Henry Ford, the great industrialist, was busy celebrating his 81st birthday on a very warm July 30, 1944. Allied troops had landed in Normandy the previous month and, though they faced stiff German resistance, they were clearly winning.
At the celebration, Ford visualized what he called ‘great days ahead, ’ but only, as he put it, ‘if we apply what we have learned and mix it with plenty of hard work.’ It was Ford’s vision of mass production and its subsequent implementation that had harnessed the industrial might of the United States and had helped make staggering wartime production goals attainable. His mastery of manufacturing techniques has made Henry Ford’s name a household word.
Ford was born on a modest farm near Dearborn, Mich., in 1863. Although his father’s farm flourished, Henry was more interested in mechanics than farming. He attended a simple, one-room school and also tended to his farm chores. ‘There was too much hard hand labor on our own and all other farms of the time, ’ he wrote in his biography, My Life and Work. ‘Even when I was very young I suspected that much might somehow be done in a better way. That is what took me into mechanics.’
Two events dramatically changed Henry Ford’s life. First, he received a watch for his 12th birthday. Second, he saw a horseless farm machine for the first time–a road engine used for driving threshing machines. One year later, using crude tools, he was able to put together a watch. Shortly thereafter, he built a working model of the road engine that had occupied his dreams.
At age 17, Ford hiked the nine miles to nearby Detroit to take his first job, earning $1.10 a day for making repairs with the Michigan Car Works. He came across a copy of an English magazine, World Of Science, which described the Otto internal combustion engine. It excited his interest in engines, and he went to work at the Dry Dock Engine Company. There he mastered the machinist’s trade within two years.
Young Ford had an ambition to produce watches so cheaply that he could sell them for a dollar a piece, but before he could pursue that plan he had to go home to help his father. In 1884, he attended a business school for three months and experimented with machinery while still helping on the family farm.
He married Clara Bryant, the daughter of a neighboring farmer, when he was 25. In the home he built for his wife on a 40-acre tract his father gave him, Ford drew his first diagram of a gasoline engine, which he was convinced was destined to replace the noisy steam engine. Ford soon realized that he could not build his engine on a farm, but needed the superior mechanical equipment that could be found in a city such as Detroit. So in 1891, the young couple moved to Detroit, where Henry found employment as a machinist. He worked a 12-hour day and earned only $45 a month. In his spare time, he continued to work on the gasoline engine.
Ford tested the engine in his kitchen, with the engine clamped to the sink, the spark plug connected to the ceiling light socket, and the oil cup tended by his wife. The engine, he later explained, consisted of ‘a length of one-inch gas pipe reamed out to serve as a cylinder, and in it rested a homemade piston fitted with rings. This was attached by a rod to the crankshaft, and had a five-inch stroke. A hand-wheel off an old lathe served as the flywheel. A gear arrangement operated a cam, opening the exhaust valve and timing the spark. A piece of fiber with a wire through the center did for a spark plug. It made contact with another wire at the end of the piston, and when this was broken a spark leaped across, exploding the gasoline.’
With his gasoline engine a success, Ford’s next ambition was to make his engine drive a four-wheel carriage. Motor vehicles were being produced by hand in Europe, but there was no commercial manufacturing of any motorcar. In 1896, when he was 33, Ford drove his first automobile out of his backyard shop. Within a few days he added a seat, and then he confidently drove his wife and 3-year-old son, Edsel, the nine miles to his father’s farm.
Soon Ford became chief engineer for the Detroit Edison Company, sold his first automobile for $200 and attracted the attention of several businessmen. He gathered $10, 000 to start the Detroit Automobile Company, but soon left that venture. With another group of investors, he then organized the Henry Ford Company. When that organization also broke up, due to disagreements over his insistence on offering only a low-price car and his refusal to be hurried in his experiments, Ford returned to his own shop and began working on a four-cylinder motor. Intent on having one of his automobiles achieve the speed of a mile a minute, he began building racing cars. Famed racing driver Barney Oldfield won a race with Ford’s ‘999’ at the Grosse Point, Mich., track in 1902.