The Development of Mass Production Has a Dramatic Impact on Industry and Society

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The Development of Mass Production Has a Dramatic Impact on Industry and Society


Mass production is the modern system of manufacturing that uses principles such as interchangeability and the use of the assembly line. Although notions regarding mass production existed in many industrialized nations, the concept wasn't fully realized until Henry Ford (1863-1947) put it to use in 1914. Ford's success in producing the Model T automobile set the early standard for what mass production could achieve. As a result, mass production quickly became the dominant form of manufacturing around the world. The idea of mass production also took hold in popular culture. Numerous artists, writers, and filmmakers used the image of the assembly line to symbolize either the good or the evil of modern industrial society.


Notions of mass production date back to the 1800s and the development of machine tools. However, the nineteenth century witnessed the birth of a true machine tool industry. The earliest machine tool pioneers were in Britain. Henry Maudslay (1771-1831) built precision tool works necessary for mass production. Many of England's early machine tool artisans worked for Maudslay as apprentices. Later, these individuals crafted precision lathes, plane surfaces, and measuring instruments.

Even with the early successes in Europe, technology scholars attribute the widespread adoption of mass production to trailblazers in the United States. With its abundant waterpower, coal, and raw material but shortage of workers, America was the ideal place for building skill into the machine. From its earliest industrial beginnings, American leaders attempted to mechanize production of barrels, nails, and other goods. In the early 1800s American inventor Thomas Blanchard used mechanized production to make rifles and muskets for the U.S. Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts. Blanchard's efforts were supported by the War Department, which then supported other mass production applications.

The distinct system developed in the United States became known as the "American system of manufacturing." In the nineteenth century, the nation witnessed the rise of innovators such as Eli Whitney (1765-1825), Samuel Colt (1814-1862), and Cyrus McCormick (1809-1884). These leaders were committed to interchangeability and mechanized production. By 1883 the Singer Manufacturing Company sold over 500,000 sewing machines, while McCormick produced thousands of reapers.

Many factors came together in the early twentieth century to make mass production possible. In fact, Henry Ford's decision to produce an inexpensive automobile that working people could afford was a gamble. He succeeded in convincing his financial backers only through sheer determination. Also, Detroit had a history of mechanical innovation, which provided the skilled engineers and designers that could build Ford's factories. Another important component was that the immigration boom in the area provided the company with workers to man the lines.

Ford's determination to make Model Ts and only Model Ts helped in the development of mass production techniques. Each process was broken down into its smallest part, and as the components moved down the line, the pieces soon formed the whole. Throughout the process Ford emphasized accuracy, and experts noted the durability and soundness of the automobile.

As the early production process peaked, Ford introduced the assembly line to the mix. The assembly line gave Ford factories a fluid appearance and dramatically increased productivity. Without the assembly line, Ford would not have been able to keep pace with consumer demand for the Model T. More important for buyers, the increased efficiency brought with it a reduced cost. Model T prices quickly dropped from more than $800 to $300.

"Every piece of work in the shop moves," Ford explained. "It may move on hooks on overhead chains going to assembly in the exact order in which the parts are required; it may travel on a moving platform, or it may go by gravity, but the point is that there is no lifting or trucking of anything other than materials." Soon, Model Ts were being produced once every two minutes.

The company sold 11,000 cars from 1908 to 1909, which raised $9 million, a 60% increase over the previous year. Ford then outdid himself with the 1910 to 1911 model, selling 34,528. Sales skyrocketed, reaching 248,000 in 1914, or nearly half the U.S. market. The heavy demand for cars forced Ford to pioneer new methods of production. He built the largest and most modern factory in America on a 60-acre tract at Highland Park in north-central Detroit. Ford's net income soared from $25 million in 1914 to $78 million by 1921.

Another essential facet of Ford's mass production system was his willingness to adopt resourceful means of finding labor to man the assembly lines. The sheer size of the workforce Ford needed to keep pace combined with the monotony of the assembly line led to great turnover in the factories.

Early in 1914 Ford introduced the "Five Dollar Day" to deal with labor shortage. Ford decided that he would pay workers the then-outrageous sum of $5 for an 8-hour workday, much shorter than the industry average. The new wage far surpassed the industry's standard of $1.80 to $2.50 per day. The program made Ford a hero and extended his growing legend.

Because of mass production and Ford's high wages, company workers were given the ability to elevate themselves above working-class means. With the extra pay, they participated in the accumulation of material items previously out of their reach. In turn, other mass producers, especially of middle-class luxuries, were given another outlet for goods. The Five Dollar Day ensured the company that it would always have the workers needed to produce, while at the same time allowing working-class families a means to participate in America's consumer culture.


Ford's use of mass production techniques was a landmark step for American industry. Within the automobile industry, Ford's beloved Model T eventually declined in popularity, but mass production became a permanent part of the business. Mass production techniques spread to other car makers, and Alfred P. Sloan (1875-1966) of General Motors introduced the annual model change in the 1920s. The changing look of automobiles, made affordable by mass production, mirrored the changing national landscape. A sweeping car craze prompted the desire for material abundance that would mark the genesis of modern America after World War I.

Advertisers, artists, and writers used the factory and assembly line to symbolize life in the United States. Often, they associated manliness with technology and engineering. Many looked upon the factories that linked American cities with romanticism. Corporate marketing, advertising, and public relations staffs and outside agencies developed to massage this message into the public's subconscious.

Many factories even began offering tours to show off production capabilities. Ford's Highland Park factory received more than 3,000 visitors a day before 1920. General Electric, National Cash Register, and Hershey Chocolate established tours as well. They were a new form of public relations and left visitors with a deep impression of the company.

Over the next several decades, the influence and dominance of mass production solidified around the world. In preparing for both World War I and World War II, nations intensified mass production of arms and ammunition. The efficiencies of mass production allowed American businesses to switch from consumer goods to war stuffs quickly. The amount of armaments brought to the war effort by the United States turned the tide in both wars.

After World War II American industry shifted back to consumer goods but did not slow its pace of production. The rise of suburban living and the subsequent "baby boom"—a huge increase in babies born in the post-war era—kept assembly lines producing at phenomenal rates. The growth of the middle class, in both wages and desire for material goods, can be traced to the development and dominance of mass production.

Mass production also bears responsibility for the negative outcomes associated with unskilled labor. The process made workers dispensable and increased the power of the foremen, managers, and department heads that wielded power over them. These influences were mocked in the famous 1936 film by Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times. In real life, mass production led to worker unrest, turnover, and social conflict. Unionization efforts intensified as workers became more alienated in the factory setting. Thus, the advent of mass production had both positive and negative effects on society.


Further Reading

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. A Social History of American Technology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Hounshell, David A. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Kranzberg, Melvin, and Joseph Gies. By the Sweat of thy Brow: Work in the Western World. New York: Putnam's, 1975.

Nye, David E. American Technological Sublime. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

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The Development of Mass Production Has a Dramatic Impact on Industry and Society

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The Development of Mass Production Has a Dramatic Impact on Industry and Society