Eli Whitney assembly line :: Assembly

Eli Whitney assembly line

In 1910, the seven-year-old Ford Motor Company moved into a new plant in the Detroit suburb of Highland Park, giving it room to experiment with new ideas, notably a concept called ``work in motion.'' Rather than having an individual worker completely assemble the magnetos used on each Model T, for example, employees would repeat one or two steps over and over, while a moving conveyor belt carried the magnetos to the next worker.

The next step came in October 1913, when ``the great granddaddy of all assembly lines went into operation, '' says David Hounshell, an expert on early industrial development and a professor at the University of Delaware in Newark. Partly assembled vehicles were tied together by hefty rope cables and towed through the factory, where workers pieced them together one part at a time.

``The final act of the revolution, '' Mr. Hounshell adds, ``came on Jan. 5, 1914, when Henry Ford announced he would pay his workers the then-incredible sum of $5 per day for tending his production machines and working on the assembly line.''

By comparison, workers at an early Ford plant on Mack Avenue in Detroit were paid but 15 cents a day. But they were only able to build about 15 cars a day. From the Highland Park plant, cars came out in ever-increasing numbers, until they were rolling out of the plant at the rate of one every 10 seconds.

As a result of these newfound efficiencies, Ford was able to cut the cost of the tin lizzie in half, to $260, suddenly putting it within reach of a mass audience.

What surprised many of his contemporaries was Ford's willingness to discuss his techniques in the press. Soon, many of his competitors figured out how to automate their own plants, a process that was hastened during World War I, with its demands for high volumes of weapons and munitions.

Today, virtually all consumer goods - from cars to perfumes - come off assembly lines.

``I think my grandfather would just be amazed at how far the technology has come, '' says Edsel B. Ford II, great-grandson of Henry, and himself a vice-president and board member of the company.

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