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Henry Ford: A Revolution of American Industrialism
“International financiers are behind all war. They are what is called the international Jew: German-Jews, French-Jews, English-Jews, American-Jews … the Jew is the threat” (Krome 55-56). Henry Ford, perhaps one of the most controversial and influential industrialists of the 20th century, founded the Ford Motor Company and implemented the assembly line technique of mass production. As a result, Ford revolutionized transportation and, inadvertently, American industry. As seen from the quote above, Ford has an interesting character that not only highlights his flaws but also sheds a different light on the American folk hero. Do the character flaws outweigh his contributions to the American way of life? Are Ford’s contributions significant in changing American society? These are the questions to keep in mind while reading the story of this captain of industry. Before the Ford Motor Company is discussed, Ford’s story begins in his early childhood.
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Henry Ford was born July 30, 1863, on a Michigan farm and spent his days working on the family farm up until his early teenage years (Casey). At the age of 15, as a side business, Ford would repair timepieces of friends and neighbors given his experience disassembling and reassembling his own pocket watch his father gave him (Ford 22). This is the first glimpse that Ford had an eye for mechanical design, and this becomes even more apparent when he leaves home at the age of 17 to work as an apprentice machinist in Detroit (Watts 28). In 1891, Ford is hired as an engineer at the Edison company and has enough time to focus on his personal endeavors relating to gasoline powered engines (Casey). After a rough start to secure funding, the Ford Motor Company is incorporated on June 16, 1903, and Henry Ford begins working on the famous Model T but came across serious backlash. The Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers threatened to put the company out of business because it was not a licensed manufacturer (Gelderman). Interestingly, for those unaware of the history of the automobile, the gasoline powered automobile was patented, and the association owned the patent: any manufacturer must be approved by the association and pay a royalty fee for utilizing the patent. Ford fought the association for six years in a lengthy court case with the eventual being an appealed victory in 1911 (Gelderman). This victory is an incredibly important contribution to society as the case had huge implications for the automobile industry due to the increased competition by previously “unlicensed” manufacturers; automobile prices lowered due to no royalty fees.
Once the patent issue resolved itself, Ford focused on the success of the Model T automobile. Although Ford is commonly credited with the idea, the concept and development of the moving assembly line came from Ford employees (Nevins 387-415). Regardless, the assembly line led to a rapid increase in production so much so that Ford surprised the world in 1914 by offering a $5 per day wage as opposed to the industry standard of $2.54 (Gelderman). Consequently, the company shifted from constant turnover to the best mechanics in the area, the wage increase motivated workers and so raised productivity further, and the company had lower training costs (Nevins 178-194). Due to the increased wage, workers could afford Model T automobiles and so they indirectly reinvested in the company. With the higher profit margin, the Ford Motor Company introduced the five-day forty-hour workweek in 1926 (standard was six-day forty-eight hour workweek) while retaining the same pay in order to boost productivity as workers worked harder in exchange for more free time (Crowther). The assembly line method, wage increase, and the five-day workweek led to the high success of the Ford Motor Company. Moreover, due to vertical integration and high production, the company was able to decrease the price of the model T from $825 in 1908 ($22,850 adjusted price 2017) to $360 ($8,233 adjusted price 2017) in 1916 (Anastakis 54-63). With an increase of automobiles on the road, the Model T pressured road development in the United States as rural voters lobbied for paved roads (Bellis). On another note, the transportation industry is not the only industry that went through a revolution as many other companies in the United States applied the same tactics Ford used in order to incentivize workers and thus led to the worker standards still in place today. For these reasons stated, Henry Ford earned his place in American history as an influential industrialist.
Despite the success Ford achieved and the new economic middle class that resulted, Henry Ford had a complex personality that made him disliked by society. For example, Ford hated labor unions to the point that he hired Harry Bennett, a former Navy fighter, to employ various intimidation tactics to prevent unionization in Ford’s factories (Dahlinger 91). Known as The Battle of the Overpass, Bennett’s security team assaulted members of the United Automobile Workers union with clubs (Wallace). Shortly thereafter, Henry Ford threatened and ended up very close to shutting down the company as opposed to cooperating and agreeing to the demands of the union; his wife had to give him an ultimatum so that he agreed to cooperate (Sorensen 266-272). This situation led to bad public relations for the Ford Motor Company. Another example is his antisemitism views as he sponsored a weekly newspaper that published strong antisemitic views. During this time, Ford was considered “a respected spokesman for right-wing extremism and religious prejudice” (Quinley 168). For perspective, Adolf Hitler himself admired Henry Ford so much that Hitler had a life-size portrait of Ford on his desk (Dobbs). However, the Ford Motor Company was one of the few corporations that actively hired black workers and did not discriminate against Jewish workers and suppliers: the company also hired women and handicapped men when it was uncommon in other companies at the time (Segal 46). Despite his personal shortcomings, there is something to be said about a man that does not let his personal social and religious views affect his private business. As a side note, the Ford family owned the Ford Motor Company during this time and therefore they did not have to answer to a board of directors. In other words, Ford had the ability to change his company to reflect his personal views but chose not to do it.
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In summary, Henry Ford, the eccentric industrialist of 20th century America, revolutionized American industry as a whole when he founded the Ford Motor Company and put in place the worker standards we still have today. Do the character flaws outweigh his contributions to society? This question asked in the beginning is left open ended for the reader to ponder. However, whether or not his character flaws outweigh his contributions, one idea is certain. Ford changed the way business was done in the 20th century and for that he earns a place in American history. Despite the obstacles he faced, the persistence to move forward is one characteristic that is admirable. Ford said it best, “failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently” (“Henry Ford Quotes”).
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