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First Ford Assembly Line, 1913
The First Ford Assembly Line, 1913
First Ford Assembly Line, 1913
Ford Motor Company Factory - Dearborn, Michigan.
Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
Still Picture Branch, College Park, Maryland

The History of the Assembly Line

Note - the assembly line that Henry Ford built was probably the first "automated" assembly line. It was certainly Ford's first assembly line and one of the most sophisticated and successful examples ever. Ford’s line was one of the first where the work moved to the worker through automated conveyers.

The assembly line was not a new idea in 1913. It had been used in various places throughout history, but it does not appear that the idea was ever brought forward from earlier times. Most likely, each time a need for mass-production came along, the problems were worked out and then the whole concept was lost when there was no longer a need for the items that were being produced. In other words, it appears that each new instance of mass-production required independent reinvention of this technique. As with so many things, the idea was used during the classical period, but then it was lost until the Renaissance.

The first recorded instances of mass-production occurred in Egypt about 1435 BC. The Egyptians mass-produced large numbers of military chariots, but the exact techniques used are subject to speculation. The first known assembly lines using interchangeable parts were for making crossbows in China in about the 2nd century BC. Channel-type assembly lines were used in Venice in the mid-1500s for shipbuilding – outfitting, equipping and rigging ships at a rate of one per hour for the Venetian Navy. These instances of mass-production are hard to find information about and references will be found in documents relating to the production of those particular items.

In the late 1700s, Eli Whitney began manufacturing muskets for the US Army using mass-production techniques. Shortly after this, the US Armory began to require interchangeable parts in all weapons procured at the insistence of Captain John Hall, Assistant Armorer of the Harpers Ferry Armory. The idea was not popular with the era’s industrialists, but if they supplied the US Army, they had to comply. This system was only used for the production of military goods for some time and it was called Armory Practice. After this system gained acceptance in American industry, the name of this technique became the American System of Manufacture.

It is known that assembly line techniques were used for the manufacture of bicycles in the United States in the late 1800s. Oddly enough, the mass-produced bicycles were more expensive than the hand-made variety.

The first American automobile manufacturer to use an assembly line was Ransom E. Olds, founder and head of the Olds Motor Works. The idea behind the assembly line was already in use at that time, but it was actually a disassembly line used by large meat packers to process meat. It is believed that this is where Olds got the idea. Later, Olds formed the REO Motor Car Company, the REO name was derived from Olds’ initials. Olds’ name eventually became associated with Oldsmobile, a division of General Motors. Æ

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