When the 29 men who assembled magnetos for Ford Motor Co. reported for work on April 1, 1913, they became the first wave of a new industrial revolution.
Rather than taking their normal places at assembly stands, where they formerly had built entire magnetos, they were positioned side-by-side at a long, narrow table. Each was assigned one small task in what had become a 29-step assembly process. A man might tighten just a few bolts, then slide the partially completed component inches down the table to the next person. He would repeat the process over and over, all day long - and come back the next day to do it again and again and again.
The magneto line, generally viewed by historians as the first large-scale industrial assembly-line operation, was an exercise in numbing boredom; it also was the means for a dramatic increase in efficiency. It propelled Ford to the top of the auto industry, and it changed the shape of industry and American life.
Like most revolutionary events, the first assembly line was not an isolated bolt from the blue, but the coming together of forces that had been building for years.
The quest for mass production has roots in the 18th century, when French arms makers pursued the idea of interchangeable musket parts. But tools were crude, and measurement devices were imprecise; each manufactured item was virtually a unique entity because a craftsman had filed, sanded, trimmed and modified the components.
In From the American System to Mass Production 1800-1932, historian David Hounshell notes that 19th-century U.S. arms makers played a key role in the drive toward interchangeable industrial parts. By the 1860s, machinists trained in the arms factories began to move into other industries.
Singer Manufacturing Co. had made great strides in the mass production of sewing machines by 1880, and similar technology was appearing in the manufacture of bicycles, clocks and farm machinery. In Minneapolis, flour milling firms began using automated systems to move grain through the milling operation. In Cincinnati and Chicago, slaughterhouses were mechanized disassembly plants in which carcasses moved from operation to operation by means of conveyors and chains.
'These ideas were all floating around, but nobody had ever applied them to anything as complicated as an automobile,' said Robert Casey, a historian and the curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
One reason Henry Ford was the first automaker to develop mass-production techniques was his fascination with machinery. He attracted top mechanics from a variety of industries, and insisted on developing state-of-the-art machine tools and gauges. Another key factor was that he had a product - the Model T - that inspired demand far greater than he was able to satisfy, sparking a frantic scramble for production.
The Model T, introduced in 1908, was the first car to make extensive use of new, stronger vanadium steel. It was tough enough to withstand the primitive two-track roads of heartland America and simple enough for owners to maintain themselves. It had a unique niche in the market; there were cheap cars, and there were good cars, but the Model T was good and cheap.
Dealers at times were forbidden to take orders because the factory fell behind. Ford, cramped in his plant on Piquette Avenue in Detroit, built a new facility on 60 acres in nearby Highland Park. Portions of the plant opened in January 1910, and expansion continued for half a dozen years.
Even before the birth of the assembly line at Highland Park, Ford made changes that made his factory more efficient than those of his competitors. Machines were arranged in logical order, based on how they figured in the production of a part. Most factories kept all milling machines in one area, so if several milling operations were needed to produce a part, the partially completed component would have to be hauled to the milling area several times.
With Ford's encouragement, mechanics developed ways to produce parts in quantity - machine fixtures, for example, that could hold and precisely drill 15 engine blocks or 30 cylinder heads at a time. Ford also stressed simplicity, building the skill into the machine rather than relying on the operator. Ford mechanics developed devices that could be run by unskilled tenders, not just skilled craftsmen. That was a key requirement for volume production.
As Ford's crews became more adept at producing large quantities of parts, the workers who put together subassemblies couldn't keep pace. Traditionally, assemblers made an entire instrument panel, engine or magneto; Ford's efficiency experts divided an operation into many tasks, then spread the labor among many people.
Prior to the April 1, 1913, start of the magneto line, the 29 workers, on average, turned out one magneto every 20 minutes. Under the new system, assembly time fell to about 13 minutes. Work speed was regulated by moving the magnetos along on a chain, eventually cutting assembly time to about five minutes per magneto.
Ford began similar lines for engines, transmissions and other subassemblies. The more complex task of chassis and final assembly remained a bottleneck.
The first crude attempt at line chassis assembly came in August 1913. At the time, it took Ford about 12.5 man-hours to assemble a chassis. Managers marked a 250-foot path and placed components at various points. Under the direction of Charles 'Cast Iron Charlie' Sorensen, Ford's mass-production mastermind, a rope was fastened to each chassis, and a windlass pulled it along. Six assemblers walked with the chassis, installing parts as they passed various stations. Almost immediately, assembly time fell to 5 hours and 50 minutes per unit, and modification soon cut it to 3 hours.
In January 1914, the chassis was moved along for the first time by an endless chain. After three months, assembly time fell to 93 man-minutes per unit. Bodies then were 'dropped' - actually, slid down a chute - for assembly onto the chassis.
Every operation eventually was mechanized, and the impact was dramatic.
When the Model T debuted in 1908, Ford had about 18 percent of the market; the share rose to 45 percent in 1913. By 1921, the Model T accounted for 61 percent of U.S. car sales. By 1915, Ford had annual sales of $100 million; by 1920, it had after-tax earnings of about $6 million a month.
Wages rose, too. In part, Ford sought to create through higher wages a larger market for the quantities of goods automated factories would produce. Theory aside, higher wages were aimed at a more immediate concern: Workers hated the boredom and hardships of the assembly line, and turnover soared.
The wife of one Ford worker wrote to Henry Ford soon after the system was in place: 'The chain system you have is a slave driver. My God! Mr. Ford, my husband has come home & thrown himself down & won't eat his supper - so done out! Can't it be remedied?'
The company raised the minimum daily wage to $2.34 in fall 1913. Still, the turnover rate rose to 380 percent that year. In December 1913, in another bid to get workers to stay, Ford directors voted a bonus to those who had been with the company three years; of the 15,000 employees at the time, Hounshell reports, only 640 qualified.
In January 1914, Ford stunned the world with his announcement of a $5 daily wage.
The system that came to be known as 'Fordism' changed the shape of the auto industry; the vast resources needed for mass production drove out small firms and ensured a 'conflict of giants,' as one industry figure put it.
And the cycle of higher wages, higher output and lower prices 'ushered in the mass-consumer society as well as the mass-production society,' said Bruce Pietrykowski, a history professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
'Ford's impact is everywhere you look,' said Casey. 'McDonald's, for example, runs on Fordist principles; they do time and motion studies on how to make a hamburger.'
The flood of consumer goods and prosperity came with a price: widespread worker dissatisfaction and labor unrest in future decades. Historian Allan Nevins wrote of Ford's new system: 'It strode upon the American stage a lusty young giant, a cornucopia of plenty in one hand, a searing flame in the other.' *
Gregory Skwira is an Automotive News copy editor.