By Edward T. O’Donnell
Eighty-five years ago this week, on Dec. 10, 1915, Henry Ford reached a milestone. Seven years after he’d introduced it as a low-cost, no-frills car aimed at the huge American middle class, the one millionth Model T rolled off the assembly line. It was a landmark event in the history of modern manufacturing and a signal that American society was on the verge of a new era.
Henry Ford was born in Michigan in 1863. His father, an emigrant from County Cork during the Famine, scratched out a living as a farmer. Young Henry never liked farm work and at 16 left home and walked to Detroit. There he found work as a machinist’s apprentice, eventually becoming a full-fledged machinist. In 1890, was hired as a mechanical engineer at the Detroit Edison Company.
For years he worked in his spare time to design and build a workable automobile. In 1892, he succeeded in building a "gas buggy" that he drove around the streets of Detroit. Four years later the young inventor met Thomas Edison himself. "Keep on with your engine," the famous inventor told him, "I can see a great future."
Ford soon decided to give up his high-paying job at Edison to go into the automobile manufacturing business full-time. After two false starts, he formed Ford Motor Company in 1903. In 1904, his first full year of operation, Ford sold 1,745 cars.
By 1908, with annual sales of 9,000 cars and revenue of $6 million, Ford introduced the Model T. Five years later, he made industrial history by establishing the assembly line to make Model Ts. Before the assembly line, it took Ford’s workers 12.5 hours to complete a new car; by 1920 it took just 93 minutes. The speed and efficiency of the new assembly process turned the automobile from a luxury good enjoyed only by the super rich into a necessity within the grasp of middle-income Americans. Between 1916 and 1927, despite inflation, the price of a Model T dropped from $345 to $290.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
His success with mass producing the car had an enormous economic impact. The steel and petroleum industries, for example, saw demand for their products soar. Ford’s revolution also spawned dozens of entirely new industries, from filling stations and motels, to auto dealerships and repair shops. Of course a few industries were all but wiped out, most notably horse and buggy manufacturers.
More important, however, was the social impact of Ford’s innovation. The affordable automobile ended the isolation of rural America. It also triggered suburbanization by allowing people to work in a city but live on its outskirts. For a while (until the volume of cars reached a critical point), it even improved the environment in cities by reducing the number of horses.
As he rose to fame and fortune, Ford occasionally acknowledged his Irish heritage. For example, he selected the city of Cork — only a few miles from his father’s birthplace — as the site for his company’s first overseas manufacturing plant. Ford traveled to Ireland to personally open the facility and was received as a returning son. When approached by a local organization working to build a new hospital, he pledged £5,000. He soon upped the sum to £10,000 on the condition that he be allowed to choose the inscription to adorn the façade. He selected a fitting passage from the Bible: "I came among my own — and they took me in."
One cannot discuss Henry Ford without mentioning some of his many flaws. He was staunchly anti-union and in the 1920s published anti-Semitic rants in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. Nonetheless, his creation of the modern automobile industry makes him one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Dec. 6, 1921: Anglo-Irish treaty signed, ending the War for Independence and establishing the Irish Free State as a self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth.
Dec. 6, 1933: A federal judge lifts the ban on James Joyce’s novel "Ulysses." Published in 1922, it had been banned in the U.S. and Britain as obscene.
Dec. 7, 1972: The Dial removes from the Irish Constitution the clause granting the Catholic Church a "Special Position" within Irish society.
Dec. 9, 1941: Two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Flyer Colin Kelly sinks a Japanese destroyer to become first hero of World War II. Killed in the raid, he is awarded posthumously the Distinguished Service Cross.
Dec. 12, 1917: Father Edward Flanagan establishes Boys Town outside Omaha.
Dec. 7, 521: St. Colum Cille, Irish saint, in Gartan, Co. Donegal.
Dec. 8, 1939: James Galway, flutist, in Belfast.
Dec. 8, 1966: Sinead O’Connor, singer and activist, in Dublin.
Dec. 9, 1898: Emmett Kelly, circus clown Weary Willie, in Sedan, Kan.
Dec. 9, 1912: Thomas P "Tip" O’Neill, Speaker of the House, in Cambridge, Mass.
Readers may reach Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@PastWise.com.