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
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Research Editor

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.