When did Henry Ford invent the car? There’s perhaps no single person more associated with the automobile than Henry Ford. Ford is credited with bringing the car to the masses, which transformed driving from a pastime for the rich into an integral part of daily life for millions of people. Just imagine what the world would look like without the mass adoption of the car as basic transportation: We wouldn’t have countries crisscrossed by freeways, there’d be fewer suburbs (and those that did exist would cling to the city center) and no one would ever have to be trapped in a long drive-thru line at lunch (come to think of it, there wouldn’t be drive-thrus at all!). But, while Ford brought the car to the people, he did not invent the car.
Most historians credit Germany’s Karl Benz with inventing the automobile, though a number of people had been working on self-propelled vehicles around the same time. Benz, whose namesake car company, Mercedes-Benz, builds ultra-luxury cars that bear little resemblance to the original cars Benz himself worked on, developed a gasoline-powered three-wheeled vehicle in 1885. By 1889, Benz had a working commercial vehicle, the Model 3, which he exhibited at the Paris World’s Fair.
When did Henry Ford invent the car?
Shortly before midnight on a March evening in 1896, just a few months shy of his thirty-third birthday, Henry Ford witnessed another inventor driving a gas-powered vehicle in Detroit. Charles Brady King—a Cornell-trained engineer—was named the next day in the local newspapers for being the first in Detroit to design, build, and drive a self-propelled automobile. Ford didn’t have to read the articles for a detailed account of the event—he saw the test run in person, pedaling on his bicycle behind King’s vehicle as it motored down Detroit’s cobblestone streets.
Most everyone knows Henry Ford encountered plenty of obstacles as he rose from obscurity to become one of the most influential American innovators of the 20th century. Still, it’s hard to picture the pioneer of America’s transportation revolution pedaling behind another inventor’s car, just another cyclist in the crowd trying to glimpse an internal-combustion automobile—the very machine Ford himself was working feverishly to build.
Why Innovators Get Better With Age
Henry Ford helps to dispel the myth that innovators make their mark on the world when they are young. Certainly this is true for some, including modern-day icons like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. But genius flourishes well past the age of twenty, as best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell helped to point out in his well-known 2008 New Yorker essay “Late Bloomers”.
More recently, a 2013 New York Times article (“Why Innovators Get Better With Age”) by Tom Agan noted that Nobel Prize winners typically make significant breakthroughs in their thirties.
Henry Ford crafted his ideal car in the Model T. It was rugged, reliable and suited to quantity production. The first 2,500 Model Ts carried gear-driven water pumps rather than the thermosiphon cooling system adopted later. Rarer still, the first 1,000 or so — like this example — used a lever rather than a floor pedal to engage reverse.
Looking back through time, historians document many signature achievements in Henry Ford’s life—from his Model T, assembly line, and Five Dollar Day incentive to his monumental River Rouge plant—that mark him as one of America’s greatest innovators. He is celebrated for his ability to see before practically anybody else that he could transform modern America by building a durable, affordable car for ordinary citizens.
What’s just as important to remember is that his genius was coupled with what Gladwell calls “forbearance and blind faith”, and what others might call “grit”. In other words, he never ever gave up. If ever there was a defining moment in his life when he first realized he possessed these resilient resources, it might’ve been those three months in 1896, when another engineer won recognition for building the first automobile in Detroit.
Later years of Henry Ford;
The unprecedented scale of that success, together with Ford’s personal success in gaining absolute control of the firm and driving out subordinates with contrary opinions, set the stage for decline.
Trusting in what he believed was an unerring instinct for the market, Ford refused to follow other automobile manufacturers in offering such innovative features as conventional gearshifts (he held out for his own planetary gear transmission), hydraulic brakes (rather than mechanical ones), six- and eight-cylinder engines (the Model T had a four), and choice of colour (from 1914 every Model T was painted black). When he was finally convinced that the marketplace had changed and was demanding more than a purely utilitarian vehicle, he shut down his plants for five months to retool.
In December 1927 he introduced the Model A. The new model enjoyed solid but not spectacular success. Ford’s stubbornness had cost him his leadership position in the industry; the Model A was outsold by General Motors’ Chevrolet and Chrysler’s Plymouth and was discontinued in 1931. Despite the introduction of the Ford V-8 in 1932, by 1936 Ford Motor Company was third in sales in the industry.
A similar pattern of authoritarian control and stubbornness marked Ford’s attitude toward his workers. The $5 day that brought him so much attention in 1914 carried with it, for workers, the price of often overbearing paternalism. It was, moreover, no guarantee for the future; in 1929 Ford instituted a $7 day, but in 1932, as part of the fiscal stringency imposed by falling sales and the Great Depression, that was cut to $4, below prevailing industry wages.
Ford freely employed company police, labour spies, and violence in a protracted effort to prevent unionization and continued to do so even after General Motors and Chrysler had come to terms with the United Automobile Workers. When the UAW finally succeeded in organizing Ford workers in 1941, he considered shutting down before he was persuaded to sign a union contract.
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