. In 1882, he finished his apprenticeship and was hired by Westinghouse to work on steam engines. He worked for that company for almost a decade, and then went to work for the Edison Illumination Company.

After his day at Edison was through, Ford would go home and work on a prototype of a gasoline-powered engine. When he had developed a satisfactory engine, he then began work on building an automobile. His efforts culminated in June of 1896 with a vehicle that Ford christened the Quadricycle. Ford started two companies to build automobiles, but neither effort proved successful. Finally, Ford started the Ford Motor Company, and in 1903 began producing the automobiles that would make him world famous.

3) The Assembly line–when did he come upon this idea and how did it revolutionize American manufacture of autos?

Once Ford began selling automobiles, public demand for his product increased rapidly. As orders poured in, Ford sought a way to speed up production. For that reason, Ford adopted an assembly-line approach for his company. Contrary to popular belief, Ford did not invent the concept of the assembly line. A number of businesses, especially the meat packing industry, had already employed the technique.

What made the Ford Motor Company unique in this regard was the extent to which Ford utilized the process. This allowed him to eventually reduce the time needed to produce a Model T from 12 hours in 1908 to approximately 90 minutes by 1913. The pace of production was also a marvel of the age, as a Model T would come off the assembly line every ten seconds. So even though Ford did not create the assembly line, he clearly took it to its logical extension.

4) What other contributions did he make? What did he do in his later years and when and where did he die?

Ford had become an unqualified success as an automobile manufacturer by the time he was fifty, and although the Ford Motor Company would experience some setbacks it remained a highly successful enterprise for the rest of his life. Furthermore, his company played a significant role in the armament industry during the Second World War, building thousands of B-24 bombers at its River Rouge facility. Ford also gained favorable attention for deciding in 1914 to pay his workers five dollars a day, a wage that was noticeably higher than that earned by most other workers in the automobile industry at the time.

Finally, Ford won praise for hiring women and handicapped individuals at a time when few other industries would do so. Unfortunately for Ford, his later years included incidents that tarnished his image. He loathed the concept of unions, for example, and in 1937 his factory security forces brutally beat representatives of the United Auto Workers who were legally attempting to enroll workers at a Ford plant.
Perhaps the greatest approbation that Ford earned resulted from his perceived antipathy to Jews. An anti-Semitic journal, the Dearborn Independent, was owned for a number of years by Ford, and as a result Ford was associated in the minds of many with prejudice against the Jews. In retrospect, the extremes of his prejudice are astounding in today’s day and age: in 1920, for example, he attributed the problems that Major League Baseball was experiencing to “too much Jew.” Because of this, Ford gained a favorable mention from Adolf Hitler in his book Mein Kampf—the only American to be named in that work.

In 1938, long after Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies were clearly evident, Ford accepted the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, which was the highest decoration that Hitler’s regime gave to foreigners. Ford will therefore always be seen as a great, but flawed, American icon.

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