Ford Motor Co. has a long history associated with Chicago. In fact, that connection goes back several decades before its current assembly plant was constructed.

The Windy City helped shape Henry Ford’s future during a remarkable 30-year period. Indeed, several trips to Chicago proved to be pivotal moments for him.

Foremost among them was Ford’s eye-opening visit to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The world’s fair attracted millions of people, including a pair of brothers named Orville and Wilbur Wright.

While strolling through the vast fairgrounds, Ford stumbled upon a small gasoline-powered quadricycle tucked away in a corner of a vast exhibit hall. The first fully operational automobile to be shown publicly in the United States was the creation of an obscure German inventor named Otto Daimler. 

Ford returned to Detroit and spent the next decade tinkering in his free time. He eventually sold his first commercially successful automobile—a 2-cylinder, 8-horse-power model—to a Chicago dentist in 1903 (ironically, the first Ford Mustang was sold to a Chicago teacher in 1964).

During the early 1900s, Ford also was a regular visitor to the annual national bicycle show in Chicago, where he rubbed shoulders with other people intrigued with horseless carriages.

On at least one trip, Ford and his colleagues, including engineers William Knudsen, Peter Martin and Charles Sorensen, got the idea for the moving assembly line. They all claimed that the “disassembly lines” of Chicago meatpackers served as a model for flow production at the Highland Park, MI, plant, which implemented the world’s first moving assembly line in 1914.

Another source of inspiration for that concept came from Henry Ford’s visit to the Sears, Roebuck & Co. plant that processed orders generated by the company’s famous mail-order catalog. The 40-acre operation on the West Side of Chicago was called “the world’s greatest mercantile institution.” Shortly after the huge facility opened in 1906, Ford was one of the first visitors and he delighted in its operation.

The Sears warehouse contained numerous elevators, conveyors, endless chains, moving sidewalks, gravity chutes, pneumatic tubes and “every known mechanical appliance for reducing labor” to reduce time and improve productivity (see photo above, courtesy of Library of Congress). Many of those same devices were implemented at Ford’s Highland Park plant, which opened in 1910.

To learn more about other factories that made Chicago a production powerhouse in the 19th and 20th centuries, see Made in Chicago: The Windy City’s Manufacturing Heritage.