Henry Ford (1863-1947), American industrialist, best known for his pioneering achievements in the automobile industry.
Ford was born on a farm near Dearborn, Michigan, on July 30, 1863, and educated in district schools. He became a machinist's apprentice in Detroit at the age of 16. From 1888 to 1899 he was a mechanical engineer, and later chief engineer, with the Edison Illuminating Company. In 1896, after experimenting for years in his leisure hours, he completed the construction of his first automobile, the Quadricycle. In 1903 he founded the Ford Motor Company.
In 1913 Ford began using standardized interchangeable parts and assembly-line techniques in his plant. Although Ford neither originated nor was the first to employ such practices, he was chiefly responsible for their general adoption and for the consequent great expansion of American industry and the raising of the American standard of living.
By early 1914 this innovation, although greatly increasing productivity, had resulted in a monthly labor turnover of 40 to 60 percent in his factory, largely because of the unpleasant monotony of assembly-line work and repeated increases in the production quotas assigned to workers. Ford met this difficulty by doubling the daily wage then standard in the industry, raising it from about $2.50 to $5. The net result was increased stability in his labor force and a substantial reduction in operating costs. These factors, coupled with the enormous increase in output made possible by new technological methods, led to an increase in company profits from $30 million in 1914 to $60 million in 1916.
In 1908 the Ford company initiated production of the celebrated Model T. Until 1927, when the Model T was discontinued in favor of a more up-to-date model, the company produced and sold about 15 million cars. Within the ensuing few years, however, Ford's preeminence as the largest producer and seller of automobiles in the nation was gradually lost to his competitors, largely because he was slow to adopt the practice of introducing a new model of automobile each year, which had become standard in the industry. During the 1930s Ford adopted the policy of the yearly changeover, but his company was unable to regain the position it had formerly held.
In the period from 1937 to 1941, the Ford company became the only major manufacturer of automobiles in the Detroit area that had not recognized any labor union as the collective bargaining representative of employees. At hearings before the National Labor Relations Board Ford was found guilty of repeated violations of the National Labor Relations Act. The findings against him were upheld on appeal to the federal courts. Ford was constrained to negotiate a standard labor contract after a successful strike by the workers at his main plant at River Rouge, Michigan, in April 1941.
Early in 1941 Ford was granted government contracts whereby he was, at first, to manufacture parts for bombers and, later, the entire airplane. He thereupon launched the construction of a huge plant at Willow Run, Michigan, where production was begun in May 1942. Despite certain technical difficulties, by the end of World War II (1945) this plant had manufactured more than 8000 planes.
Ford was active in several other fields besides those of automobile and airplane manufacturing. In 1915 he chartered a peace ship, which carried him and a number of like-minded individuals to Europe, where they attempted without success to persuade the belligerent governments to end World War I. He was nominated for the office of U.S. senator from Michigan in 1918 but was defeated in the election. In the following year he erected the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit at a cost of $7.5 million. In 1919 he became the publisher of the Dearborn Independent, a weekly journal, which at first published anti-Semitic material. After considerable public protest, Ford directed that publication of such articles be discontinued and that a public apology be made to the Jewish people.
Advancing age obliged Ford to retire from the active direction of his gigantic enterprises in 1945. He died on April 7, 1947, in Dearborn. Ford left a personal fortune estimated at $500 to $700 million, bequeathing the largest share of his holdings in the Ford Motor Company to the Ford Foundation, a nonprofit organization.