Henry Ford Disrupted and Reshaped American Society

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With all of the hype of Tesla's latest innovations, future autonomous driving, and forces of retail disruption, it makes sense to look back and reflect on where our industry got its roots ...

Henry Ford was an American industrialist, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, and innovator of the assembly line technique of mass production.

He was not the inventor of the automobile (actually, no one single person was), but his innovations in assembly-line techniques and the introduction of standardized interchangeable parts produced the first mass-production vehicle manufacturing plant, paving the way for the cheap automobiles that turned the United States into a nation of motorists.

Henry Ford was born July 30, 1863, on his family's farm in Dearborn, Michigan. From the time he was a young boy, Ford enjoyed tinkering with machines. Farm work and a job in a Detroit machine shop afforded him ample opportunities to experiment.

He later worked as a part-time employee for the Westinghouse Engine Company. By 1896, Ford had constructed his first horseless carriage which he sold in order to finance work on an improved model.

A car for the great multitude

In 1903 with $28,000, eleven men, and Ford as Vice President and Chief Engineer, Ford Motor Company was incorporated. They produced only three cars a day and had up to three men working on each. In 1908 the company produced the famous Model T, a reliable and affordable vehicle for the mass market. Ford drove and raced this vehicle at every opportunity to prove how reliable it was.

In October 1908, he offered the Model T for $950. In the Model T's nineteen years of production, its price dipped as low as $280. Nearly 15,500,000 were sold in the United States alone. The Model T heralds the beginning of the Motor Age; the car evolved from luxury item for the well-to-do to essential transportation for the ordinary man.

By 1918, half of all cars in the U.S. were a Model T

Ford revolutionized manufacturing. By 1914, his Highland Park, Michigan plant, using innovative production techniques, could turn out a complete chassis every 93 minutes. This was a stunning improvement over the earlier production time of 728 minutes.

Using a constantly-moving assembly line, the subdivision of labor, and careful coordination of operations, Ford realized huge gains in productivity.

Mass production techniques

In 1914, Ford began paying his employees five dollars a day, nearly doubling the wages offered by other manufacturers. He cut the workday from nine to eight hours in order to convert the factory to a three-shift workday.

Assembly Line Innovation

In response to growing demand, Ford built a new factory using standardized interchangeable parts and a conveyor-belt based assembly line. The factory was able to build a car in just 93 minutes, producing roughly 1 million vehicles a year (one every 24 seconds). With this advancement in production, Ford was able to market to the general public. The factory had everything it needed to construct the vehicles including a steel mill, glass factory, and the first automobile assembly line.

Ford's mass-production techniques would eventually allow for the manufacture of a Model T every 24 seconds. His innovations made him an international celebrity.

Ford's affordable Model T irrevocably altered American society. As more Americans owned cars, urbanization patterns changed. The United States saw the growth of suburbia, the creation of a national highway system, and a population entranced with the possibility of going anywhere anytime. Ford witnessed many of these changes during his lifetime, all the while personally longing for the agrarian lifestyle of his youth. 

Management Style

Ford had a complex, conflicting and strongly opinionated personality. Most of the company's struggles were linked to his stubborn management style. He refused to unionize with the United Automobile Workers, and to prevent his employees from doing so he hired spies and company police to check in on his workers. When work on the assembly line proved overly monotonous and sent employee turnover rates to over 50%, he doubled the going wage to $5, buying back their loyalty and upping productivity.

Other Innovations and Inventions

Ford was responsible for cutting the workday from nine hours to eight hours so that the factory could convert to a three-shift workday and operate 24 hours a day.

He also continued his engineering innovations, patenting a transmission mechanism in 1911 and a plastic-bodied car in 1942. He also invented the first one-piece engine, the V-8. Ford fought and won a patent battle with George B. Selden, who was being paid royalties by all American car manufacturers for his patent on a "road engine".

In the years prior to his death on April 7, 1947, Ford sponsored the restoration of an idyllic rural town called Greenfield Village.

The Henry Ford Museum in Greenfield Village is one of America's top historical attractions.

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