Engineering Hall of Fame: Henry Ford, Electrical Engineer

Engineering Hall of Fame: Henry Ford, Electrical Engineer

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It is well known to readers of Today’s Engineer that the automobile has become, essentially, an IEEE technology. The IEEE Vehicular Technology Society has seen a resurgence, and shortly IEEE will be sponsoring its first International Electric Vehicle Conference. But the importance to cars of IEEE technologies pre-dates and goes beyond the development of all-electric or electric-internal combustion hybrid cars. Electrical systems in cars go back to Charles Kettering’s self-starter for Cadillac in 1913, and today include a multitude of aspects, from GPS navigation to electronic brake control systems.

Our readers are also aware–as is the broader public–that Henry Ford did more than any other individual to establish the modern automobile industry and that, by perfecting mass production, he transformed the American and, ultimately, the world economy. But how many people realize that Henry Ford was “one of ours?” Of course, professional definitions were more fluid in the 19th century than today, but the case can be made that, despite his lack of formal education, Henry Ford was an electrical engineer prior to helping to invent the profession of automotive engineer.

Henry Ford was born in 1863 in southeastern Michigan, near Detroit. In 1879 he was apprenticed as a machinist in the city. He became adept at servicing steam engines, and was hired by Westinghouse to run steam engines for their local power plant. This led, in 1891, to Ford being hired as an engineer by the Edison Illuminating Company. In this capacity, Ford learned to service the full range of electrical technologies, from generation to transmission and application. So successful was he that in 1893 he was promoted to Chief Engineer.

Detroit was already becoming a center for experimentation and innovation in automobile technology. Ford felt that he wanted to get involved in this very young field, and his Edison position gave him the resources to tinker. By 1896 he had produced a working self-propelled vehicle that he dubbed the “Ford Quadricycle.”

A key turning point happened later that year. Once a year, the Edison Illuminating Company brought together in New York the managers and chief engineers from its local branches around the country to discuss business matters and to be given a pep talk by Edison, the great man himself. Ford went to the meeting, and at the main banquet, his manager mentioned to Edison that Ford was inventing automobiles in his spare time. Edison summoned Ford to the head table and asked the younger man about his experimentations. After listening, Edison encouraged Ford to continue in this work which Edison–with his usual foresight–suspected would have great technological, economic and social importance.

Ford returned to Detroit and, by 1898, had built an improved automobile. It so impressed local investors that Ford was able to resign from the Edison Illuminating Company and found the Detroit Automobile Company. The rest is, as they say, history of technology. Edison might have been chagrinned that his advice had cost him one of his best local engineers, but he and Ford became and remained close friends, and Ford always considered Edison to be his mentor, just as did so many of the early members of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, the predecessor to IEEE. And the story of Henry Ford once again illustrates the importance of the electrical engineer to society, even when you least expect it. To learn more on Henry Ford, and other figures from engineering’s past and present, visit the IEEE Global History Network.


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