December 1

This Day in History

Automotive

Dec 1, 1913:

Ford's assembly line starts rolling

On this day in 1913, Henry Ford installs the first moving assembly line for the mass production of an entire automobile. His innovation reduced the time it took to build a car from more than 12 hours to two hours and 30 minutes.

Ford's Model T, introduced in 1908, was simple, sturdy and relatively inexpensive--but not inexpensive enough for Ford, who was determined to build "motor car[s] for the great multitude." ("When I'm through," he said, "about everybody will have one.") In order to lower the price of his cars, Ford figured, he would just have to find a way to build them more efficiently.

Ford had been trying to increase his factories' productivity for years. The workers who built his Model N cars (the Model T's predecessor) arranged the parts in a row on the floor, put the under-construction auto on skids and dragged it down the line as they worked. Later, the streamlining process grew more sophisticated. Ford broke the Model T's assembly into 84 discrete steps, for example, and trained each of his workers to do just one. He also hired motion-study expert Frederick Taylor to make those jobs even more efficient. Meanwhile, he built machines that could stamp out parts automatically (and much more quickly than even the fastest human worker could).

The most significant piece of Ford's efficiency crusade was the assembly line. Inspired by the continuous-flow production methods used by flour mills, breweries, canneries and industrial bakeries, along with the disassembly of animal carcasses in Chicago's meat-packing plants, Ford installed moving lines for bits and pieces of the manufacturing process: For instance, workers built motors and transmissions on rope-and-pulley–powered conveyor belts. In December 1913, he unveiled the pièce de résistance: the moving-chassis assembly line.

In February 1914, he added a mechanized belt that chugged along at a speed of six feet per minute. As the pace accelerated, Ford produced more and more cars, and on June 4, 1924, the 10-millionth Model T rolled off the Highland Park assembly line. Though the Model T did not last much longer--by the middle of the 1920s, customers wanted a car that was inexpensive and had all the bells and whistles that the Model T scorned--it had ushered in the era of the automobile for everyone.

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