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On the 100th anniversary of the assembly line

By Vincent Curcio

On 1 April 1913, Henry Ford symbolically pressed a lever that catapulted factory workers into the modern era. That lever was the assembly line, which was started at his Highland Park factory on that date. From then on the organized chaos and time-wasting labor of the typical factory floor were transformed into a process that was much quicker and economical, and far less strenuous. It allowed production to explode exponentially, which was good for everyone, for in the process employees made far more money, and that money was enough to buy the sophisticated standardized product they were producing: the Model T. So Ford got happier workers, and a brand new market among them. His practices spread quickly throughout industry and throughout the world.

File:Ford Motor Company assembly line.jpg
The Ford Motor Company assembly line (1928)

The assembly line was a technical marvel that allowed the complete system of mass production to evolve. The revolutionary $5 a day wage he announced in January 1914 sustained it. But from the beginning, there was a great deal of controversy over these things.

Ford’s competitors thought he had lost his mind, especially when they heard that part of that $5 wage was to be a share in profits. To them he was a flaming radical, infringing on a sacred right of capitalism, the right of its owners to keep the profit it earned. Ford however was influenced by the Emersonian notion of just compensation: if you didn’t offer that, you got something else instead, something not at all good. Later he was to say he believed workers had a right to a share in profits, and that owners had an obligation to provide it. This was a truly radical statement.

But in truth Ford had to do something like this to meet overwhelming demand. His plant was in turmoil as new assembly lines were set up every day, amid clangorous noise and a constant need to go faster and faster. Turnover among the workers was nearly complete, as many of them felt no incentive to bear these new working conditions.

Work was now democratized, broken down to tiny units of standardized effort that anyone could do with a few minutes of training, even if they didn’t speak English. But it was also mind-deadening and infinitely repetitive. Furthermore, craft and skill were taken from the workers lives. Henceforward, those qualities were to be found only in planners and engineers. The only thing that mattered for laborers was that they showed up and did their jobs. In 1936, when Charlie Chaplin’s satire on factory work, Modern Times, was shown in Pittsburgh, nobody laughed because it was too close to the truth. So the $5 day was Ford’s necessary solution to this situation. People were willing to put up with almost anything to get it.

There was another problem with mass production. This one was for Ford himself, and it was both intractable and unexpected. He always said he was in the business of making men in his factories, but the kind of men he made were modern urban factory workers, many drawn from the rural America in which Ford himself was raised. He expected that they would share the same old fashioned homespun American values that he espoused, but now they were living in urban society with time and money of their own to spend on their leisure. They wanted to participate in the good citified life they saw all around them. So jazz and the Charleston replaced fiddlers and barn dances, and speakeasies and film palaces became the places where the sheiks and shebas of the modern urban workplace congregated after hours, drinking and smoking and raising hell. Ford was horrified, especially when he realized that this situation was irreversible, and a surprising consequence of his life’s work. More and more, he pulled back from the sort of men he was making in his factories.

Today the progeny of the proletariat whom Ford helped into the middle class with his system are told education and skill are the keys to a better life in modern society. The problem is that that there is an ever widening economic gulf between those who have acquired education and skills and those who have not, which many fear could sooner or later undermine the cohesion of the social fabric. Ford’s solution to the problem of dealing with those who were left behind was to provide a system that could bring them up to speed with everyone else. It was a businessman’s solution to business problems, and not eleemosynary, but it served the times well. But who is providing a modern solution for the millions and tens of millions who have never gotten ahead, or feel themselves slipping further and further behind those who have the resources to get ahead? Telling them to go out and get what they do not have and cannot get is no solution. Henry Ford brought the uneducated, unskilled common man new levels of material prosperity with mass production. Would that someone of equal genius and equal concern might come along now with a similarly effective idea for the problems of the common man of today.

Vincent Curcio is the author of Henry Ford; Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahame; Chrysler: The Life and Times of an Automotive Genius; and, with Steven Englund, Charlie’s Prep. He was the General Manager and Producer of Lucille Lortel’s White Barn Theater for 25 years.

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Image credit: Literary Digest 1928-01-07 Henry Ford Interview / Photographer unknown via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Pennywhistler

    Fascinating tale of unexpected consequences.

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