Ford, Henry

Henry Ford (1863-1947), inventor and businessman, founded the Ford Motor Company. He improved the efficiency and lowered the cost of motor vehicles with his Model A and Model T. Ford left his philanthropic legacy through the Ford Foundation, one of the first and largest foundations in the world. It has provided over $12 million in grants and loans in its program areas: asset building and community development; peace and social justice; and knowledge, creativity, and freedom.

Biographical Highlights

Henry Ford (1863-1947) is best known for founding the Ford Motor Company. Ford was not the first man to build a motorized vehicle but he is credited with improving the efficiency and lowering the cost of motor vehicles. Until Ford created the Model A, and more famously the Model T, only the wealthy could afford to own an automobile.

Ford left his legacy not only in the automobile industry, but through his still-thriving philanthropic institution, the Ford Foundation. The foundation was one of the first in the world and has remained one of the largest. To date, it has provided over $12 million in grants and loans. Its impact has reached across the world with three main program areas: 1) asset building and community development, 2) peace and social justice, and 3) knowledge, creativity, and freedom (Ford Foundation "About" 2003).

Historic Roots

Henry's father, William, was an Irish emigrant who fled from Ireland in 1847 to avoid the potato famine. His mother, Mary Litogot O'Hearn was an orphan adopted by the O'Hearn family. William and Mary met while he worked at her family's farm. They later married and gave birth to Henry Ford on July 30, 1863. The family lived in Dearborn, Michigan, about nine miles outside the city of Detroit. Henry was never an exceptional student but was always inquisitive. He found great joy in tearing things apart and putting them back together. When he was twelve, his mother passed away from complications during the delivery of her last child. Henry had difficulty dealing with his loss. William gave his son a watch because he knew Henry would end up tearing it apart and rebuilding it, helping to ease his mind. Sure enough Henry fashioned makeshift tools from his mother's pins and took it apart and put it back together several times. Little did he know that this skill would help him in his first job away from the farm.

Henry detested working on the farm. William saw that his son had a desire to work elsewhere and, at the age of seventeen, Henry started his first job in Detroit repairing watches. Through his young career he changed jobs several times, each time learning more about machinery. At the age of nineteen, Henry became a certified machinist. Later, he met his wife, Clara Bryant, and began to settle down on a piece of land from the family farm in Dearborn.

Clara was supportive of her husband's hobbies. In 1893, Henry began building an engine and she helped him put it on the sink and start it up. This practice did not last long as Henry feared for the safety of his wife and newly born child, Edsel. Once he had a working engine Henry moved his operation into a shed and began work on his first quadricycle. It took Henry three years, but in 1896, he tore the side off the shed he used as a workshop, and drove his quadricycle out of the building.

Henry tried twice to begin an automobile company but they failed. In 1903, the third attempt proved successful - the Ford Motor Company was born. Henry and Clara had spent the previous four years without much money. Henry had a strong desire to build affordable cars to help bring the farmers closer to the city. Ironically, the opposite effect would occur. In 1908, the first Model T was produced. This became the most popular vehicle for almost two decades. He simplified the manufacturing process by making every vehicle identical, right down to the paint color. One of Henry's famous quotes is "A customer can have a car in any color he wants so long as it is black" (The Model T Ford Club 2003).

Henry began building automobile plants that allowed for everything to be constructed on site. This decreased the cost to manufacture, passing on the savings to the customer. In 1913, the cost of a Model T was $450. Despite the low price, Henry was able to clear a substantial profit. He was the first in the industrial age to pay his employees $5 a day and reduce the workday to eight hours. This was Henry Ford's way of profit sharing.

Henry was satisfied with the Model T and turned his attention to building or buying other items. Among his ventures were shipbuilding, hydroelectric dams, railroads, housing developments, radios, aircraft, lumber, and mining.

As Ford Motor Company grew, so did Ford's ambitions, extending his interest beyond the business world. In 1915, he established a peacekeeping mission in an attempt to end World War I. The effort ultimately failed but helped make some progress. He later began a newspaper, which remains the darkest cloud of his legacy. The Dearborn Independent was known for its anti-Semitic articles.

Education was important to Ford. He created several trade schools to improve the talent of the American worker. Later, Henry's philanthropy spread to creating or donating land for libraries, university and college campuses, hospitals, churches, recreational facilities, and highway interchanges. These initiatives were meant to improve the lives of those living in and around Detroit. Henry was not shortsighted; he knew that increasing the education and quality of life would improve the quality of his employee base. Interestingly, Ford also had a strong desire to make farm life easier. In 1937, he donated a cash endowment to form the Henry Ford Institute of Agricultural Engineering.

During the Great Depression, Henry attempted to help current and former Ford Motor Company employees. The drop in sales led to layoffs. Greenfield Village, a living museum, was built using some of his unemployed workers. The Village, dedicated to showcasing our nation's past, was developed to show the changes that have occurred and how hard earlier Americans worked just to make a living.

Finally, in 1936, Ford's assured that his philanthropic work would live on beyond his lifetime, he formed the Ford Foundation. Sadly, on April 7, 1947 Henry Ford passed away. More than 200,000 people paid respects by his casket. The entire city of Detroit closed during his funeral. He left the largest share of his estimated $500-$700 million of wealth to the foundation he created.


Henry Ford improved the quality of life for individuals of all races. He paid a more than fair wage and always gave back to the community. The impacts of his vision changed the way America developed. It is clear that Ford never forgot his agricultural roots, for he spent much of his life trying to find ways to make a farmer's life easier. Henry Ford was important to philanthropy because his bequest to the Ford Foundation made it the largest Foundation for most of the twentieth century. A man who believed in "a hand up, not a handout" was responsible for setting an example for future businessmen and companies to follow.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The Ford Foundation is Henry Ford's most immediate and apparent remaining tie to the philanthropic sector. Throughout his lifetime, several donations were given of land, and money, to insure a good education for youth. Showing great vision, one of the Ford Foundation's early grants was given to help start the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which provides educational shows for children and adults. Today, the foundation is involved in several program areas (including some with international ventures). The foundation has four key goals:

  1. Strengthen democratic values.
  2. Reduce poverty and injustice.
  3. Promote international cooperation.
  4. Advance human achievement.
Henry Ford was one of the first to bequeath a large portion of his wealth to a foundation when he died. He was willing to give back to his community and the people responsible for his acquiring such great wealth. Many of today's CEO's have learned from Ford's example and have created foundations or other philanthropic means to pay back the communities where they have benefited. Henry was also instrumental in preserving important buildings from our nation's past, several years before it became trendy. Today, historic preservation has become a widely accepted part of the American society.

Important People Related to the Topic

Thomas Edison : Henry Ford's friend and fellow inventor.

Oliver Evans : Henry Ford was so fascinated by the steam engine, invented by Evans, he tried to make one himself and ended up getting cut as the tank exploded.

Woodrow Wilson : President of the United States during World War I; met with Henry Ford regarding the "Peace Ship" effort. President Wilson did not endorse Ford's activities.

Wright Brothers : Credited with being the first to fly an airplane. Henry Ford moved their bicycle shop to his grounds at Greenfield Village.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

Ford Foundation : Founded by Henry Ford in 1936, the foundation originally focused on improving the lives of residents of Michigan. It changed to a national and international focus in 1950. An endowment of over $9 billion (value in September 2002) provides the source of support for its programs and operations (Ford Foundation "Frequently" 2003). The current mission of the foundation is to strengthen democratic values; reduce poverty and injustice; promote international cooperation; and, advance human achievement (Ibid. "Mission" 2003). It works to achieve these goals through the funding areas of 1) asset building and community development (includes economic development and community and resource development), 2) peace and social justice (includes human rights and governance and civil society, and 3) knowledge, creativity, and freedom (includes education, sexuality, religion; and media, arts, culture; Ford Foundation "About" 2003).

Greenfield Village : Henry Ford's effort to create a link to the past and exhibit the inventions that have helped America grow.

Henry Ford Museum : On the same grounds as the Greenfield Village, the museum offers a history of transportation in America.

Related Web Sites

Ford Foundation Web site , located at , contains information for grant seekers, grant makers, and others including the foundation's mission, goals, publications, worldwide offices, current programs, areas of funding (asset building and community development; social justice and; knowledge, creativity, and freedom).

Ford Motor Company Web site , at , provides information on the automobile manufacturer's products and services, history, founder, and technology. The automobile lines featured on the site and owned by the company are Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Land Rover, Aston Martin, Volvo, Jaguar, and Mazda.

Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village Web site , at , provides extensive information on exhibits at the Henry Ford Museum and the buildings and other fixtures located in Greenfield Village. The site provides ticket pricing, directions, maps of the grounds, calendar of events, on-site and online exhibit information, a research center (including an online library catalog) and much more.


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This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.