Henry Ford, a most recognizable name that I remember from the final exam of my high school U.S. History class. The question was, inevitably, "Who invented the assembly line?" My instructor, a particularly clever individual who liked to play the role of trickster on occasion, had provided four possible answers. One of the names was Henry Ford, but it was not the correct answer.
Popular culture often associates Ford with the "invention" of the assembly line. In reality, the concept of breaking up large jobs up into smaller pieces to increase efficiency was invented by Ransom E Olds. Another titan of the auto industry, Old's Oldsmobile Curved Dash was the first mass-produced vehicle in American history, selling around 5,000 units in 1904 alone. However, mass production in the realm of vehicle production had not nearly reached its full potential until Henry Ford tried his hand at the assembly line method. Ford's results were extraordinary, and altered the course of American history forever.
Henry Ford was born in 1863, the son of an immigrant farmer and wife. But young Henry was not long for the pastures. After Ford's mother passed away in 1876, he left the farm and went to Detroit to become a machinist. He excelled at engineering, working at a number of firms, including Westinghouse, where he assisted in servicing steam engines. But steam power was not the way of the future, and Ford knew this. His vision was that of vehicles powered by gasoline, an idea which led first to the invention of the Ford Quadricycle. It was the first gasoline-powered, self-propelled vehicle that Ford created, and it worked.
By this point, Ford was working for the Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit, owned by none other than famed inventor, Thomas Edison. At a board meeting that Ford attended, the two legends met and Edison approved of Ford's experiments with gasoline power. This encouraged Ford, and with the backing of a number of wealthy investors, Ford founded his first company, Detroit Automobile Company.
Unfortunately, the vehicles produced by the Detroit Automobile Company did not live up to Ford's vision. After dissolving his first company, he founded another--and then left it (this second organization produced a 25-horsepower vehicle and was taken over by Henry M. Leland, who re-named it Cadillac Automobile Company). Still determined, Ford created a vehicle with 80+ horsepower and raced it, driving 1 mile in 39 seconds and setting a new land speed record at 91.3 miles-per-hour. He did this under the banner of Ford Motor Company, est. 1903, whose parts suppliers were John and Horace Dodge.
The race driver Barney Oldfield named the new Ford model "999", after the fastest train in the country at that time, and toured the nation with it. His tour expanded Ford's sphere of influence and brand awareness, positioning Ford to introduce the world to his next genius feat: The Model T.
Stay tuned next week for a continuation of Henry Ford's story! We will talk about how he used the assembly line methodology to create jobs and produce a vehicle that served the common good in its operational simplicity and general affordability.