Forget the Model T—Ford’s real innovation was the moving assembly line. It didn’t just usher in the age of the car; it changed work forever.
He first fully implemented his innovation on December 1, 1913. Like a lot of his other industrial production insights, the assembly line was met with hatred and suspicion by many of his workers.
Before 1913, Ford and many other car makers put together entire cars at one station. A team of workers labored on each car, writes Tony Swan for Car and Driver. The innovation of the moving assembly line cut the number of workers required and reduced the time it took to assemble a car. It also gave the company more control over the pace. For the Ford Motor Company: amazing. For his workers: Eh, not everyone was impressed.
Although probably the most important example of his technological innovation, from one perspective the moving assembly belt was just one more way Ford could exert rigid control on his workers.
Assembly line work was, and still is, incredibly monotonous. The line was seen as an insult to skilled craftsmen and another example of the overwhelming patriarchal control a company could have over its workers in the age of mass production.
The horror that was felt about assembly-line style mass production is seen in films like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. One 1920s machine worker at a Ford plant told a journalist, “The machine I’m on goes at such a terrific speed that I can’t help stepping on it in order to keep up with the machine. It’s my boss.”
In 1913 alone, Ford had to hire more than 52,000 workers for a workforce that at any one time numbered 14,000, writes Swan. In an attempt to to stem the tide of turnover, he upped the company’s wage rate to an unheard-of $5 per eight-hour workday. The norm for that time was about $2.25 for a nine-hour workday, writes Tim Worstall for Forbes.
Sounds nice, right? Well, $2.66 of that money was contingent on a worker meeting “company standards for clean living,” Swan writes. Ford’s “Sociological Department” looked into every aspect of his workers’ lives, attempting, in a way, to standardize them the way he standardized his production line. Still, the money meant people came from all over the country looking for work at Ford, and many new immigrants found work there (learning English at a Ford school.).
Although the Sociological Department eventually closed, Ford’s basic approach to creating a deskilled blue-collar workforce helped create the reality of work in the 20th century.