Business Leaders: A Historical Sketch of Henry Ford

By Wren, Daniel A.; Greenwood, Ronald G. | Journal of Leadership Studies, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Business Leaders: A Historical Sketch of Henry Ford


Wren, Daniel A., Greenwood, Ronald G., Journal of Leadership Studies


True or False? "Henry Ford invented mass production via the assembly line." If you answered "true," read on; if your response was "false," continue reading only if you wish to discover more about an individual who played a major role in putting millions of people into the horseless carriage.

Henry Ford was born July 30, 1863, in Dearborn, Michigan, the son of William and Mary (nee Litogot) Ford. By the age of sixteen Henry had developed a dislike for farming (his father's occupation) and preferred tinkering with mechanical objects. He built a kerosene-fueled steam tractor but abandoned that idea because of the danger of explosions with the fuel or the boiler. His early career led to a variety of jobs: repairing watches, working for a valve manufacturer, operating a sawmill, and working briefing for the Michigan Car Company. As early as 1885 he repaired an "Otto" engine, an internal combustion, compressed-gasoline-powered device invented in 1876 in Germany by Nicholas Otto. Henry saw a future for the internal combustion gasoline engine and developed several prototypes.

In 1896, while a night-shift engineer at the Detroit Edison Company, Ford attended a speech by Thomas Edison and afterward cornered Edison to see what advice this inventive wizard could offer. Ford recalled that Edison advised him, "There is a big future for any light-weight engine that can develop a high horsepower and be self-contained.... Keep on with your engine. If you can get what you are after, I can see a great future."

The automobile was still a curiosity in 1900, however. Not many people took the belching, backfiring horseless carriages very seriously, and those who did were considered daft. It was the task of men such as Henry Ford, Walter Chrysler, Ransom Olds, William C. Durant, Louis Chevrolet, and others to redraw the face of America's map. Henry Ford popularized the automobile with auto races, and his car #999, driven by Barney Oldfield, was a sure winner.

With Detroit investors, one of whom was the mayor of Detroit, Ford formed the Detroit Automobile Company, capitalized at $150,000 but with only 15,000 in cash, in 1899. The company planned to make ten cars the first year and then gradually increase production to two cars per day. In its advertising, the company promised "that it will emit no odor ... [and] it will make less noise than the ordinary vehicle drawn by a horse." The motor was assembled on a workbench; then the frame was placed on wooden sawhorses and the motor, transmission, springs, and axles were installed. Then the wheels, vehicle sides, seats, cushions, dash, and so on were brought to the chassis to finish the auto. The operation was labor-intensive, individual parts needed precise tolerances to fit properly (1/64 of an inch variance was acceptable), and a careful routing of work was necessary to bring the parts together. Priced at $1,000 (Henry Ford thought that was excessive), the Detroit Automobile Company was short-lived, dissolved by a sale of its assets in 1901. From this firm, however, the Cadillac Motor Car Company would later emerge.

Failures in the automobile industry were not unusual at this time and most ventures failed to get past the start-up stage. In 1900 the auto industry made 4,192 cars; of these, 1,681 were steam-powered, 1,575 were electric, and 936 were gasoline-powered. Henry Ford's commitment to the internal combustion engine clearly put him in the minority with respect to where the industry was headed. It is not surprising that Ford's supervisor called him a "dreamer" when Ford left a secure future in a public utility, Detroit Edison, in 1899 to venture forth on the muddy, rutted, potholed, uncharted roads of the United States.

Technology and legalities shaped the emerging auto industry. Steam-driven vehicles needed frequent stops for water and fuel and a long wait preceded any trip so that the proper pressure could be obtained. Electric (battery-powered) motors seemed promising and were placed experimentally in taxicabs operating in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D. …

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