On October 7, 1913, Henry Ford launched the moving assembly line at the Ford Highland Park Plant, making it the birthplace of industrial mass production. The use of the assembly line reduced the time it took to build the Colored Aerial Post Card 001Model T from 12.5 hours to 93 minutes, reducing the price of the automobile. In 1914 Ford increased workers wages from $2.34 a day to $5, launching the American Middle Class. (Short version)
AFP PHOTO / FORD MOTOR COMPANY
The first assembly line at the Highland Park Ford Plant in Highland Park, United States in 1913.
On October 7, 1913, Ford engineers developed a rudimentary system using a rope and wince to pull a new Ford Model T past 140 workers at a brand new factory dubbed the Crystal Palace.
Henry Ford thus launched the modern assembly line in a suburb of Detroit — and helped spark a radical transformation of both manufacturing and society.
By drastically reducing the cost of production with standardized parts and more efficient assembly, Ford was able to bring the luxury, convenience and freedom of the automobile to the masses.
Other industries soon adopted the innovation and today, everything from cereal to caskets is made on assembly lines.
Standardization led to lower costs, higher quality and more reliable products.
Most critically, the assembly line cut the amount of time it took to assemble a Model T from 12.5 hours to just 93 minutes.
Higher productivity means more profit, some of which is often returned to workers through higher wages. Workers then have more money to buy products, creating what economists call a virtuous cycle of growth.
The assembly line also changed the way people worked and lived, accelerating the shift from rural areas to cities, and increasing the number of people doing repetitive, low-skilled jobs.
Trains filled with parts rolled down the main bay of the Crystal Palace, where cranes slid through the sunlight pouring in from a glass ceiling and lifted the parts up to balconies. Conveyor belts and gravity wells carried parts to workers as cars were pulled from floor to floor.
“It was a beehive of motion when it was in play,” Kreipke said as he toured the historic plant Ford now uses for storage.
“When he first started he made about 100 cars a day and it got up to 1,000 — which is almost the same as a modern factory.”
In 1914, Ford’s 13,000 workers built around 300,000 cars — more than his nearly 300 competitors managed to build with 66,350 employees.
The specialization of the assembly line meant that Ford no longer had to use craftsmen and could instead hire low-skill workers and teach them a few simple steps.
But the monotonous work led to high turnover, leading Ford to double his minimum wage in order to keep his line humming. Ford increased workers wages from $2.34 a day to $5, launching the American Middle Class.
The five-dollar day was eventually followed by the five-day work week, which meant Ford workers had both the money to buy his cars and the leisure time to use them.
Despite the higher labor costs, Ford’s efficiencies allowed him to eventually lower the price of the Model T from its introductory rate of $850 to $260.
Finished cars ready to go (1924)
“Ford’s assembly line turns 100: How it changed manufacturing and society“, New York Daily News, October 7, 2013.