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USA - American history

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Henry Ford the man who changed America    

It was in 1896 that Henry Ford built his first motor car. In this article, Linguapress looks at one of the men whose ideas and achievements had the greatest impact on the American way of life in the twentieth century.

Henry Ford with Model T
Henry Ford, with a Model T, in Buffalo, New York, 1921

     In January 1914, Henry Ford decreed that all his factory-workers should be paid at least $5 a day, for 8 hours' work.
    Any classic economist must have thrown up his hands in dismay at this radical decision, since it amounted to more than doubling wages overnight. In 1913, the average paid to workers in the Ford factory had been just $2.40.
    But then Henry Ford was not interested in doing things the way other people said he should do them, and he was not the sort of man to stick to classic concepts and tried and trusted theories. He believed that by paying his workers more, he would get them to work better, and become better consumers. History seems to show that in this particular case at least he was right. In spite of the wage increase, his company grew and prospered.
    Had Ford not been determined to do what he wanted to do, and to do it his way, twentieth century America might have developed rather differently, or more slowly. Ford would have complied with his father's wishes and become a farmer in Michigan, and no-one today would have heard of him. Instead, he transformed the automobile from an expensive gadget for the rich, into an everyday vehicle which ordinary Americans could afford.
    Henry Ford was born in 1863 on a farm in Dearborn, Michigan, where his English grandfather had settled after leaving Ireland in 1847. Though Henry's father was determined that his son should become a farmer, Henry had other ideas. By his early teens, he had developed a passion for mechanics and was set on becoming an engineer. Leaving home at 16, he walked to Detroit and became an apprentice, working for various employers and learning about mechanics, steam engines and, in due course, the internal combustion engine.
    Nevertheless, his father's influence was strong, and at the age of 23, Henry returned to Dearborn to get married and settle down on the farm his father had promised him. The agricultural interlude in his life, however, was short; and within less than two years, Ford was back in Detroit, to take up a job with the Edison Illuminating Company.
    In 1892, the first automobile was built in the United States. Within weeks, Ford, having studied the designs carefully, was hatching plans to manufacture his own horseless carriages. His first hand-built car was completed in 1896.
    By 1899, Ford had built three automobiles, using the profits from each one to help him refine his techniques and improve the performance of the next. In 1900, he helped to found his first car company, which failed within a year. His second venture was no more successful, and after it collapsed, Ford went back to building hand-made cars at home.
    Yet Ford still had ambitions to launch a company that would produce cars in a way that no other manufacturer was doing; by mass production.
    Rightly, he reasoned that mass production would drastically cut production costs, and thus the price of cars. The first cars produced by the Ford Motor Company in 1903 had a price tag of $850; nevertheless, though there were plenty of prospective buyers for cars at this price, and over 1,700 were sold in the company's first year, Ford was not satisfied. He wanted to increase production to the point at which the cost of a car would fall to $500.
    In 1907, the first "Model T" Ford emerged from Ford's factory. Its success was immediate, and within four years the company had brought a second production plant into operation. Then, in 1912, Ford introduced what was his most radical contribution to manufacturing; the moving production line.
    From that time onwards, instead of having workers move round a factory to work on each new vehicle, vehicles were moved round the factory on continuous lines and workers remained at fixed work stations, where each had all the tools, parts and equipment he needed. Car production was revolutionized, and by 1914, Ford boasted that his factory could build a car in 93 minutes!
    By 1915, over a million Model T's had been built, and seven years later the price had fallen to under $300! By the time the vehicle went out of production in 1927, almost 16 million Model T's had been built, and Ford had achieved his ambitions, beyond his wildest dreams.

As well as building cars, Henry Ford was a militant pacifist, with a passion for education and history. Besides the Ford Motor Company, he founded the Henry Ford Museum at Dearborn, and "Greenfield Village", an outdoor living museum to which he brought some of the most important buildings in the history of American invention. These include Thomas Edison's workshop and the home of the Wright brothers.
  On the downside, he was also known for his antisemitic views, about which he was quite open.


decreed ordered  - dismay: alarm - wages: pay - set on : determined to - interlude: period -  hatching: preparing prospective: potential production plant: manufacturing unit

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Henry Ford

Interactive gap-fill exercises.  Use on screen or on paper 

1. Modal verbs
Complete the following sentences, using the appropriate modal verb (could, would, should, would have).

To save your answers, take a screenshot when you have completed the exercise.

Ford claimed that he  build a car in 93 minutes.

His father  liked him to be a farmer.

Ford understood that cars  become very important, and that their price  fall if they  be mass-produced.

Some people told Ford he  pay his workers less, but he disagreed, saying that workers  work better if he paid them more.

2.  Following verbs

Choose the correct form of the dependent verb in these sentences, which are similar in structure to sentences in the article. You may need to add a linking preposition too.

I am not interested (go)  to the cinema tonight.

They are determined (win)  the prize.

The examples will help me (pass)  my exam.

Instead (just stand)  there , do something!

He's going (play) basketball as well as (go)  to London.

I'm not the kind of person (take)  "no" for an answer.

Ideas for teachers :

Language points :

Modal verbs. See the exercise above. For more on these see Linguapress grammar pages  Modals of ability and Modals of obligation

Semi-technical English. 
This article is for a general readership, but contains a bit of technical language. Note in particular the compound nouns and adjectives, which are a common feature of technical English.
Note : factory-workers  /  steam engine / internal combustion engine /  Edison Illuminating Company /  hand-built /  hand-made /  mass-production  /  production costs  /  price-tag /  production plant /  work stations

Creative writing. 
Have students write an imaginary account of their first drive in an automobile in  1910

Note that there are a few small changes between the written and recorded ver'sions of this text. Have students note down the differences as they listen. The differences do not change any meanings, they provide alternative ways of expressing information.


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Advanced level English resource

Level - Plain English
IELTS Level :  6
Flesch-Kincaid  scores
Reading ease level:
61 - Plain English

Grade level: 10

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Fully updated 2023 from an article originally published in 1996 in Spectrum, the advanced level English newsmagazine.
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