Relic: Ford Model T

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Ancient life was extremely difficult-you had to use your own two feet to get from Point A to Point B. No one knows exactly when or where the wheel was invented-but when it was, it made life a lot easier because technology had played its part into getting as much done with as little effort as possible. The wheel opened up all sorts of new opportunities, transporting people and goods all throughout the world for several thousand years, and indirectly leading to the invention of many other things as well.

Between the invention of the railroad and the invention of the automobile, the preferred forms of transport were ship, train, horse-drawn carriage, and of course, people’s own two feet. Inventing the automobile (which literally means “something that moves itself” in Greek), like many other inventions, was also a process that took centuries. Frenchman Nicolas Joseph Cugnot invented a steam-powered tricycle in 1769, and later on used that technology in two steam-powered tractors for the French army. However, the technological barriers, mostly involving water supply and steam pressure, made the invention impractical.

Many people tried inventing the automobile, but ended up running into technological limitations. The first automobile may have appeared around the turn of the 19th century in Richard Trevithick’s “Puffing Devil” road locomotive, but it failed to maintain sufficient steam pressure for long periods of time. In 1807, Joseph Nicephore Niepce (a major contributor to the invention of the camera), along with his brother Claude, invented one of the first internal combustion engines (a key part of the automobile) and called it the Pyrelophore. However, it was installed on a boat rather than an automobile. Swiss inventor Francois Isaac de Rivaz used his own variation of the internal combustion engine on a road vehicle, and it became the first land vehicle to be powered by an internal combustion engine. The Niepces used Lycopodium powder (dried spores ofthe Lycopodium plant), finely crushed coal dust and resin along with oil, while de Rivaz used the very common elements of hydrogen and oxygen. Neither panned out.

By the end of the 19th century, another Frenchman, Gustave Trouve, demonstrated a working three-wheeled automobile powered by electricity, which might have been the world’s first electric car. German engineers such as Gottlieb Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach and Siegfried Marcus were also working on inventing the automobile, but Karl Benz (of Mercedes-Benz fame) is widely acknowledged as the inventor of the automobile. Benz was granted a patent in 1879 for his version of the internal combustion engine. His Motorwagen was built in 1885, and was awarded the patent for its invention the next year. By late 1886, his invention was already on the road, and he sold 25 Benz vehicles between 1888 and 1893, when a fourth wheel was added to the automobile (previous models only had three).

Many versions of the automobile were made around the late 19th century, but since they were not mass produced, they were mainly sold to those who could afford one-until American industrialist Henry Ford came along and opened the novelty of the automobile to just about everyone.

Ford is an important name in American history-synonymous with America itself, in fact. The name Ford is not only important in the automobile industry, but also in business and industry. The Ford Model T came off of the assembly lines in 1908. Ford himself said of the car, “I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one-and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces:’ Ford’s vision was revolutionary-there were no big highways on which to use his car, but he was thinking ahead.

Ford reduced the production time of a single automobile from 12 hours and 30 minutes to a mere 1 hour and 33 minutes, increasing productivity eightfold. A Ford Model T car came off of his assembly line every 15 minutes, thus creating so many automobiles that anyone could own one. For example, a factory worker could buy a Model T with four months of pay.

He based his production line on other business practices-Ford combined the assembly line style of mass production and interchangeable parts into creating one of the most efficient uses of technology in history. While increasing productivity, he also used less manpower, thus making him an efficient businessman. While creating mass-produced automobiles, Ford also created labor practices ahead of their time-he streamlined the division of labor by assigning each worker to a specific location of the plant, thus reducing accidents in the workplace.

Ford’s practices also had a profound effect in the American job market and American economics-he dictated that his cars were to be made by machines; that such machines could be used by unskilled workers; and workers had to be paid a living wage so that they could buy the products they make. Ford paid his workers USD 5 a day in 1914 (USD 110 today), which was unheard of at the time. Ford also instituted the 40-hour work week (8 hours a day) that most businesses follow today.

Ford’s company also went back to the birthplace of the automobile, with Ford divisions popping up in France, England, Denmark, and Germany. Almost every company who produced automobiles also adopted Ford’s assembly line. By 1927, 15 million Model T cars had rolled off of his assembly lines, making Ford’s Ford Motor Company the biggest name in the automotive industry. The Model T is not just an automobile-it’s a lot more than that. It’s also a landmark of American and global culture, and contributed to the automobile industry (and industry in general) by utilizing the assembly line. Ford didn’t only make cars-he also made a difference in how business was conducted and how labor was done. In essence, Ford is the reason we drive in cars rather than use our own two feet to get us from Point A to Point B.

First published in Gadgets Magazine, May 2013

Words by Jose Alvarez