Henry Ford

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison converse on the dock at "Seminole Lodge."

Henry Ford was born July 30, 1863 to Irish immigrant farmers in eastern Michigan. The eldest of six children, Ford attended a nearby one-room school and worked on the farm to help support his family. Ford wasn’t particularly interested in farming, however, and at age 16 moved to Detroit where he worked as an apprentice in a machine shop.

Although he returned briefly to the countryside to work for his father, shortly after Ford’s marriage to Clara Bryant in 1888, he sought employment in Detroit again. Ford was hired as a mechanical engineer by the Edison Illuminating Company, where he moved up the ranks while tinkering with experiments at home. In 1896, Ford invented the Quadricycle, a gas-powered vehicle that ran with four bicycle tires and boat tiller. A few years later, with the backing of investors, Ford opened the Detroit Automobile Company, which failed within two years. With new financial backing, Ford opened the Henry Ford Company in 1901, which also failed within a short time.

In 1903, with $28,000 gathered from supporters, Ford formed the Ford Motor Company and built the Model A. After this product's success, Ford was able to buy most of the shareholders of the company out. By 1908, he produced the Model T, which Ford referred to as “a motorcar for the great multitude.” The Model T’s lightweight vanadium steel, low production cost, and powerful engine made it an overnight success. Ford’s idea to use the assembly line in order to speed the manufacture of the Model T only increased production and popular demand. By 1927 the Ford Motor Company encompassed all aspects of vehicle production, from raw materials to finished product, in its huge factory complex along the Rouge River in Michigan.

Henry Ford’s other ventures included auto racing, a pacifist boat expedition during World War I, a race for a U.S. Senate seat, the development of the Tri-Motor Airplane, and the opening of Greenfield Village and the Edison Institute to celebrate the American experience. In addition, Ford went into business with his friend and mentor Thomas Edison in 1927, as a co-founder of the Edison Botanic Research Corporation, which sought to develop a domestic source of rubber. Ford’s interest in natural sources extended to other products that might enhance automobile production, including the use of soybean-based auto parts.

Henry Ford died in 1947, at age 83, leaving most of his wealth to the Ford Foundation, a non-profit Institution that works to “strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation and advance human achievement.”