He didn’t invent the auto-mobile, but Henry Ford pretty much invented the modern world, transforming transportation and bringing manufacturing and society along for the ride. As Lee Iacocca, who began his auto career at Ford in the 1940s, wrote in Time, “The boss was a genius. He was an eccentric. He was no prince in his social attitudes and his politics. But Henry Ford’s impact in history is almost unbelievable.” In 1905, when Ford’s backers insisted that the best way to increase profits was to build a car for the rich, he argued that the workers who built the cars ought to be able to afford one themselves.
Ford’s Model T, released in 1908, was elegantly simple — and affordable. “Ford instituted industrial mass production,” Iacocca noted, “but what really mattered to him was mass consumption. He figured that if he paid his factory workers a real living wage and produced more cars in less time for less money, everyone would buy them … it was a virtuous circle, and he was the ringmaster.” His vision helped create a middle class in the U.S., one marked by urbanization, rising wages and free time for workers to spend their pay.
(SPECIAL: The Dozen Most Important Cars of All Time)
Ford helped develop an infrastructure of dealer-franchisers, gas stations and better roads to support his cars. His great strength was the manufacturing process, not invention. The company’s assembly line in Highland Park, Mich., humming along in 1914 to churn out a new car every 93 minutes, threw America’s Industrial Revolution into overdrive. The same year, Ford doubled his workers’ wages, helping more of them buy more cars. His views of race and history are a blot on his legacy — and he let General Motors lap Ford Motor with stronger marketing — but his impact on our world is undeniable.
This entry is excerpted from the new TIME book The 100 Most Influential People of All Time, which profiles spiritual icons, leaders, explorers, visionaries and cultural titans throughout human history. Available wherever books are sold and at time.com/100peoplebook
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