The world changed forever when Henry Ford started using an assembly line to produce his automobiles. This type of assembly allowed cars to be mass produced instead of being made one at a time. Cars became more affordable because of the drop in production costs. Ford’s use of the assembly line had a lasting impact because it changed transportation and the way that manufacturing was done.
Henry Ford always had an interest in machines because he wanted to find a way to make work easier on the farm where he grew up. He moved to Detroit when he was 16 years old to learn about mechanics. He later returned to the farm, but he never stopped thinking about his dream to build a horseless carriage (Venezia, 12-13). After getting married, Henry Ford and his wife, Clara, moved back to Detroit so that he could learn more about engines. He became an engineer and machinist for Edison Illuminating Company (Venezia, 14-15). Ford began building his own gasoline engine at home to power his horseless carriage. Gasoline engines had existed even before Henry Ford was born, but they were not popular because this type of engine was not considered powerful or dependable. Henry Ford’s goal was to build an automobile that was reliable and inexpensive enough for more people to own one. “I will build a motor car for the multitude,” promised Henry Ford (Bak, 54). He did not invent the automobile. Cars at the time were very complicated, and only the rich who could afford a chauffer that could both drive and repair the vehicle were able to own one (Venezia, 16-17). Henry Ford wanted to build a simple and reliable car that was affordable. Owning an automobile would eventually allow people to move into the city rather than living on farms and would require the development of roads and highways since people would be able to travel easier. When Henry Ford left his family farm, four out of every five Americans lived on farms. By the time that he died, four out of five people lived in the city (Middleton, 30-31).
After several failed attempts to start companies to begin building automobiles, Henry Ford decided to start building race cars. Racing had become a very popular sport, and it allowed Ford to be well known because of his success building a faster car than his competition. After winning a race setting a new speed record, rich businessmen were willing to help Ford set up his third company, named Ford Motor Company (Middleton, 13). The company became a huge success, and Ford decided to name his first cars after letters of the alphabet. He now had a problem of how to make enough automobiles to meet demand (Venezia, 23). His workers were building cars one at a time, and he had to find a way to produce more. There was a four month backlog of orders that required new production methods to be used (Bak, 74).
Henry Ford began to look at the way meatpackers used motorized belts to move cows and hogs through their processing plants. He decided that if he used this type of device to move the parts of a vehicle through an assembly line, he could have one worker do a specific job continuously (Burgan, 55). This repetitive process would allow several cars to be under assembly at the same time, and this would shorten the amount of time that it took to build each automobile. In 1912 the moving assembly line was implemented by Henry Ford at his Highland Park production plant, known as the Crystal Palace (Bak, 61). “We began with a minor sub-assembly: the flywheel magneto,” recalled Harold Willis, who had worked with Henry Ford since his racing days. “It had been customary for one man to do the entire job of assembling a magneto. It had taken him 20 minutes. By splitting the work into 29 operations and pushing the magneto on a conveyor belt, the assembly time was cut to four minutes” (Bak, 74-75). The magneto was part of the Model T’s ignition system, which used sparks to start the engine. Production doubled the first year that the assembly line was used (Bak, 61). Making cars more quickly allowed Ford to drop prices so that they were more affordable. This type of production lowered the cost per unit in manufacturing and is still used today. “The introduction of the moving assembly line presaged the auto industry’s future, for with it came the realization that almost all movement through the factory could be mechanized and thus closely controlled by management,” claims Lindy Biggs, a history professor at Auburn University and author of The Rational Factory (Weber).
Henry Ford decided that he needed to create loyalty from his workers, so he doubled their pay from $2.50 to $5 per day (Burgan, 57). Workers at Ford Motor Company were getting paid the industry’s highest wages. He felt that by increasing their pay, they would be more willing to accept the monotony of repetitive work. The higher wages were also meant to encourage company loyalty and to increase productivity. The Ford employees were making enough money to buy the same automobiles that they were making (Burgan, 57). This created additional demand and lowered prices even more. Skilled workers had been replaced by uneducated and unskilled workers who were willing to perform the same task over and over and were willing to risk injury since fingers were often caught in moving belts and punch presses (Bak, 197). Ford also reduced the workday to eight hours to help improve the attitude of the workers, but some workers quit after a short time because they were unhappy (Venezia, 28). They wanted jobs that required more skills and offered more of a variety of duties so that the workplace was not so boring.
Within months of its introduction, the study and reliable Model T was being completely assembled on three production lines. The process continued to get faster, and the assembly lines made it possible to triple the number of cars that could be made in one day (Venezia, 25). The assembly line was so efficient that the painting process became an issue. The Model T was only available in black because it was the fastest drying enamel paint. Henry Ford’s son, Edsel, encouraged his father to consider offering their customers other colors. “Anyone who wants a T a color other than black can just paint it himself,” Henry Ford replied (Mitchell, 50).
When World War I began, Henry Ford pledged to “work harder than ever before” on behalf of the allies while promising not to take “one cent profit” out of defense work (Bak, 92). He supplied the United States military with ambulances, cars, trucks, airplane engines, bomber planes, and tanks (Venezia, 30). He also sold tractors to the British Isles to help with the food shortage.
Ford began to lose sales to General Motors because they had introduced a variety of automobile models and a choice of colors other than black (Bak, 132). Edsel Ford thought that it was time to make a new, more modern car. In the 1920s Ford Motor Company built a new factory on the Rouge River, just south of Detroit, with the largest assembly line ever seen, to handle all of the new Model A orders (Middleton, 24). The government even spent $3.5 Million on improvements to this plant to make it into a massive steel shipbuilding plant to help in the war efforts. The plant was soon producing steel and other raw materials in addition to cars, and it even had its own electric power plant (Venezia, 26).
By the end of the 1920s, Ford Motor Company’s Aircraft Division had become one of the largest manufacturers of commercial aircraft in the world. When sales fell during the Great Depression, Henry Ford decided to close this branch of the company. This allowed other manufacturers, such as Boeing and McDonald Douglas, to become major players in the manufacture of aircraft. However, the impact of the assemble line on the production of aircraft would continue to be improved until World War II (Bak, 179). Willow Run, which was one of the factories Ford Motor Company built outside Ann Arbor, Michigan in the 1940s, was considered amazing, able to produce one B-24 bomber every hour (Weber).
By the 1930s, Henry Ford could no longer afford to pay his workers so well. By the 1940s the company was struggling. Edsel Ford’s son, Henry Ford II, took over his father’s job as head of the company when Edsel died. Henry Ford survived his son, and later died in 1947 (Middleton, 28-30). However, his impact on the assembly line in manufacturing still lives on. David Hounshell, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University and author of From the American System to Mass Production notes:
Manufacturers of other products also tried the assembly line. Within a decade, many household appliances, such as vacuum sweepers and radios, were assembled on a conveyor system. The Ford Motor Company educated the American technical community in the ways of mass production. (Weber)
New businesses also emerged as tourism became a part of American culture. Service stations that provided gas and repairs opened up along the roadsides (Burgan, 62). Restaurants sprang up along heavily traveled routes to serve food to travelers on long road trips and hotels began to offer a place for tourists to sleep for the night. All of these were new industries that were developed in response to America’s growing relationship with the automobile.
Henry Ford was instrumental in making the automobile industry an important part of the American economy. By making cars affordable to the general public, he helped people be able to travel easier. This allowed Americans to move into cities from rural areas and created our current roadway system. He showed how mass manufacturing could lower the production costs, allowing prices to be more affordable for all Americans. This concept of making products more efficiently so that they will be more affordable is still used today by a wide variety of industries.
Bak, Richard. Henry and Edsel. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003.
Burgan, Michael. Henry Ford Industrialist. Chicago: Ferguson Publishing Co., 2001.
Middleton, Hayden. Henry Ford. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.