Freedom to Assemble

Henry Ford ushered in the moving assembly line 100 years ago, jump-starting mass production and the consumption of nearly everything.


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From Detroit to the World

Observing its centennial this year, the automotive assembly line was implemented more than five decades before Cowger ever hung a Buick Wildcat’s door. In the 19th century, less complicated but nevertheless precision-made products such as Colt firearms used interchangeable parts and a moving assembly process. R.E. Olds had sequenced some of the production of his Oldsmobiles in 1902 by staging machines, workers, and parts. Detroit historian Charles Hyde adds that there had also been “large-scale production” of bicycles and sewing machines.

Even so, Ford’s operation at the Highland Park plant was something altogether different. “Number one, it really made possible mass production of a very complicated machine — the automobile,” says Hyde, author of the forthcoming book, Arsenal of Democracy: The American Automobile Industry in World War II. “And let’s face it, the sewing machine is really a pretty simple machine compared to an automobile. So that’s really the accomplishment: it was mass-production. (Ford) kept increasing the production, which meant he could lower the price. The Model T was the first mass-consumption product of any complexity or costliness. Ford made 15 million of them, which at that time was a tremendous accomplishment.”

The idea of the assembly line came about in 1912 after some Ford workers visited a Swift & Co. meat packing plant in Chicago. Returning to Highland Park — where Ford had already moved into the Albert Kahn-designed factory on a 57-acre site — they told foreman William Klann about the precise timing and coordination of the overhead line that carried hogs, each dangling by an ankle, to their demise. Until now, approximately the same assembly process that had originated in Ford’s Piquette Avenue plant in Detroit remained in use: skilled craftsmen clustered around stationary cradles formed from sawhorses, building up to 50 cars at a time in one place until the axles were installed and the cars could roll.  

“I went down to Chicago, to the slaughterhouse, myself,” Klann recalled, explaining how he became convinced the process would suit automobile production. In the spring of 1913, he first sequenced the tasks involved in assembling a magneto, the Model T’s onboard electrical generating unit. Surrounded by bins of parts, it took a single craftsman about 20 minutes to assemble the entire magneto.

Klann’s new method broke down the assembly into 29 operations, removing all skill from the process. With a crew standing alongside a motorized conveyor belt, the assembly time per unit dropped to five minutes. As engine crankcase assemblies were added to the assembly line, followed by transmissions and axles, the dehumanizing aspect of such menial, repetitive work was disregarded.

“The moving conveyors continued to spread like kudzu throughout the plant, soon enveloping the other subassemblies,” writes historian Douglas Brinkley. Machines performed as many tasks as possible, and visitors to the factory remarked on the cacophony. One described how, in the four-story building, clanking and clattering and ethereal screeches combined against a background roar that could have come from Niagara Falls. Drive belts and hundreds of structural pillars obscured sight lines.

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