Ford Assembly Line Begins Operation

By applying the principles of mass production, Henry Ford put automobile ownership within the reach of millions and changed a nation, its people, and their habits. His use of interchangeable parts, assembly lines, and ergonomics revolutionized modern industry.

Summary of Event

Henry Ford produced the first “horseless carriage” in 1896 in his home workshop using traditional handcraft techniques. Three years later, Ford and eleven other investors formed the Detroit Automobile Company to manufacture gasoline-powered motorcars for sale to the general public. This company was not successful, and the business failed. Automobiles;manufacture
Mass-production methods[Mass production methods]
Ford Motor Company
Assembly lines;automobile manufacture
[kw]Ford Assembly Line Begins Operation (Mar. 1, 1913)
[kw]Assembly Line Begins Operation, Ford (Mar. 1, 1913)
Mass-production methods[Mass production methods]
Ford Motor Company
Assembly lines;automobile manufacture
[g]United States;Mar. 1, 1913: Ford Assembly Line Begins Operation[03370]
[c]Science and technology;Mar. 1, 1913: Ford Assembly Line Begins Operation[03370]
[c]Business and labor;Mar. 1, 1913: Ford Assembly Line Begins Operation[03370]
Ford, Henry
Whitney, Eli
Root, Elisha King
Evans, Oliver
Taylor, Frederick Winslow
Couzens, James
Emde, Carl
Klann, William C.
Sorensen, Charles E.
Knudsen, William Signius
Avery, Clarence W.

In 1903, a new automobile manufacturing company—the Ford Motor Company—was born. At a time when other cars were priced at $5,000 to $10,000 each, Ford’s first product, the Model A, sold for less than $1,000 and was well received. However, when Ford and his partners tried to introduce a more expensive motorcar in 1905, sales dropped. Then, in 1907, Ford announced a revised company policy. The Ford Motor Company would build “a motorcar for the great multitude.” It would be called the Model T. Model T automobile

The Ford Motor Company’s Model T assembly line in its Highland Park factory.

(Library of Congress)

The Model T was introduced to the general public in 1908, and it was everything that Henry Ford said it would be. It was a low-priced (about $850) utility car that came in one color only: black. There were no yearly model changes. Instead, the basic design of the Model T remained unchanged throughout its entire twenty-year production life. The price of the Model T—or “Tin Lizzie,” as it was affectionately called—did not remain constant, however. Instead, it dropped over the years to less than half that of the original Model T. As the price dropped, sales increased, and Ford Motor Company quickly became the world’s largest automobile manufacturer.

The last of more than fifteen million Model T’s was made in 1927. The 1927 Tin Lizzie was remarkably similar to its 1907 predecessor in both its appearance and operation. There, however, the similarity ended: These two automobiles represented the end products of completely different manufacturing systems: custom production and mass production. At first, Ford built his cars as every other manufacturer did, one at a time using traditional custom manufacturing techniques. Skilled mechanics would work on a car from start to finish, and helpers and runners brought parts to these highly paid craftsmen as they were needed. After completing one car, the mechanics and their helpers would begin work on the next.

Custom manufacturing works well when demand for a product is low and buyers are willing to pay the high labor costs. This was not the case with the automobile. Ford soon realized that his plan to manufacture quality cars in quantity and at a low price depended on finding a more efficient production method. In this regard, he looked to the past and the work of others. He found four principles of production that could be applied to the large-scale manufacture or mass production of his automobiles: interchangeable parts, continuous flow, division of labor, and elimination of wasted motion.

Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin, is credited with introducing the principle of interchangeable parts to American industry. Prior to the eighteenth century, muskets, like most products, were produced one at a time by highly skilled craftsmen (gunsmiths) who meticulously made and hand-fitted each of the parts. Although these muskets were high-quality pieces, the methods employed in their manufacture left much to be desired. This was especially true with regard to quantity production.

Whitney recognized the inherent disadvantages associated with the custom-production method and was determined to overcome them. In 1798, he contracted with the U.S. government to produce several thousand muskets within a period of two years. Instead of finding and hiring gunsmiths to fabricate the muskets by hand, Whitney devoted the bulk of his resources to the design and construction of specialized machines that were capable of accurately duplicating large quantities of each of the musket parts required. He also developed a number of specialized tools: jigs for positioning materials and/or controlling and guiding cutting tools, dies for cutting and forming materials, gauges for measuring or checking the size of parts, and fixtures for holding work in position while machining. Such tools made it possible for semiskilled and even unskilled workers to function successfully at jobs that had been carried out by highly skilled craftsmen.

Through the use of duplicate (interchangeable) parts, Whitney was able to improve the difficult and time-consuming method of fitting parts together that was common at that time. In doing so, he dramatically simplified the process of assembling parts into finished products.

The principle of “continuous flow” Manufacturing;continuous flow is the planned and orderly progression of a product as it undergoes manufacture and is changed and/or assembled into its final form. As the product is fabricated, it passes through a series of production stages, including operation, a stage in which useful work is performed on the product; transfer, when the product is moved from one stage to another; storage, an extended period of time when production is idle; and delay, a temporary form of storage.

Efficient production is accomplished by carefully arranging a product’s manufacturing stages to result in continuous flow. Ford borrowed from at least two sources in order to achieve efficient production flow in the manufacture of his Model T: the meatpacking houses of Chicago and an automatic grain mill operated by Oliver Evans. Ford’s idea for a moving assembly line originated in the disassembly lines used by Chicago’s great meatpacking houses in the late 1860’s. There, animal carcasses were transported by overhead rail past a series of workers, each performing a specific cutting or packing operation. The introduction of the moving disassembly line in the meatpacking industry resulted in a marked increase in the number of animals that could be butchered and packaged in a single day.

A key ingredient in achieving continuous flow is automatic conveyance of the work to and from the worker. In this regard, Ford looked to Evans, who is credited with developing three types of conveyor systems—belt, screw, and bucket. In 1783, Evans designed and operated an automatic grain mill. Only two workers were required to run the Evans mill. As one worker poured grain into a hopper at one end of the mill, a second worker filled sacks with flour at its other end. In-between processing was automatic, as Evans’s conveyors passed the grain through the various steps of the milling process without human intervention.

Ford’s success also depended on the principle of division of labor: By dividing a complex job into several basic operations, certain products can be produced faster, with less chance of error, by workers possessing fewer skills. This method divided the input, and in so doing it multiplied the output. Elisha King Root is generally credited with developing the principle behind division of labor while he was working on his famous Colt six-shooter. In 1849, Root went to work for Samuel Colt at his Connecticut factory, where Root proved to be a manufacturing genius. By dividing production operations into very simple steps, each performed by individual workers, gun production increased substantially.

Henry Ford applied Root’s principle when he set out to increase engine assembly from the recognized standard of one engine per worker per day. To accomplish his goal, Ford broke down the complex process of assembling an automobile engine into 84 separate and distinct operations. He then assigned 84 men the task of assembling the engines, with each man performing one of the 84 operations. The job of assembling an engine, which once was performed by a single worker, now required the labor of 84 different men. Ford proved that this method was efficient: Instead of the 84 engines that might have been expected under the old system, 352 engines were assembled. In other words, the production rate was increased by a factor greater than four.

Ford also sought to eliminate as much wasted motion from production as possible, and he relied on Frederick Winslow Taylor’s help in achieving this goal. Taylor has been called the “original efficiency expert.” In his work, he used studies of both time and motion to improve the production process. His time studies established optimum speeds at which workers could efficiently perform various operations, and he proved that, in the long run, doing a job too quickly was as bad as doing it too slowly. According to Taylor, “Correct speed is the speed at which men can work hour after hour, day after day, year in and year out, and remain continuously in good health.” He also conducted motion studies, which were designed to streamline worker movements as they performed their assigned tasks. In this way, he was able to keep wasted motion to a minimum.


Henry Ford was the first to apply the four basic principles of mass production to the large-scale manufacture of a complex product. He did so slowly and with care, testing each new procedure before it was adopted. The changeover from custom to mass production was more an evolution than a revolution. It culminated, in 1913, with the introduction of the first moving assembly line ever used in the manufacture of automobiles. As a result, Ford was able to produce his Tin Lizzies faster than ever before. His competitors soon followed suit. Ford achieved his goal of placing automobile ownership within the reach of millions, and in reaching it he changed a nation, its people, and their habits.

Ford’s work gave a new push to the Industrial Revolution. It showed the nation that mass production could be used to improve the quality and cut the cost of manufacturing an automobile. In so doing, manufacturers could make large amounts of money. In fact, the Model T was so profitable that in 1914 Ford was able to double the minimum daily wage of his workers. Now, with their pay at five dollars per day, even they could afford to buy Tin Lizzies. Ford’s profits grew, and because his ideas and manufacturing techniques were successful, Ford quickly moved from the Highland Park plant to a role in all phases of American industry, setting the pattern of abundance that was to follow. Automobiles;manufacture
Mass-production methods[Mass production methods]
Ford Motor Company
Assembly lines;automobile manufacture

Further Reading

  • Brinkley, Douglas G. Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Brinkley has written a lively biography of Henry Ford. Draws on a wealth of unpublished materials and sources that were unavailable to previous biographers. Contains end notes, references, and a complete index. Illustrated, with some photographs.
  • Bryan, Ford R. The Fords of Dearborn. Rev. ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005. While focusing on the genealogy of the Ford family and the role of each in creating the automobile industry, the book adds some useful insights into Henry Ford’s persona and motivations.
  • Crabb, Richard. Birth of a Giant. Philadelphia: Chilton, 1969. A history of the American automobile as it was affected by the talents and personalities of the men who created it. There are anecdotes, some possibly apocryphal, about the principals as well as illuminating vignettes showing their flaws and foibles. Of interest are many clear photos of early auto manufacturing and testing.
  • Fales, James F., et al. Manufacturing: A Basic Text. 2d ed. Peoria, Ill.: Bennett & McKnight, 1986. This book on manufacturing discusses introduction to manufacturing, research and development, production, product plans, and tools, materials, and processes. Heavily illustrated, with a glossary.
  • Flink, James. The Car Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1975. Flink presents a complete history of the manufacture of the American automobile, including design, management, financing, and marketing. Of particular interest is a thorough treatment of the effects of large-scale auto manufacture and widespread ownership on the American culture.
  • Ford, Henry, with Samuel Crowther. 1923. Reprint. My Life and Work. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2004. Ghostwritten by Crowther in a conversational style, Ford’s autobiography contains thoughts on the state of the nation and advice on how admiring readers might duplicate their hero’s success.
  • Lacey, Robert. Ford: The Men and the Machine. Boston: Little, Brown, 1986. The epic story of Henry Ford, the automobile manufacturing company he created, and the dynasty he founded. Spanning more than a hundred years, the book describes the public achievements, the private tragedies, the feuds, and the personalities of the powerful individuals whose ambitions helped to shape modern American society. Supplementing the text are black-and-white photographs (some never before published). A helpful index is also provided.
  • Marcus, Alan I., and Howard P. Segal. Technology in America: A Brief History. 2d ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1998. Discusses the importance of interchangeable parts in the evolution of mass-production processes in the automobile, home appliance, and agricultural implement industries.
  • Meyer, Stephen, III. The Five-Dollar Day: Labor, Management, and Social Control in the Ford Motor Company, 1908-1921. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981. Details the crucial events and circumstances that created assembly-line production at Ford as well as the reactions of automobile workers to the new work processes and higher wages. Includes an excellent bibliography.
  • Nevins, Allan. Ford: The Times, the Man, the Company. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954. An objective view of the controversial persona of Henry Ford based on sources from the Ford archives and, at times, oral history. The narrative connects the introduction of assembly-line production to the five-dollar-per-day minimum wage. Impressive bibliography.
  • Rae, John. The American Automobile. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965. A brief, popularized history of the American automobile from its origins until the 1950’s. It focuses strongly on the pioneers in the industry and their interactions.
  • Rupert, Mark. Producing Hegemony: The Politics of Mass Production and American Global Power. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Among others, the author, a political scientist, considers the political and ideological struggle in his chapter titled “Fordism vs. Unionism” flowing from the introduction of assembly-line production at the Ford Highland Park plant in Detroit.
  • Vance, Bill. Reflections on Automotive History. Vol. 1. Rockwood, Ont.: Eramosa Valley Publishing, 2000. Covers a wide range of subjects in the history of the automobile and features more than sixty black-and-white photographs. Contains a brief chapter devoted to Cadillac’s early engineering achievements, including the development of interchangeable parts.
  • Wik, Reynold M. Henry Ford and Grass-Roots America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972. Based in large part on letters and other materials contained in the Ford archives. The author re-creates the era of the Tin Lizzie. Traces and evaluates Ford’s activities and ideas in many fields and discusses the impact of the Model T. Contains illustrations.

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