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The Twenties
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Henry Ford and his Model T.

[picture of Professor Miller]

Miller: The 1920s. It's the Jazz Age, the Era of Wonderful Nonsense, the Age of Babbitts, Bootlegging, and Bathtub Gin. Americans were speeding up, moving out, buying more, having fun, dreaming bigger. It's a decade we're drawn back to, because it's here that we start to see ourselves, that Americans become recognizably modern. And no story describes this cultural transformation better than the story of the automobile revolution, and the rise of Los Angeles, the first auto-age city.

Henry Ford was at the center of these great changes, and he wasn't modest about his place in history. As he once said: "I invented the modern age." Now that's pushing it. But this cranky cultural reactionary, who, at the height of the Jazz Age, tried to revive square dancing and country fiddling, was one of the greatest revolutionaries of the Industrial Age.

His Model T Ford began this country's love affair with the car and turned America into an automobile civilization. But Ford's greatest innovation wasn't the Model T. It was the system he developed for making it, and thousands of other products. This was modern mass production, the single most important factor in making America the economic and military powerhouse of the 20th century.

Ford's system of belt-driven assembly line production is arguably the most important innovation of the Industrial Age. Ford, in fact, coined the word, "mass production." Until he did, in 1926, it was called Fordism. All of us are products, in one way or another, of Fordism.

[picture of Henry Ford]

Henry Ford was born on a farm near Dearborn, Michigan in l863, only a few weeks after the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. As a boy, he loved to roam in the woods and fields by the River Rouge, near his home, and he developed a lifelong attachment to rural values of thrift, self-reliance, and simple living. But in truth, he hated the isolation and boredom of farm life.

This was the Machine Age, and he was enthralled by modern machinery. At age sixteen, he left home and walked to Detroit, where he found work in a machine shop. His dream was the dream of countless other backyard mechanics of that time with names like Dodge, Buick, and Olds. It was to build a horseless carriage, a self-propelling road machine that ran, not on steam, but on the fuel of the coming age, gasoline.

Ford spent his evenings after work in a small shed behind his house putting together his first car. When he finished it on June 4th 1896, it was almost two in the morning, but he was so excited he wanted to take it for a run. Then he realized that the door of the shed wasn't wide enough to get his road machine through. So he grabbed an axe, demolished the doorframe, and rode off into the night.

His wasn't the first car. Europeans like Karl Benz had been making cars for at least a decade. But Ford's could go 20 miles per hour, a terrific speed back then; and it was reliable and didn't cost that much. As he built more cars and formed his own company with the backing of Detroit capitalists, Ford developed the idea that would make him the most powerful industrialist in America.

Mass Production & the Assembly Line

In 1900, most cars were rich men's toys. Ford wanted to build an inexpensive car for farmers like his Irish father. It would be rugged, reliable, and designed for rough country roads; and it would liberate rural people from the isolation that had nearly driven him crazy on his father's farm.

Ford was convinced there was only one way to make such a car. He'd fix on a design, freeze it, and then work on ways to reproduce it year after year. As he said, "The way to make cars is to make one automobile just like another automobile; just as one pen is like another pen, or one match is like another match when it comes from a match factory."

When Ford's chief financial backer kept pushing for big, fancy cars, Ford bought him out in 1906, built a new production plant at Highland Park, north of Detroit, and began work on the Model T with a team of dedicated mechanics. Here was Ford, the backyard mechanic, in his glory, working day and night on his dream product, tinkering, testing, playing with new ideas, working with men he respected, all of them self-taught. And the car they produced was a beauty. It ran like a dream, but at $825, the equivalent of a teacher's salary back then, it was still too expensive for the common man.

[picture of a Model T being assembled]

The car would stay the same. What had to change was the way of making it. This is where Ford would make his outstanding contribution to the machine age: as a systems-builder, the creator of a gigantic technological system capable of producing, well, almost anything.

To drive down the price of his car he'd have to make lots of them. The profits would come from volume, not pricing. And that meant speeding up the work by simplifying it. Adam Smith had called it the division of labor.

By 1914, Ford and his engineers had installed a belt-driven movable production line that took the work to the worker, and then carried that man's work to another worker, and so, until a shining Model T rolled off the line. It was continuous flow production. No one had ever done this before.

Before Ford, the closest thing to continuous flow production was the dis-assembly line of the Chicago meat packing plants, where animal carcasses hung on a rail and moved from butcher to butcher. Ford claimed that this was the inspiration for his own assembly line. Ford worked incessantly to simplify manufacturing until most work was done automatically, without thought. The culmination was a system where men and machines were merged into a single tremendous machine, a megamachine, with the belt as the boss.

Before the assembly line, it took 13 hours to make a car. Soon it took less than an hour. By saving time, Ford saved money and drove down the price of his car nearly every year. The last Model T, built in 1927, cost a mere $290.

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