By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
Many technological innovations, including those in the auto industry, accelerated the trend of consumer goods mass production. The earliest cars were built individually, and they were luxury items. Like many new technologies over the course of their first 15 or 20 years of life, though, they came steadily down in price, thanks to Henry Ford’s revolutionary ideas.
Ford’s Vision and Mission
Henry Ford presided over the creation of a mass market in American automobiles. Right from the beginning, he was interested not simply in making cars, but also in mass-producing them, and taking advantage of economies of scale and standardization.
He aimed to make cars that the ordinary citizen could afford to buy. Already in 1906, he was saying,
I am going to democratize the automobile. When I’m through everybody will be able to afford one, and about everyone will have one…A light, low-priced car, with an up-to-date engine of ample horsepower and built of the very best materials. It must be powerful enough for American roads, and capable of carrying its passengers anywhere that a horse-drawn vehicle will go, without the driver being afraid of ruining his car.
The Iconic Model T
Ford was obsessed with full interchangeability of parts, and high-quality machine tools on which to manufacture them.
His huge factory at Highland Park, just outside Detroit, with railway yards adjacent to bring in all the components, was a state-of-the-art factory, which was constantly being modernized. This was the place where the first Ford Model T’s were built. Between 1909 and 1927, Ford built 15 million Model T’s, and this was the vehicle that democratized motor vehicle transport in America.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Switch to Assembly Lines
The very early Ford factories, in the first decade of the 20th century, were organized as workshops, in which various components were being put together at workbenches. In 1913, though, the Ford factory switched over to the moving assembly line, where each worker stood still and the line gradually moved past him, and he’d just do one job on the car as it was being assembled, right from the beginning all the way through to its end.
That had the effect of enormously increasing the rate at which the vehicles could be produced. It was much more efficient to do it that way.
Already by 1913, the first year of the assembly line, the factories were finishing one car on average every 40 seconds.
Ford: A Great Patron of the Industrial Revolution
By the end of that year, he was producing 200,000 cars per year which, in turn, generated enormous incentives for other industries. For example, the cars he made needed a million lamps, 400,000 cowhides for seat covers, six million pounds of horsehair for seat stuffing, and two million square feet of glass for the windows.
There were stimulants to lots of other industries as well, whose products were pouring into Highland Park to be turned into Model T cars.
Ford’s contemporaries recognized the magnitude of this achievement, in his own day, he was lionized as one of the great heroes of the Industrial Revolution.
Ford: An Inspiration for Many
After 1917, after the Russian Revolution the Bolshevik leader Lenin asked Ford to come to Russia to preside over the crash industrialization of the new Soviet Union. Even though Ford was an arch capitalist, Lenin recognized that his technical skills were something the Revolution could certainly do with.
At the end of the 1920s, Aldous Huxley wrote the novel Brave New World which was a dystopian novel. The novel used a calendar that, instead of having A.D., has AF, “After Ford”, and the book was set in the year 632 AF.
Ford had become almost a religious figure in the book, so instead of making the Christian sign of the cross, people then made the sign of the T on their stomachs, as a commemoration of the Model T, the first great industrial mass-produced object.
Ford Vrooming Past his Problems
Ford discovered that boredom led to a massive turnover in his factories. For example, 300 percent of his workforce turned over in 1913.
He introduced the idea of a three-year, long-term service bonus, but only 640 out of his 15,000 employees were eligible for it after the first three years. People would, then, get a job on the assembly line for a while, and even though it was reliable work, they just couldn’t bear the boredom of it.
Ford took a very daring stamp in the teens of the 20th century by deciding that he was going to pay the man who worked at the factories a very great deal more. This was a time when the average industrial wage was something like $1.50 per day. He raised it to $5 a day, making him by far the most high-paying manufacturer in the city.
Maintaining Loyal and Stable Workforce
Manufacturers appreciated the importance not only of improving the machinery and speeding up the machinery, but also of paying attention to the work people. One of the great problems that Ford and many other manufacturers suffered from was that the work was becoming monotonous and repetitive.
The high wage helped maintain employees’ loyalty, so that people leaving the factory became far less common. It, therefore, improved the quality and consistency of the work. It maintained a stable workforce, and with the extra money that they were earning, Ford’s employees realized that they could afford to actually buy the thing they were making, the cars, because with his enormous economies of scale Ford was able to bring the price of the cars steadily down.
That’s been an important insight for the whole of 20th century consumer goods manufacture as well. You’ve got to make sure that you’re not making more than the market will bear. In other words, manufacturers themselves have an incentive to have high-powered workers so that they can be consumers as well.
Common Questions about Henry Ford
Right from the beginning, Ford was interested in mass-producing cars. He aimed to make cars that the ordinary citizen could afford to buy.
The moving assembly lines had the effect of enormously increasing the rate at which the vehicles could be produced. Already by 1913, the first year of the assembly line, the factories were finishing one car on average every 40 seconds.
Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World, lionized Henry Ford.