Regardless of what you may read elsewhere today, October 7, 1913 was not when the first automotive assembly line was started up. Yes, 100 years ago today, after some experimentation at the Piquette Ave. factory, and then tested with magneto assembly, Henry Ford’s lieutenants at his Highland Park factory for the first time started up a moving conveyor line for the assembly of complete Model T automobiles. Ford Motor Company, though, was not the first automobile manufacturer to use an assembly line process. That honor goes to Ransom Eli Olds, who, according to many sources, patented an assembly line in 1901 which allowed him to increase production by 600% the next year. Oldsmobile was making thousands of cars a year on a Lansing assembly line before Ford Motor Company even existed.
This is not to diminish Ford’s contribution to mass production, but he was one of many innovators who contributed to that process. Olds had a big role as did another Detroit area automotive pioneer, Henry Leland, whose use of standardized parts made Cadillac the standard of the world.
Ford’s primary contribution to mass production was simplifying the labor needed down to discrete tasks that could be performed by relatively unskilled labor. Leland may have used interchangeable parts, but those parts were assembled by skilled workers.
Henry Ford wanted to be able to hire men just off of the farm, as he once had been himself. Another contribution that Ford Motor Company made to the assembly line process was the moving line itself. Olds had most of the elements of what today we’d call an assembly line, defined repetitive operations performed at fixed worked stations that have parts supplied to the assembler as the work moves from worker to worker.
Ford added mechanized conveyors and belts to speed the process. In doing so, Henry Ford created the situation where another of his innovations was needed, the $5/day wage.
Assembling cars one bolt at a time with a moving assembly line improved productivity dramatically but it also made the job mentally stultifying. Doing the same thing over and over again, with the production line moving according to the theories of Frederick Taylor, enforced with stopwatch precision, meant that Ford found himself with a massive turnover rate of new hires. He had to hire something like 45,000 people a year just to keep about 14,000 on the job.
The photos illustrating this post were taken of the assembly line producing Model Ts at Ford’s Highland Park plant by the Keystone View Company. While the Model T was put together on a moving assembly line, if you note from the photos, some subassemblies or components were not assembled with that process. At the time the photos were taken, it took Ford Motor Co. about 21 minutes to assemble a Model T once they started putting parts on the frame.
Before there was television, radio and motion pictures, people entertained themselves with stereographs, stereo cards of photos taken literally around the world. They were a big deal. Supreme court Justice Oliver Wendel Holmes even invented a viewer that is still in use today.
That particular 3D fad died out in the 1930s, after Keystone had shot millions of photo pairs. Eventually, the Keystone company’s archives were donated to the University of California at Riverside’s photography museum and many of the original prints have been digitized and are online at the Online Archive of California. Going through the archive for automotive related photos I came across this series. I’m not sure of the date, it’s not indicated on the Keystone originals, so if you’re a Model T expert, please let us know. If you’d like to see them in stereo, there are cross-eye versions in the gallery below. Other 3D formats are available at Cars In Depth.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS
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