This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Process That Changed Our World

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January 14, 1914: First Assembly Line Ford Model T

Although the Model T has been around since 1908, the first Ford Model T that was made on an assembly line was completed. This, of course, brought a new wave to the Auto and manufacturing industries. Ford has since been a leader in cars in the US.

The assembly line was first mechanized in the U.S. by Eli Whitney, in 1797, who also patented a type of cotton gin. Whitney began using the assembly line to manufacture muskets that had interchangeable parts. He was then contracted to supply 10,000 muskets for the U.S. government in two years.

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Charles E. Sorensen, in his 1956 memoir My Forty Years with Ford, presented a different version of development that was not so much about individual “inventors” as a gradual, logical development of industrial engineering:

“What was worked out at Ford was the practice of moving the work from one worker to another until it became a complete unit, then arranging the flow of these units at the right time and the right place to a moving final assembly line from which came a finished product. Regardless of earlier uses of some of these principles, the direct line of succession of mass production and its intensification into automation stems directly from what we worked out at Ford Motor Company between 1908 and 1913. Henry Ford is generally regarded as the father of mass production. He was not. He was the sponsor of it.”

As a result of these developments in method, Ford’s cars came off the line in three minute intervals. This was much faster than previous methods, increasing production by eight to one (requiring 12.5 man-hours before, 1 hour 33 minutes after), while using less manpower. It was so successful, paint became a bottleneck. Only japan black would dry fast enough, forcing the company to drop the variety of colors available before 1914, until fast-drying Duco lacquer was developed in 1926. In 1914, an assembly line worker could buy a Model T with four months’ pay.

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The assembly line technique was an integral part of the diffusion of the automobile into American society. Decreased costs of production allowed the cost of the Model T to drop within the budget of the American middle class. In 1908, the price of a Model T was around $825, and by 1912 it had dropped to around $575. This price reduction is comparable to a drop from $15,000 to $10,000 in dollar terms from the year 2000.

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