America’s Assembly Line

By on June 29th, 2017 in Book Reviews, Magazine Articles, Societal Impact

By David E. Nye. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 2013, 338 pages

Reviewed by David Wunsch

If I asked you to I name five prominent American business entrepreneurs of the 20th century I’m almost certain you would supply me with Henry Ford – so perhaps this will give you a little shock: in Russia, in the 1920s, the Soviet Communists enthusiastically embraced Ford, this symbol of capitalism. One learns from David Nye’s newest book that Ford’s 1922 memoir My Life and Work was by 1925 reprinted four times in the Soviet Union and was read “with… zeal” by Russians. By 1929 Ford agreed to sell plans, to the Soviet Union, for the construction of two complete plants capable of mass producing his new Model A.

That the Russians, the Germans, French, English, Japanese, and Danes all showed intense interest in making Ford’s cars and in Fordism (his practices) testifies to not only the importance of this subject but to the appropriateness of this book published by M.I.T. Press in 2013. Fordism came into its first major employment one hundred years earlier in 1913. This book is about more than Fordism; it’s concerned with the history of the assembly line, of which Fordism is, historically, its major manifestation. Indeed, Nye is at pains to point out that Ford did not invent the assembly line method of production. But he did bring it to a level of popularity and employment in the production of the Model T Ford such that his name is inextricably connected with it.

Nye helpfully reduces Fordism to a set of conditions:

  1. There is division of labor – each worker has a set of well-defined relatively simple tasks to be performed on a car being moved along on a moving assembly line.
  2. The parts that the laborer applies in the assembly process are interchangeable. There is no ad hoc filing, grinding, etc., to make them fit in place.
  3. Manufacturing employs specialized machines that have a single function.
  4. Machines are not grouped by type (you don’t put all the milling machines in one spot) but are placed where they are needed.
  5. Parts and assemblies are moved automatically from one stage of production to the next—they’re not shifted by workers whose job is assembly. There is no wearisome heavy lifting or towing.
  6. There is enhancement of production by electrification and good lighting.

Nye shares with most historians of technology an evolutionary theory of invention, which holds that new devices and practices emerge gradually. The assembly line is an example—it was developing before Ford. For example, Adam Smith had noted in the 18th century that effective manufacturing of pins required division of labor. And interchangeable parts don’t date from the Model T era. These were used in the 18th century in the making of clocks. The bringing of heavy objects to the worker, who labors around one spot, could have been seen by Ford in 19th century Chicago slaughter houses—although here the production worker engages in disassembly—butchering renders the moving carcass progressively lighter. Finally, Nye notes the importance of the electric motor, which became reliable 25 years before the Model T production line. With motors, factory machinery was no longer a slave to a common drive shaft, driven by steam or water. Ford began integrating all these elements from the start of the Model T in 1908, until the production line came to fruition in 1913.

But there is another aspect to Fordism, and it’s not found in the factory. Classical Marxist theory holds that the owner of the means of production (the bourgeois in Marx’s language) will pay his workers as little as possible so as to maximize his profits. Ford saw the need for consumption of his product: an inexpensive car that, in his imagination, a blue collar worker—his own, in fact—could afford. Starting early in 1914 a worker at Ford in Michigan earned 5 dollars a day at a time when the average factory worker made2.50.NyeexplainsthattheModelTof1921cost397, just 80 days wages for a new car for someone making 5 dollars a day. In Nye’s words, “Henry Ford understood that mass production required mass consumption.” The workers at Ford were more reliable and productive than their less paid fellows on the outside, and in the years following the introduction of the 5 dollar day, Ford’s profits increased while he reduced the price of his car. Nye concludes his book by observing that Ford’s greatest contribution to America was not the assembly line but his creating a business that would increase consumption—a model that would spread to other industries. Indeed, the assembly line by itself was a mixed blessing, famous for its cruelty and inhumanity.

Suppose, as the auto chassis is being conveyed past you, that you have an urge to go to the bathroom. Your foreman had to first find a replacement and you were to be back in three minutes. Nye effectively uses literary sources to convey the life of this worker. Here is John Dos Passos: “…every ounce of life was sucked off into production and at night the workmen went home gray, shaking husks.”

Ford’s success was so spectacular that he had to be emulated—by 1920 half the cars sold in the world were his. In the decades following the introduction of the Ford production line, it became known simply as “mass production”; its methods came to be used not only by other auto makers but also by builders of such household appliances as radios, bikes, and lawnmowers. The practices spread to Europe and the Nazis embraced them in the 1930s. Assembly line production is now so widespread that churches and charities use it to put together gift baskets for the poor and infirm. Nye’s discussion of the intellectual’s negative reaction to production-line labor is broad—one finds Walter Benjamin, Jacques Ellul, Vance Packard, Stuart Chase, Theodore Roszak, etc. And of course there is the great satire on the subject: Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times.

In describing the spread of mass production to other industries, Nye skips a business sector so vast that it’s easy to miss. A friend of mine, call him R, with a stage 4 melanoma, spends a day visiting a Boston hospital. R sees a primary care doctor, dermatologist, oncologist, radiologist, neurologist, and a surgeon. Each of these 6 men or women is a specialist performing, like a Ford worker, a task with specialized equipment. My friend propels himself along from worker to worker, down the corridors. Like the laborer on the line, each of these well-paid doctors is expected to perform his/her duties within a specified time interval. This duration is dictated by the hospital, government, and insurance agencies. It is not set by the practitioners, nor do they dictate their compensation.

The present state of American medicine was described by a remarkably prescient Karl Marx. From the Communist Manifesto, whose English edition dates from 1848, we have:

“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.”

The spectre of Marx haunts anyone who writes about the technology of production, labor, working conditions, and capital. Nye doesn’t make heavy use of him—but Marx is useful in this subject not only because he was so far sighted but also because he could be so wrong. Ford’s wage system is completely contrary to Marx. While Marx’s observation of 1867 that “the lightening of the labor (due to machinery) … becomes a sort of torture, since the machine does not free the laborer from work, but deprives the work of all interest”—describes much of 20th century mass production, while his “the proletarian is without property,” also from the Manifesto, is now seen as nonsense—we might thank Henry Ford.

Nye’s book may be roughly divided into two epochs, one of 60 years from 1913 to 1973, the other of 40 years from then to 2013. In 1973 American auto workers saw wages reach an all time (inflation adjusted) high—a level to which it hasn’t ever returned. But it became evident by the early 1970s that Detroit was losing market share to not only European makers like Volkswagen but most especially to the Japanese. By the mid-1980s Honda, Nissan, and Toyota were doing so well in the U.S. that they set up plants there. Why were the Japanese makers thriving while Detroit was suffering, and why were Japanese cars better made than the American’s?

Part of the answer—an ironic one-is that the Japanese success derives dramatically from the work of W. Edwards Deming, an American, who was an expert on the use of statistics in wartime quality control. After the war, he lectured to an attentive Japanese business community. His role in Japanese manufacturing is so important that Nye might have supplied us with some biographical material. The public thinks they know who Henry Ford is but try asking a stranger about Deming.

The Japanese built on Deming’s work and developed a system of car manufacture employing both his ideas and their own, and characterized by the following:

  1. What Japanese call kaizen, a method of continuous improvement of the assembly line effected through suggestions by the workers on the line.
  2. Ironically, this was part of Ford’s original plan, which had gotten lost.
  3. A system of “just in time” production in which cars are created in response to sales orders. This contrasted with the American method where cars were made, stored, and sales departments were pressured to move them.
  4. Where Detroit produced a single car in a plant (GM made Buicks in one factory, Pontiacs in another), the Japanese shops were flexible. Toyota could produce a variety of models in the same factory in tune with the marketplace.
  5. A “lean system of production” where parts suppliers sent the automobile maker components just as they were needed. Thus, there would be no accumulation of defective work from a supplier.
  6. Rather than require a worker do the same job day after day, as was the case in Detroit, Japanese makers promoted the use of a variety of skills, e.g., welder, lathe operator. Workers whose occupation had some variety were happier and more careful about their work. He or she typically served as part of a team, doing a variety of tasks; the team also did its own quality control. The dreaded repetitiveness of the classical assembly line was mitigated and the classic Ford assembly method was discarded. Workers were expected to cooperate with each other and with management, who were not regarded as adversaries.
  7. The use of automobile designs that were friendly for manufacturing, e.g., why have 65 parts in a front bumper when 10 would do just as well?

Nye’s final 40 years deals mainly with 2 stories: Japan’s challenge to Detroit, which struggled to catch up, and the spreading use of automation in both countries. The Japanese were remarkably generous about sharing their methods with American car makers—a reminder that Ford shared his techniques abroad in the 1920s.

David Nye’s book is slender and gracefully written—it’s from an academic press but not heavy on jargon or theory. One of its strengths derives from Nye’s visit to a Ford Focus assembly plant in 2011 where he vividly describes and photographs the changes wrought by automation: robots and computers. The factory produces 100 cars per employee per year. The worker on the Model T, a vastly simpler vehicle, produced 20 cars per year in 1913. It’s understandable that by 2012 the “Big Three” of the American automobile industry were employing just 20 percent of the workforce of its peak in the early 1970s.

Nye is one of the major figures in the history of technology, An American by birth, he teaches in Denmark and is known for a number of well written books accessible to the general reader. The slimness of the present volume is both a virtue and a shortcoming. The history of the American production line lies at a complicated intersection of technology, management, capitalism, and labor unions. Information about the latter is not a strong point of this work. I ended wanting to know something about American labor unions vs. those in Japan. Did Japanese unions strike? Why didn’t they have an adversarial relationship with management? How did Japanese automakers with plants in the U.S. (Honda and Toyota) avoid unionization in the 1980s and 1990s?

And where is worker safety discussed? This is a major factor in industrial history, especially in the early days of the assembly line. In 1917, over 11 000 people were killed on the job in the U.S.—a figure exceeding the number of American soldiers killed that year in the Great War. One wonders how Ford’s safety record compared with the other automakers.

And as for capital—there is a major unanswered question: how could Ford justify to his shareholders paying his workers in 1914 above what he had to, resulting in reduced shareholder dividends? The Ford family didn’t own all the Ford stock until 1918. Would a profitable company today make such a move? What special conditions favored Ford?

Perhaps Nye will solve some of these puzzles in another book. It’s clear too that the American automobile production line, following its near death experience and resuscitation after the American financial collapse of 2009, is undergoing very rapid changes. Because of automation and union concessions, new people being hired are making less in real terms than they would have in 1973. Strange to say, by 2011, General Motors was selling more cars in China than in the U.S. Will this continue? In a decade we will need another book, and I hope Nye will write it.


A. David Wunsch

A. David Wunsch, book review editor of this magazine, is Emeritus Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Email: