The other day, I was reading about how a computer chip shortage put to a stop the assembly lines at the Renault vehicle manufacturing plant in my city. And of course, I thought…
Who created the Assembly Line?
If we want the simple answer: Henry Ford. With the help of his employee William “Pa” Klann, he set up the first assembly line in 1913 to manufacture his Model T cars. Before that, a team worked on one car at a time. They did good work, but it was a slow process compared to what came after. Also, it required more workers. The introduction of the assembly line changed all that.
The assembly lines are an arrangement of machines, equipment, and workers in which work passes from operation to operation in a direct line until the product is assembled (source).
Basically, the assembly lines are what made mass production possible. It made cars cheap, and everybody bought a Ford Model T in 1914 (well, more than 250,000 were sold that year). By 1918, half of all cars in the United States were Model Ts. To think that it was only on the 1st of December 1913 that the assembly lines started rolling at Ford, it sure changed a lot. Especially for the workers who hated it.
Where did Henry Ford get the idea from?
Ford was not the first to think of using the assembly lines in the automobile industry. Ransom E. Olds did it to build the Oldsmobile Curved Dash. It was in 1901, and it helped Olds’ factory to produce more than five times the number of cars it could deliver that year. But it was not the same moving line assembly that Ford introduced. It was stationary.
Henry Ford was inspired by the “disassembly lines” used by the meatpacking industry of Chicago and Cincinnati since 1867. And by flour milling technology as practiced in Minnesota.
What Ford added was the use of the moving platforms of a conveyor system that allowed the chassis of the vehicle to move from station to station. But what made this possible was the concept of interchangeable parts.
The Introduction of the Interchangeable Parts
From all of the existing industries at the start of the Industrial Revolution, it was from the firearms that the innovation came. French gunsmith Honoré Blanc wanted to change things and introduced the idea of using standardized gun parts—he was inspired by the work of French artillerists led by Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval, who had begun pursuing interchangeability in artillery (with cannons and shells). Before that, each firearm was unique, made by hand, and certainly not easy to fix. The prestige of the custom firearm prevented Blanc from having a real impact. His fellow European craftsmen didn’t want to hear about that. Nevertheless, Thomas Jefferson was interested but failed to convince Blanc to move to America.
In 1793, British naval architect and mechanical engineer Sir Samuel Bentham introduced a similar idea to change the production of wooden pulley blocks used in ships’ rigging. Two years later, he was appointed by the Admiralty and became the first Inspector General of Naval Works. His goal was to continue his modernization effort and his work at the Portsmouth Block Mills paved the way for the use of mass-production techniques in British manufacturing.
When Thomas Jefferson came back to the US, he started working on the development of Blanc’s idea. President George Washington approved it, and by 1798 a contract was issued to Eli Whitney for muskets built under the new system. Whitney was not ready to fulfill the contract, but he worked hard to popularize the ideas of mechanization and interchangeability. Others tried and failed like Whitney to really mass produce muskets until Colonel Roswell Lee—who established a system that helped to control the quality of the parts produced at the factory—got the help of Thomas Blanchard who invented a battery of stocking machinery that kick-started the mechanized production.
Other industries embraced this type of production—sewing machines, typewriters, bicycles, and eventually automobiles.
When Henry Ford started using assembly lines, the world changed. Mass production became a reality, the marketing strategies changed to seal with an offer far greater than the demand. A new era of consumerism began.
For more information, read “From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932 The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States” by David Hounshell.