America's Assembly Line
The assembly line was invented in 1913 and has been in continuous operation ever since. It is the most familiar form of mass production. Both praised as a boon to workers and condemned for exploiting them, it has been celebrated and satirized. (We can still picture Chaplin’s little tramp trying to keep up with a factory conveyor belt.) In America’s Assembly Line, David Nye examines the industrial innovation that made the United States productive and wealthy in the twentieth century.
The assembly line—developed at the Ford Motor Company in 1913 for the mass production of Model Ts—first created and then served an expanding mass market. It inspired fiction, paintings, photographs, comedy, cafeteria layouts, and cookie-cutter suburban housing. It also transformed industrial labor and provoked strikes and union drives. During World War II and the Cold War, it was often seen as a bastion of liberty and capitalism. By 1980, Japan had reinvented the assembly line as a system of “lean manufacturing”; American industry reluctantly adopted this new approach. Nye describes this evolution and the new global landscape of increasingly automated factories, with fewer industrial jobs in America and questionable working conditions in developing countries. A century after Ford’s pioneering innovation, the assembly line continues to evolve toward more sustainable manufacturing.
About the Author
David E. Nye is Professor of American History at the University of Southern Denmark. The winner of the 2005 Leonardo da Vinci Medal of the Society for the History of Technology, he is the author of America’s Assembly Line (MIT Press) and other books.
“Nye’s fascinating book deserves a wide readership.”—Howard Segal, Times Higher Education
“To make sense of their twenty-first-century world, people need to understand the profound influence of the twentieth-century technology known as the assembly line. David Nye’s sweeping analysis of the origins and development of ‘the line’ is the place to start.”
—Robert Casey, former Senior Curator of Transportation, Henry Ford Museum
“It is hard to think of a manufacturing technology that has had a greater economic and social impact than the moving assembly line. In America's Assembly Line, David Nye shows us how this new technology emerged, expanded, stalled, and was reinvented, setting in train the age of mass production and consumerism as well as many of the subsequent environmental problems we experience today. Nye’s beautifully nuanced and perceptive treatment of the subject indicates why he is one of the most distinguished historians of technology and culture working today.”
—Merritt Roe Smith, Cutten Professor of the History of Technology, MIT
“Crafted with immense erudition, America’s Assembly Line is a fascinating cultural history, combining extensive archival research and theoretical sophistication. Nye shows how America’s growing economy in the twentieth century was powered by the assembly line and how deeply this ‘general purpose technology’ was intertwined with American culture, from the exuberance of the Rockettes to the dysphoria of the American worker. He offers a lucid, historically informed reading of the problems that beset America today, in a changed global economy that has adapted assembly-line technology to its advantage even as the American worker has been marginalized.”
—Miles Orvell, Temple University, author of The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community