Henry Ford in the 1920s
Henry Ford ranks among the most important figures of the industrial era. He founded the Ford Motor Company, which pioneered assembly-line production, driving down costs and making automobile ownership a staple feature of middle-class American life. Through it all, he maintained a highly idiosyncratic style of charitable giving. He saw work as the purpose of human existence, and he deeply disliked anything—especially something well-intentioned, like philanthropy—that seemed to undermine its discipline. He distrusted organized charities, although he created a few himself. Despite his misgivings, Ford seems to have dedicated about one-third of his income to philanthropy.
Henry Ford was born on a Michigan farm in July 1863. He absorbed the farmer’s tireless work ethic, but hated agriculture. His inclination was mechanical, and as a boy he would strip down and reassemble any machine he could find. (“Every clock in the Ford house shudders when it sees Henry coming, ” a friend once quipped.) At the age of 16, he left the farm and headed to Detroit, where he found work first as a machinist, and later as an engineer.
In average years, Henry Ford gave away about a third of his income, and he preferred to give money to individual people, face to face and with a firm handshake.
Ford settled into a comfortable middle-class life in Detroit, marrying Clara Bryant in 1888 and getting a job at the Edison Illuminating Company in 1891. Every night, he tinkered in the garage behind his house. The neighbors called him “Crazy Henry” for his obsession, but in 1896 he rolled out his first self-propelled vehicle: the Ford Quadricycle. With encouragement from Thomas Edison, Ford kept experimenting—and began to believe he could create his own automobile company.
By the time Ford turned 39 he had founded two car companies. Both had failed—one with a bang, the other with a whimper—yet he was undeterred. In 1903, he borrowed , 000 to establish the Ford Motor Company. The early cars produced by this firm generated enough profit to make Ford wealthy, and to give him time to take on a more long-range project: the Model T.
When it rolled off the assembly line in October 1908, the Model T revolutionized the automobile industry. In relentless pursuit of efficiency gains, Ford had developed unprecedented production methods. He used machine-made, standardized parts, which were put together along a continuously moving assembly line. The results were staggering. At a time when cars regularly sold for $1, 000, he was soon selling the Model T for $345. Orders poured in. By 1915, about half of all cars on earth were Fords. Eventually, some 15 million Model Ts were sold.