Henry Ford was born in Dearborn, Michigan on July 30th, 1863. His family were farmers, but from a young age Ford was driven by ideas of the American Dream and industrialisation, and so left school at 16 and moved to Detroit to become a machinist’s apprentice. During his time as a mechanical engineer he became interested in the idea of automobiles, and by 1893, after much experimentation, he completed his first motorcar. In 1903, Ford founded his own company, the Ford Motor Company at Highland Park in Detroit (which would later become known as “motor city”).
By 1908, Ford was producing 100 cars a day by basic mass-production methods used in many industries. Ford had teams of 12 men, each attaching a part to a car in order to make a finished model. Ford had released a new model of car, the Model T, but believed his current production methods were inefficient, and wanted a new system to go along with the new car. Even by 1913, when Ford was producing 500 cars a day, each car took 121/2 hours to make. He had to hire workers who were semi-skilled, or at least trained in many areas of car production, and so was forced to pay them higher wages than he would have liked.
He also thought that too much time was wasted with workers moving around to do different jobs. In 1913, Ford visited the factory of Swift and Co. , a slaughterhouse in Chicago, and came across an idea that would change his life. At Swift, the factory had adopted a technique that involved each worker having a specific task in cleaning an animal carcass, with the carcasses moving from one worker to the next via an overhead conveyor belt. As Ford put it, they ‘took the work to the man, not the man to the work’.
With no increase in manpower or working hours, Swift had seen their daily output rise from 620 to 1,440. Ford immediately adapted this ‘assembly line’ method, and implemented it in his factories. The results were astounding; the time taken to produce 1 car dropped from 121/2 hours to 11/2 hours. With each worker only doing one job, Ford could hire unskilled, cheap labour in his factories, and therefore make a greater profit. Ford re-invested his huge profits in his company, making machinery and equipment more specialised and so increasing productivity further.
Coupled with his new production techniques, his Model T (or ‘Tin Lizzie’) proved to be amazingly popular. This popularity increased as Ford’s profit margin and production rate enabled him to continuously lower the price, and in doing so, attract a wider market. Between 1914 and 1926, the price of a Model T dropped from $850 to $295, while remaining the most reliable car available. By 1925, half the cars in the world were Model Ts, and by 1930 there were 23 million driven in America alone.
Ford showed cunning not only in understanding the most efficient means of production, but also in understanding what people would want from a car, and in taking control of his industry. Model Ts used standardised parts, meaning if a car should break, the owner could simply order a new part and continue using the car. Ford made a great deal of money simply from the sale of spare parts. Ford let his workers buy cars at reduced prices, and set up credit plans for people who could not afford cars.
He also expanded his business, setting up factories in Asia, Australia, Canada, South Africa and South America to cater for foreign demand. On top of this, he bought and set up companies in the industries that provided the raw materials for his cars; including steel works and glass factories. Henry Ford’s achievements brought success and prosperity to the whole of America, and the influence of both his products and his ideas were huge upon 1920s America. By making cheap, affordable, reliable automobiles, Ford brought cars to the common people who would never have been able to afford them before.
This meant that normal people could make short-distance journeys easily and conveniently. As a result, people could drive to work or the city centre without living nearby. People chose to escape the rush of inner-city living, and began to live on the outskirts of cities, within driving distance. Suburbs quickly sprang up and expanded. Because of this, the city centre began to decline as out-of-town shopping malls and business parks began to spring up. The car also allowed families to travel longer distance, allowing them to take holidays and giving them more to do in their leisure time.
The amount of cars Ford sold, and his ideas about production (particularly the assembly line and standardised products) also had a knock-on effect in other industries. All industries benefited from the increased production rate that Ford’s assembly line brought, and those related to the car industry in particular boomed. 65% of US leather was used for car seats in the 1920s, 75% of US glass was used for car windows, 20% of US steel was used for car chassis and engines, and 80% of US rubber was used in the manufacture of tyres and inner tubes, and the demand for gasoline made oil into a precious commodity.
With the boom in industry came new jobs, not only in the industries mentioned above, but in road building, construction of parking lots and the manufacture and maintenance of road signs, traffic lights ad a variety of road service jobs. Ford, although he did not tolerate trade unions or the like, was good to his workers. Recognising the tediousness of the jobs his assembly line created, he paid them reasonable wages (doubling the daily wage to $5), gave them cheap cars and let them take Saturdays off work, as well as decreasing their working day.
This both attracted people to his factories, and forced other factory owners do the same, for fear of strike or losing workers. The increase in leisure time, disposable income and convenient travel for the common people meant that people began to indulge in more leisure activities, trade and tourism. It also allowed workers to spend more time with their families, changing the accepted role of the father in industrialised areas. This, combined with the move to the suburbs, for many people led to increased living conditions.
The increase in people’s spending money and the use of the assembly line in consumer industries meant that more people bought new, modern conveniences such as washing machines, refrigerators, radios and vacuum cleaners, which all became booming industries in their own right. This rabid consumerism, along with Ford’s ideas of expanding his market by setting up factories in other countries, could be seen as the start of the globalisation of American culture we recognise today. While Ford’s influence can hardly be understated, his ideas and products did have their disadvantages.
The vast increase of car on the road led to air pollution, traffic problems and many dangerous road accidents. The decline of the city centre I described earlier also meant that public transport went into rapid decline, with fewer people choosing to travel by bus or train, and criminals and gangsters often used new automobiles to run from the authorities and increase their field of influence. The jobs created by the assembly line were often unbearably tedious, and this led to decreased job satisfaction in the industrial sector.
This, combined with the globalisation of companies, often led to the exploitation of poor and foreign workers. The success of Ford, and entrepreneurs like him, made only him rich. While Ford increased workers’ wages, they were still horribly disproportionate to the huge profits the big companies were raking in. This made the rich/poor divide wider, with many workers living in horrible conditions. Combined with this was the simple fact that Ford’s huge production rate on served to over-saturate his market.
Everyone who could afford a car soon had one, and those who could not would take out loans or credit plans in order to buy one. This increased debt, and when the market saturation eventually brought industry to a stand-still, many people were in serious problems. This can be seen as one of the largest contributing factors to the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Henry Ford’s influence on the industrial state of affairs and the nature of life for common city workers in 1920s America is huge.
Many people at the time recognised his influence with slogans like “When Ford’s sneezes Detroit catches a cold”. The problem was, Ford’s soon did sneeze, and it was not just Detroit, but the whole of America that caught the cold. A lack of foresight from the American people threw their country into a depression, and while this may have limited the influences of Henry Ford’s products to be temporary only, it is his methods that live on. The ideas of assembly lines and mass standardised production are still used today by almost every company in every industry in the world.