America's Assembly Line

America's Assembly Line

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    America's Assembly Line
    Book Description:

    The assembly line was invented in 1913 and has been in continuous operation ever since. It is the most familiar form of mass production. Both praised as a boon to workers and condemned for exploiting them, it has been celebrated and satirized. (We can still picture Chaplin's little tramp trying to keep up with a factory conveyor belt.) In America's Assembly Line, David Nye examines the industrial innovation that made the United States productive and wealthy in the twentieth century.The assembly line -- developed at the Ford Motor Company in 1913 for the mass production of Model Ts -- first created and then served an expanding mass market. It inspired fiction, paintings, photographs, comedy, cafeteria layouts, and cookie-cutter suburban housing. It also transformed industrial labor and provoked strikes and union drives. During World War II and the Cold War, it was often seen as a bastion of liberty and capitalism. By 1980, Japan had reinvented the assembly line as a system of "lean manufacturing"; American industry reluctantly adopted this new approach. Nye describes this evolution and the new global landscape of increasingly automated factories, with fewer industrial jobs in America and questionable working conditions in developing countries. A century after Ford's pioneering innovation, the assembly line continues to evolve toward more sustainable manufacturing.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-31291-2
    Subjects: Business, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
    (pp. IX-X)
    (pp. XI-XIII)
  5. 1 CONTEXT
    (pp. 1-11)

    The assembly line was invented in 1913 and has been in continuous operation ever since. It has spread to every industrial nation and has become the most familiar form of mass production. Some corporations that adopted it made enormous profits; others went bankrupt. It has been praised as a boon to all working men and women, yet it has also been condemned as a merciless form of exploitation. It has inspired novels, poems, popular songs, and even a short symphonic work, but it has also inspired satire and visions of apocalypse. It was embraced by both Nazi Germany and the...

    (pp. 13-39)

    In 1910, the Ford Motor Company’s new Highland Park plant provided a setting that was conducive to innovation in manufacturing. When the men arrived there from Ford’s Piquette Avenue plant, Richard Kroll recalled, “there was no conveyor system built. It was all hand work.”² There was no plan to invent something like the assembly line, and no single individual invented it. Rather, a collaboration of people drew on knowledge acquired in many different industries. One precursor emerged at the Olds factory in Lansing, where workers began to put chassis on wooden platforms that had furniture casters underneath so they could...

    (pp. 41-65)

    When they first heard about the assembly line, many people burbled with excitement. In 1913 newspapers reported that Ford produced “one complete car every forty seconds.”² The idea that mankind could produce more while working less was a staple of progressivism. Thousands of plant managers, engineers, and scientists constantly looked for labor-saving techniques and devices. They believed that rapid progress had occurred during the nineteenth century and that such progress could be measured objectively.

    A leading engineer in the 1880s was Robert Thurston, a professor at Cornell University and a president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. In an...

  8. 4 EXPORT
    (pp. 67-95)

    In Europe, Daniel Rodgers observed, “the ‘new era’ was the machine age, and Ford was its prophet.”² Inexpensive automobiles promised to revolutionize mobility, Fordson tractors replaced horses and increased farm productivity, and the assembly line seemed to guarantee abundant consumer goods for all. The promise of abundance was also carried by the Americanstyle advertising that became ubiquitous in Europe, as did Woolworth stores and their imitators. Moreover, by 1925 American films depicting a consumer’s paradise were ubiquitous in European cinemas.

    The American automobile industry and the assembly line attracted foreign attention even before World War I. The French automaker Louis...

    (pp. 97-125)

    Europeans understood the assembly line both as a form of Americanization and as a worrisome new stage in the history of industry. It was embraced most wholeheartedly by totalitarian regimes quite unlike the United States, in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. In contrast, most Americans celebrated the assembly line until the early 1930s.

    In the United States, critics were, at first, a minority. After a burst of initial enthusiasm for the $5 day, workers focused their criticism on the repetitiveness and deskilling of assembly-line work and on “the speed up.” They also found that sudden layoffs occurred whenever there was...

    (pp. 127-155)

    On November 4, 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave one of his famous radio addresses to the nation. It was the eve of elections to the House and the Senate, and Roosevelt made a plea for the return of New Deal legislators. He spoke of the threats to democracy from communism and fascism, and warned that the country needed to complete his program so that it could “provide efficiently for distributing national resources and serving the welfare and happiness of all.” Roosevelt drew an analogy between society and industrial production: “The modern interdependent industrial and agricultural society which we live...

    (pp. 157-185)

    Triumphant rhetoric about mass production vanquishing fascism and communism could assuage neither fears of technological unemployment nor fears of cultural homogenization. Businessmen promised a cornucopia for the common man, but working people worried that automation would push them into poverty. A wide spectrum of intellectuals, including both conservatives and radicals, believed that American life was becoming bland, repetitive, and uniform. Many who grew up in new suburban houses were later drawn to the Counterculture, which offered an escape from the standardized. In short, to workers, intellectuals, and many young people, mass-production society appeared to lack individuality, spontaneity, and creativity. Discontent...

    (pp. 187-215)

    Just after World War II, workers in the United States were five times as productive as those in Japan and twice as productive as those in Europe. Indeed, at Toyota a then-unknown manager named Taiichi Ohno estimated that the productivity of the American automobile industry might be as much as ten times that of the Japanese.⁴ Between 1950 and 1990, however, Europe and Japan closed the gap. In those years Italian and French workers increased their productivity per hour worked from just 40 percent of the US figure to 98 percent. Some nations, notably Belgium, Norway, and the Netherlands, exceeded...

    (pp. 217-239)

    From labor’s point of view, lean production meant lost jobs, as fewer people did the same work. Worse, the auto industry’s “Japanese transplants” paid lower wages. Worse still, lean production emerged at the a time when management was moving millions of jobs “offshore” to foreign-based but often American-owned factories. Worst of all, automation and robots were gradually replacing human beings on assembly lines. Between 1970 and 2000 the population of the United States increased by 100 million, but the number of blue-collar jobs of all kinds fell by 600,000 to 20.7 million. In the automobile industry, 700,000 jobs disappeared between...

  14. 10 CENTENARY
    (pp. 241-268)

    On the centenary of the assembly line, Detroit is the appropriate place to think about what it means. Ford’s old Piquette Avenue plant, where the Model T was invented, still stands, with a plaque outside. Ford’s Highland Park plant, where the first assembly line was set up, also still remains. Indeed, there are huge empty factories all over Detroit, and many people lament the city’s decline.² Books have been published with such titles asLost Detroit,The Ruins of Detroit, andDetroit Disassembled, each containing magnificent color photographs of windowless factories, dank water-stained theaters, decaying mansions, weedy vacant lots, moss-grown...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 269-306)
    (pp. 307-332)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 333-338)