This Day In History: August 15

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On August 15, 1899, in Detroit, Michigan, Henry Ford resigns his position as chief engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company’s main plant in order to concentrate on automobile production.

Henry Ford left his family’s farm in Dearborn, Michigan, at age 16 to work in the machine shops of Detroit. In 1888, he married Clara Bryant, and they had a son, Edsel, in 1893. That same year, Ford was made chief engineer at Edison. Charged with keeping the city’s electricity flowing, Ford was on call 24 hours a day, with no regular working hours, and when not working could tinker away at his real goal of building a gasoline-powered vehicle. He completed his first functioning gasoline engine at the end of 1893, his first horseless carriage, called the Quadricycle, by 1896.

In the summer of 1898, Ford was awarded his first patent, in the name of his investor and Detroit’s mayor, William C. Maybury, for a carburetor he built the previous year. By the middle of the following summer Ford had produced his third car. A much more advanced model than his two previous efforts, it had a water tank and brakes, among other new features. Maybury’s support, combined with Ford’s bold ideas and charisma, helped assemble a group of investors who contributed some $150,000 to establish the Detroit Automobile Company in early August 1899. Ten days later, Ford left Edison, where he had worked for the previous eight years. He turned down a considerable salary offer of $1,900 per year and the title of general superintendent to become mechanical superintendent of the new auto company, with a salary of $150 per month.

The Detroit Automobile Company was one of some 60 aspiring automakers in America at the time, and it struggled to keep up with the stiff competition provided by the likes of Packard of Ohio and Olds Motor Works of Lansing, Michigan. The company began to collapse in the middle of its second year of operation and ceased doing business in November 1900. Maybury and others retained their faith in Ford, however, and in late 1901 they backed him as chief engineer of the Henry Ford Company. This effort failed as well, and Ford put all of his hopes into a make-or-break third effort. The Ford Motor Company, founded in mid-June 1903, rolled out its first car–a Model A–that July and continued to grow steadily over the next several years. The release of the now-legendary Model T or “Tin Lizzie” in 1908 catapulted Ford Motor Company into the leading ranks of American automakers and turned its founder, a farm boy from Dearborn, into one of the world’s richest men.