K-12 Research Guide: Henry Ford


Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. He didn’t even invent the assembly line. But more than any other single individual, he was responsible for transforming the automobile from an invention of unknown utility into an innovation that profoundly shaped the 20th century and continues to affect our lives today. 



Henry Ford was born on a farm in what is now Dearborn, Michigan on July 30, 1863.  Early on Ford demonstrated some of the characteristics that would make him successful, powerful, and famous. Ford demonstrated mechanical ability, a facility for leadership, and a preference for learning by trial-and-error. These characteristics would become the foundation of his whole career. 

In 1888 Ford married Clara Bryant and in 1891 they moved to Detroit where Henry had taken a job as night engineer for the Edison Electric Illuminating Company. 

In 1896 Ford completed his first self-propelled vehicle, the Quadricycle. It had four wire wheels that looked like heavy bicycle wheels, was steered with a tiller like a boat, and had only two forward speeds with no reverse. 

After two failed automotive ventures, Ford Motor Company was founded on June 16, 1903.  

The new company’s first car, called the Model A, was followed by a variety of improved models. In 1907 Ford’s four-cylinder, $600 Model N became the best-selling car in the country. But by this time Ford had a bigger vision: a better, cheaper “motorcar for the great multitude.” Working with a hand-picked group of employees he came up with the Model T, introduced on October 1, 1908. 

The Model T was easy to operate, maintain, and handle on rough roads. It immediately became a huge success.  To keep up with demand, Henry Ford adapted methods used by other industries to develop a moving assembly line for automobile production.  The assembly line was introduced in 1913.   However, Ford workers objected to the never-ending, repetitive work on the new line. Turnover and employee dissatisfaction were high.  Henry responded with his boldest innovation ever—in January 1914 he virtually doubled wages with the introduction of the Five Dollar Day.  The Five Dollar Day stabilized the workforce and gave workers the ability to buy the very cars they made. 

(Adapted from Visionaries on Innovation: Henry Ford


Online Resources 

Visionaries on Innovation: Henry Ford - Interview with former Curator, Bob Casey  

What If Henry Ford Never Finished Building His First Automobile  

Innovation Nation episode and related Model T links  


Expert Sets 

The experts at The Henry Ford have carefully curated artifact sets from focus areas of our collection.  

Expert Set – Henry Ford 

Expert Set – Henry Ford: Youth 

Expert Set – Henry Ford: Portraits  

Expert Set – Henry Ford: Model T 

Expert Set – The Model T & The Assembly Line 

Expert Set – Henry Ford: Henry Ford's Failures 


Example Primary Sources Available on Digital Collections 

Ford Home 

Henry Ford was born in this farmhouse on July 30, 1863. The house stood near the corner of present-day Ford and Greenfield Roads in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford grew up in the house and moved out at age 16 to find work in Detroit. He restored the farmhouse in 1919 and moved it to Greenfield Village in 1944. 

1896 Ford Quadricycle Runabout, First Car Built by Henry Ford 

The Quadricycle was Henry Ford's first attempt to build a gasoline-powered automobile. It utilized commonly available materials: angle iron for the frame, a leather belt and chain drive for the transmission, and a buggy seat. Ford had to devise his own ignition system. He sold his Quadricycle for $200, then used the money to build his second car. 

Ford Motor Company Articles of Association, June 16, 1903 

These four pages are the original Articles of Association that established Ford Motor Company on June 16, 1903. They provided the company name, the purpose for which it was formed, the place of operation, the amount of capital stock, the term of years the company would exist, and the names of the stockholders. Note that Henry Ford was not president. 

1903 Ford Model A Runabout 

After his first two attempts at commercial automobile manufacturing failed, Henry Ford found success with Ford Motor Company, established in 1903. The new company's first product, the Model A, was conventional by the standards of the day. It featured a two-cylinder engine mounted under the seat and rear wheels driven by a chain. 

1909 Ford Model T Touring Car 

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. 

Workers Installing Engines on Ford Model T Assembly Line at Highland Park Plant, 1913 

One worker at Ford's Highland Park Plant connects a Model T driveshaft to its transmission, while another lowers an engine onto the chassis using a chain hoist. This 1913 assembly line was relatively crude -- workers pushed or pulled vehicles to each station. The next year, Ford would install chain-driven, moving assembly lines to improve efficiency and increase productivity. 

Ford Motor Company Meeting Minutes Book, 1911-1919 

These few paragraphs from the January 5th meeting of Ford's Board of Directors announcing the a $5.00 a day wage for an eight hour work day brought thousands of workers to Detroit and sent shock waves through the upper echelon of the automobile industry. 

Portrait of Henry Ford, 1915

Henry Ford's career soared in 1915. Ford Motor Company built 534,108 Model Ts in the 1915-16 model year. The assembly line yielded ever-greater production gains. Ford himself had become a household name. 

Clara Ford and Henry Ford at Fair Lane, Dearborn, Michigan, 1932 

In the 1910s, many of Detroit's wealthy citizens abandoned the city for eastern suburbs. Henry and Clara Ford sought a different path. They selected 1300 acres of farmland in Dearborn (west of Detroit) as the site for their new estate, called Fair Lane. The couple posed for this photograph, taken in their living room in 1932. 


Books and Secondary Sources  

  Henry Ford: Putting the World on Wheels, Dina El Nabli (a Time for Kids Biography) 

  The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century, Steven Watts 

  Friends, Families, and Forays: Scenes from the Life and Times of Henry Ford, Ford R. Bryan 

  Ford: The Times, the Man, the Company, Allan Nevins & Frank Ernest Hill 

  Ford: Expansion and Challenge, 1915-1933, Allan Nevins & Frank Ernest Hill 

  Ford: Decline and Eebirth, 1933-1962, Allan Nevins & Frank Ernest Hill       


Online Databases 

Digital Collections 

Research Library Catalog 

Archival Finding Aids Database  


  • Last Updated Apr 02, 2024
  • Views 4
  • Answered By Lauren B.

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