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5 Things Every Innovator Needs to Know About America's Greatest Auto Pioneer

5 Things Every Innovator Needs to Know About America's Greatest Auto Pioneer

Henry Ford and the 15 Millionth Model T.

Image credit: The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation

Henry Ford, who created the Ford Model T and became synonymous with American automobile innovation, is often given credit for inventing the assembly line -- but he didn’t.

While it isn’t clear whom to attribute the invention of the assembly line -- some believe that it was an automobile engineer contemporary of Ford’s, Ransom E. Olds of Oldsmobile acclaim -- what is known is Ford has always been a visionary.

As a child, he took apart and assembled so many watches and clocks that at the age of 12 he was hired as a watch repairman. Also, as the the son of a Michigan farmer, Ford hated the drudgery of farm work and went on to later make tractors that replaced the lumberous horse-pulled contraptions of his youth. He clearly possessed what his biographer Richard Snow and author of I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford described as an “intuitive sense of machinery from a very young age.”

While he didn’t the assembly line, he was responsible for creating a process that he improved upon so powerfully he became known for it.  

Ford had been trying to increase efficiency at his factories for years. In 1903, at 40 years old, he began his third attempt at a car manufacturing plant: the Ford Motor Company. The factory’s first car, the Model N, was built by workers through arranging the parts in a row on the floor while the chassis was dragged down the production line on skids. When the vastly improved Model T followed in 1908, the demand for the somewhat affordable car (it was $825 when it first came out, but it eventually dropped to as low as $350) outpaced Ford’s ability to produce.

“I invented nothing new. I simply assembled into a car the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work, and the discoveries of still other men who preceded them... So it is with every new thing.” -- Henry Ford

He sought to solve this by implementing improvements that allowed for quicker and more economical production, including the addition of an automated conveyor belt so the work traveled to the worker, along with breaking the Model T’s assembly into 84 steps and training each of his workers to do just one.

And when workers threatened to leave due to the monotony of the task, Ford responded by doubling their wages to $5 a day, an unheard of amount for that time. Doing so was both selfless and self-serving: It bumped his workers into the middle class and enabled them to become his customers. By 1919, the self-taught pioneer was producing over half the cars in America.

The impact of Ford’s influence was epic. Trips to the nearest city and back in one day’s travel were suddenly commonplace. There became a reason to build highways between cities, as well as create fast food restaurants and rest stops in between. Ford’s automobiles had became part of America’s popular culture and birthed new industries that hadn’t needed to exist.

“Every century or so, our republic has been remade by a new technology,” says biographer Snow. “One hundred and seventy years ago it was the railroad; in our time it’s the microprocessor. These technologies do more than change our habits; they change the way we think.”

While there’s no doubt the man who brought us the Model T radically changed the way people moved through the world, he also was a pioneer in other ways.

Here are five additional reasons why he was a radical and visionary.

1. Ford fought for his principles.

Ford in Model T in 1908.
Image Credit: The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation

While Ford is known for building cars, he also scored big points for the automobile industry in its nascent days. He won a landmark copyright appeal case in 1911, and his win impacted smaller automobile makers who struggled to enter and stay in the game, says Matt Anderson, transportation curator at The Henry Ford museum.

The original copyright infringement suit was brought against Ford by New York patent attorney, George Selden, who held a patent on an all-encompassing description of the automobile, which he filed in 1879. He later sold it to to Electrical Vehicle Company, who was also involved in the suit.

According to the patent, automobile makers were not only required to pay royalties to Electrical Vehicle but also had to join the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers (ALAM), or risk being sued. (ALAM was formed, in part, to keep undesirables out of the automobile market. Ford had tried to apply to ALAM and was rebuffed.) In 1903, with the opening of Ford Motor, Selden and Electric Vehicle Co. sued Ford for patent infringement.

The fight waged on for years, and in the meantime, Ford became an extraordinarily wealthy man who could have capitulated paying the royalties like his contemporaries had before him.

"No man has a right to profit by a patent only," said Ford of that case, according to Automotive News. "That produces parasites, men who are willing to lay back on their oars and do nothing. If any reward is due the man whose brain has produced something new and good, he should get enough profits from the manufacture and sale of that thing."

Victory didn’t come easily. In 1909, a trial judge ruled in favor of ALAM. However, Ford hired a new lawyer and filed an appeal. In 1911, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Ford’s favor, ruling that no royalties were required. ALAM was dissolved in 1912, and industry-wide practice of sharing technology without licensing fees became commonplace.

2. Ford saw the future.

Assembly worker on production line.
Image Credit: The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation

At the turn of the century, cars were luxury items of the very wealthy. A two-seater Packard sports car cost five times as much as a standard house in the suburbs.

In spite of there being no demand, Ford completely bucked against that standard and wanted to mass produce affordable cars for everyday people. This caused internal conflict with his company’s financial backers -- that was up until he could prove the success of this mass-sales business model with the Ford Model T.

In 1908, when Ford opened Ford Motor, the average person did not own a car. By 1919, Ford was producing over half the cars in America, costing at the time approximately $350. His ability to provide an affordable automobile to the lower and middle class changed the way people were able to live. By the time Ford Motor ceased making the Model T in 1927 --  with competitors like GM having edged ahead of the Model T in beauty and add-ons -- there was very little in America that the car and Ford’s vision hadn’t touched.

3. Ford was a master in leadership.

Henry Ford and wife Clara on the quadricycle.
Image Credit: The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation

Ford built his first early-version of the car, the quadricycle, while he was working at the Edison Illuminating Company. To turn his vision into a reality, he gathered the engineering talent and convinced others to build it for him while he directed the operation, according to The Henry Ford's Anderson.

“One of Ford’s earliest colleagues said that Ford had the ‘magnet,’” says author Snow. “He would come in on a job, would win over everybody doing it, get them to do work he should have been doing and just disappear.”

Sometimes his leadership tendencies would be resented. For his workers to remain eligible for the $5 a day wage, Ford had what was equivalent to his version of social services visit the homes of his workers to gauge cleanliness, moral lifestyle (e.g. drinking habits) and check if the worker was putting away savings, according to Anderson.

4. Ford saw marketing opportunities everywhere.

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
Image Credit: The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation

Ford also knew how to court the press and loved talking to them, says Anderson. “The introduction of the second Model A -- which followed the Model T in 1927 -- was an example of his ability to be a showman. He would give information about the car in dribs and drabs to the press which would cause them to speculate about the car.”

Around 1915, the Ford Model T became a part of popular culture with joke books and songs often referencing the cheap car. Ford kept these book in supply and passed them out to people, as he thought it was free advertising, explains Snow.

5. Ford took big risks.

Henry Ford and the 15 Millionth Model T.
Image Credit: The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation

There are many examples of Ford being a risk taker: He had two failed automobile startups to prove it. However, it’s Ford’s third attempt, with Ford Motor, that proved his willingness to put everything into one pot.

At the time, he was almost 40 with a wife and a young child. He’d already done well in life as a lead engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company and made a considerable salary of $2,000 a year, according to Anderson.

Yet, after being pushed out of his second company, the Henry Ford company, in March 1902, he quickly regrouped. He found new backers and started Ford Motor in June of 1903.