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DEARBORN - On Oct. 7, 1913, Henry Ford and Ford engineers began use of the moving assembly line, creating and defining the industrial age. The moving assembly line also enabled Ford to steadily decrease the price of the Model T. In 1908, the first Model T’s sold for $825. By 1925, it sold for only $260.
When Henry Ford started making cars in the early 1900s, “state-of-the-art” manufacturing meant car bodies delivered by horse-drawn carriage and teams of works assembling automobiles atop sawhorses with parts brought by stock runners.
The runners distributed the necessary parts to stations spread around the factory floor. Their deliveries were timed to reach the station shortly before the parts were needed. And assembly teams, programmed to do a specific series of jobs, moved from station to station down the row.
The process was slow and tedious. Parts didn’t always arrive on time, and sometimes the assembly teams didn’t finish their tasks on time, meaning they got in each other’s way.
And the final, hand-built product was so expensive that it generally was out of the reach of the common man.
Commentators at the time already suggested that somebody needed to invent a way to mass produce cars, and by doing so bring down the price to enable more people to afford the luxury.
J.J. Seaton wrote in Harper’s Weekly in January 1910 that, “The man who can successfully solve this knotty question and produce a car that will be entirely sufficient mechanically, and whose price will be within the reach of millions who cannot yet afford automobiles, will not only grow rich, but will be considered a public benefactor.”
At the time, Henry Ford, according to one of his top lieutenants, knew only that he wanted to build a lot of cars, but had no specific ideas on how to make mass production work.
In 1908, Ford already had developed the Model T, a “car for the masses.” Now it was time to find a way to make many of these cars at a rapid pace with high quality.
Ford’s legacy was his creation of the climate that allowed the development of the moving assembly line. He surrounded himself with experts from various fields, such as brewing, canning and steel-making. Borrowing ideas from various sources, including such 18th century inventions as interchangeable parts and automatic conveyors, Ford Motor Company production experts began experimenting with the idea of building cars and components on a moving line.
Henry Ford said later that he and his people had even studied the “disassembly” system used by Chicago slaughterhouses to dismantle and dress beef.
In early 1913, the first assembly line was installed to produce flywheel magnetos. Employees were instructed to place one part in the assembly, or start a few nuts, before pushing the flywheel down the line to the next employee.
Experiments continued throughout that summer as employees concentrated on Ford’s principles of power, accuracy, economy, system, continuity and speed.
Prior to the magneto line, it took one employee about 20 minutes to assembly a flywheel magneto. That dropped to only 13 minutes per piece after the job was divided among 29 men. Further advances trimmed the time to five minutes.
This subassembly principle was later applied to the construction of the engine and other parts.
On Oct. 7, 1913, the idea of moving the work to the men reached a pinnacle. Ford officials rigged a rudimentary final assembly line at the Highland Park (Mich.) Assembly Plant, which was known as the “Crystal Palace” because of its glass walls and roof.
Ford engineers constructed a crude system along an open space at the plant, complete with a winch and a rope stretched across the floor. Based on their knowledge of optimum installation time for various chassis components, the engineers placed these parts at different intervals along the rope.
On that day, 140 assemblers were stationed along a 150-foot line and they installed parts on the chassis as it was dragged across the floor by the winch.
Man hours of final assembly work dropped to fewer than three hours per chassis, down from more than 12 hours under the stationary assembly system.
In January 1914, the rope was replaced by an endless chain.
By reversing the assembly system and bringing the work to the men, Ford engineers managed to smooth out differences in work pace. They slowed down the faster employees and forced the slower ones to quicken their pace.
The results of mass production were immediate and important. In 1912, Ford produced only 82,388 Model T vehicles. The touring car sold for $600. By 1916, Ford Model T production increased to 585,388 and the price dropped to $360.
On Jan. 5, 1914, Henry Ford instituted what would become the second part of his greatest historical legacy. Ford began paying his employees the then-unheard of sum of $5 a day. Initially, Ford paid the higher wage to reduce attrition. That wage had the effect of elevating his employees’ standard of living, allowing them to buy the vehicles they produced.
“Fordism” – large scale production combined with high wages – was born and spread to other industries and fields.
One of the reasons for the rapid dissemination of information is the fact that Henry Ford was not shy about telling the world of his company’s innovation.
Many technical journalists were invited to tour the Highland Park Plant and Ford himself spent time talking to reporters.
Soon, even small automobile companies, producing only a few hundred cars a year, were attempting to install assembly lines.
Ford Motor Company Archives and Files
Automotive History Archives and Library of the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village
Hounshell, David A.: From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984
Nevins, Allan with Hill, Frank Ernest: Ford – The Times, the Man, the Company, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954
Sorensen, Charles E.: My Forty Years with Ford, W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1956