World War I Centennial: Ford Introduces Assembly Line

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 88th installment in the series. 

October 7, 1913: Ford Introduces Assembly Line

Although engineers had been tinkering with internal combustion engines in “horseless carriages” since the late 19th century, it was the cheap, reliable Ford Model T that truly opened the automobile age. In the four years after the first Model T rolled out of Henry Ford’s Piquette Plant factory in Detroit on September 27, 1908, production jumped from 10,660 in 1909 to 82,388 in 1912.

Model T sales were almost doubling annually, but Ford wasn’t satisfied: In a country with a burgeoning population growing wealthier every year, he knew there was huge unmet demand for the status and convenience afforded by a family automobile. The key to tapping this demand was simple: producing vastly more vehicles at an ever-cheaper price. Ford vowed: “I will build a car for the great multitude … it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one.”

Ford had already sped up production by simplifying and standardizing parts, but the crucial step came on October 7, 1913, when the company started using a moving assembly line for the Model T chassis at its new factory in Highland Park, Michigan. Following some earlier tests with assembly line production for individual components, the chassis itself would now be towed across the factory floor by a rope attached to a steam-powered windlass.

Although Ford is often credited as the inventor of the assembly line, it was actually a team effort by his top executives, including Charles E. Sorensen (“Cast-Iron Charlie”), Clarence Avery, Ed Martin, and Walter Flanders, who together pioneered what would later be termed industrial rationalization or “Fordism.” Ford and his managers broke the Model T construction process down into 45 separate tasks, handled in sequence by around 140 workers positioned on both sides of the tow rope (later conveyor belt), each concentrating exclusively on one job.

By enabling workers to become proficient at a single task, the assembly line technique accelerated production while decreasing the level of skill and training needed, thus increasing the pool of potential employees to draw from. The time required to build one Model T fell from over 12 hours to just under six hours, then three hours not long after; within a year additional improvements reduced it to a mere 93 minutes. With 52,000 workers forming three 14,000-person shifts, by the 1920s new Model T cars were rolling off the assembly lines at the rate of one every 24 seconds.

Mass production was accompanied by a steep decline in price: where the first model cost $950 in 1908 and the 1912 model cost $690, the price for a new Model T dropped to $550 in 1913, $440 in 1915, and just $360 in 1916 (an especially impressive achievement considering the effects of wartime inflation). With prices tumbling, sales soared from 170,211 vehicles in 1913 to 735,020 in 1917, and by 1918 half of all cars on the road in the U.S. were Model T’s of various types. Ultimately, 15 million Model T’s would be sold around the world.

The rise of car culture literally transformed the American landscape, as private groups, cities, states, and eventually the federal government began pouring money into building and improving roads, funded by taxes on gasoline—one of the few instances in American history where there was broad public support for new taxation. Tennessee’s chief tax collector summed it up in 1926: “Who ever heard, before, of a popular tax?” In fact Americans were so eager to get on the road that some of the first national highways, or “auto trails,” were actually the work of private (or hybrid private-public) groups like the Lincoln Highway Association and the National Old Trails Road Association, both formed in 1912; the Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway Association, formed in 1914; and the Yellowstone Trail Association, formed in 1918.

Meanwhile assembly line techniques were critical to the war efforts of all the major combatants in the First World War—a “total war” or “war of production,” where advantage went not necessarily to the side with the best generals or bravest soldiers, but rather the biggest and best-organized industrial base.

Among the Allies, French industrial giant Citroën built a munitions plant with a moving assembly line at Quai Javel in 1915, where 13,000 workers were soon producing 35,000 shells a day; the same year saw French aircraft makers create assembly lines for fighter plane engines in new factories at Toulouse (still the center of the French aviation industry today) while Italian industrial concern Fiat used assembly line techniques for its new vehicle factory at Lingotto. Back in France, the Vénissieux plant opened by Berliet and Renault in 1917 employed 10,000 workers on assembly lines producing trucks and tanks.

Inevitably, the adoption of assembly line techniques went hand in hand with a huge increase in power consumption, and electricity production became another key front in the “war of production.” In Britain total power consumption doubled from 2.5 billion kilowatt-hours in 1913 to 4.9 billion in 1918, while Italy also doubled from 2 billion to 4 billion, and Germany jumped from 8 billion to 13 billion over the same period.

The introduction of assembly lines (along with the loss of skilled workers to the military) also shook up industrial labor relations: in Britain, unions agreed to suspend rules about which employees could do what tasks, allowing managers to break down complicated jobs—previously performed by a few skilled workers—into smaller tasks that could be handled by unskilled laborers.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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