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Auto pioneer Henry Ford dies

On this day in 1947, Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company, which developed the first affordable, mass-produced car–the Model T–and also helped pioneer assembly-line manufacturing, dies at his estate in Dearborn, Michigan, at the age of 83.

Ford was born July 30, 1863, on a farm located in present-day Dearborn. The eldest of six children, he was educated in a one-room schoolhouse and as a teenager trained as an apprentice machinist in Detroit. During the 1890s, while working as an engineer, Ford experimented with internal combustion engines and in 1896 built his first self-propelled, gas-engine vehicle, known as the Quadricycle.

Ford made two failed attempts at establishing a successful auto manufacturing company before incorporating the Ford Motor Company in 1903. Though Henry Ford was interested in mass-producing an affordable car, his Detroit-based company initially made just a few cars per day. Then in 1908, Ford introduced the Model T, which was easy to drive and maintain and sold for around $850; the vehicle quickly became a huge success. Within 10 years, half of all cars in the U.S. were Model Ts and by 1927, when the last Model T came off the assembly line, more than 15 million had been sold.

By 1913, Ford’s factory in Highland, Michigan, featured a continuous moving assembly line: Workers remained in place, each adding a standardized part to the vehicle as it proceeded along the line. The cost-efficient process, which soon enabled a new car to be churned out every 93 minutes, revolutionized the industry. Ford’s other innovations included the introduction, in 1914, of the $5 per day minimum wage and the eight-hour workday, at a time when most auto industry workers earned less than half that amount for a nine-hour day. Ford’s fair wage made it possible for ordinary factory workers to buy the cars they built and helped, in part, to create the American middle class.

Despite Henry Ford’s vision and success, his company was criticized for not responding fast enough to consumer demands for new models in the 1920s, which allowed General Motors to pull ahead and become the world’s biggest automaker until 2008, when it was surpassed by Japan-based Toyota.

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