Henry Ford was born on July 30, 1863, in the Detroit, Michigan area. He was the oldest of six children born to William and Mary Litogot O’Hern Ford, and the grandson of Irish immigrants who had arrived in America in 1847. The entire family was farmers and Ford was raised to take over the family farm when he grew up.
He had an intelligent, inquisitive nature and was energized by the huge growth of industry occurring in the Detroit area. He was also an avid experimenter. Once, in order to prove the power of steam, he plugged up the spout of a tea kettle full of boiling water and it blew apart! As he grew up his father allowed him to “tinker” with many of the tools on the farm. Ford’s mother called him a “born mechanic” and provided him with darning needles and corset stays to make it into tools for his watch repair work.
Probably the most dramatic event in Henry Ford’s life happened in 1876 when he was thirteen years old. While riding with his father in a wagon, they saw a steam engine traveling along the road under its own power! Ford jumped off the wagon and excitedly began to question the driver about this remarkable engine. Used for stationary purposes such as sawing wood, the engine had been mounted on wheels to propel itself. The engineer explained all about the machine and even let Ford fire the engine and run it. Ford later said, “That showed me that I was by instinct an engineer.” The seed was planted that there could be a self-propelled vehicle and that thought would haunt his imagination for years.
Although he yearned to go to Detroit and work in the machine shops, Ford stayed on the farm helping the family until he was seventeen. Then, with his father’s blessing, he moved to Detroit and started working at the Michigan Car Company for $1.10 a day. He was fired shortly thereafter because he angered the older employees by making repairs in a ˝ hour instead of the usual five hours.
By 1882 Ford had left Detroit and used the family farm for his address as he traveled around from job to job. In 1885, at a party, he met Clara Jane Bryant. They married April 11, 1888, and their only child, Edsel, named after his boyhood friend Edsel Ruddiman, was born November 6, 1893.
Ford had never given up his dream of a “horseless carriage.” Whenever he had a spare moment he read about gas engines and experimented in his own workshop. By 1891 he and Clara had moved back to Detroit and Ford began working for Detroit Edison Illuminating Company. Ford’s Quadricycle was ready for a tryout in 1896. It frightened the horses and caused many a protest, but it ran.
It was through working at the Detroit Edison Illuminating Company that Ford met Thomas Edison. At a convention, Ford was introduced to Edison as “the young fellow who’s made a gas car.” After discussing his ideas with the great inventor, Ford was glad to hear that Edison thought his ideas had merit. Edison told him, “Young man, you have it, a self-contained unit carrying its own fuel. Keep at it!” The meeting with Thomas Edison gave Henry Ford fresh inspiration and his spirit was renewed by the famous inventor’s words of encouragement.
By 1899 Ford had produced an operable car that was written up in the Detroit Journal. Ford was described as a “mechanical engineer.” Eventually, his work developing automobiles conflicted with his position at the Detroit Edison Illuminating Company. Even though the company was well pleased with his work and offered him the General Superintendent position, they asked him to make a choice. Could he give up his “hobby” of automobile building and devote himself to the company? Ford made the decision. He wanted to make automobiles.
After some false starts, on June 16, 1903, with ten investors plus Ford’s patents, knowledge and engine, Henry Ford incorporated the Ford Motor Company.
The Model T was the ninth model made. It was first marketed in October 1908 and the company dominated sales for the next eighteen years. Because of his development of the assembly line used to mass-produce automobiles, Ford sold more than one-half of the cars in the industry in 1918-1919 and 1921-1925. The Model T, or Tin Lizzie, was a hard-working, sturdy, commonplace car. Ford’s dream had come true.
“I will build a motor car for the great multitude…constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise…so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”
Henry Ford and Thomas Edison had become the best of friends. They admired and respected each other. In 1916 Henry Ford purchased Mangoes, the home next door to his friend Edison’s Seminole Lodge so that he and Clara could vacation there while the Edisons were down. The two families enjoyed their time “away from it all” in the tropical serenity of Fort Myers, Florida. Camping expeditions into the Everglades, with Harvey Firestone and his family, plus naturalist John Burroughs, became a special treat.
Henry Ford died on April 7, 1947. Editorial tributes were favorable to Henry Ford. He was praised as a patriot, philanthropist, philosopher, reformer, economist, and teacher and depicted as a symbol of individualism and productive genius
Today Ford’s genius can be seen at the historic sites dedicated to him: Edison and Ford Winter Estates, Fort Myers, Florida; Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Estate-Fair Lane, IN.