Henry Ford is the man.
He played a pivotal role in not only making it possible for the working man to become mobile but also for them to be able to afford to buy cars.
It was 100 years ago today that the world’s first moving assembly line starting producing cars. The mass produced Model T literally sparked an economic, social, and cultural revolution.
No longer were the rich the only ones able to afford to travel great distances at will.
The modern assembly line allowed Ford to cut the price of his cars in half. He also doubled the pay of his workers making it possible for the men who assembled vehicles to be able to buy them for the first time ever.
In one fell swoop his assembly line innovation laid the foundation for the majority of Americans to become upward mobile financially as well as more mobile at the same time.
Curse cars all you want. There is no other single invention that has ever reshaped the socio-economic landscape as drastically.
The working class was no longer chained to low paying production jobs. They also could literally go farther.
They didn’t need to catch a trolley line or train, assuming they were near either. And they weren’t limited to traveling a fixed route.
It made it possible for the working class to commute farther to better paying jobs. And it also gave employers a bigger pool of workers to draw from to increase productivity.
It allowed working class folks to go to vacation playgrounds that once catered only to the rich such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and ocean resorts.
But the Model T and assembly line did much more than democratize mobility. It helped improve the standard of living of workers and gave birth to the great American Middle Class. Mobility made it possible for larger retail venues to exist. With larger customer bases and competition no longer a neighborhood concept, prices of goods dropped.
It gave birth to the often maligned suburbs. People no longer had to live in cramped apartments in urban settings. They could secure affordable housing complete with yards. The car more than anything else helped make possible the American dream of home ownership thanks to mobility to not just secure a job but to find a place where it was affordable to live. It eased the urban housing rental monopolies as people no longer had to live within walking distance of jobs.
Mass produced vehicles revolutionized everything from farming to health care. Ambulances could take critical ill patients quickly to hospitals. Autos also made it easier to access general health care.
But what about air pollution, you might ask?
Mass produced cars meant less people in non-urbanized areas had to rely on horses. Horses as the primary transportation in cities and towns weren’t exactly a healthy thing. Horses tend to pile up a lot of dung and urine that create odors and health issues.
As for the maligned internal combustion engine, cars are on track within a few years to consume less gasoline and therefore foul air less per passenger mile than public transit.
The real genius of Ford’s assembly line was his decision to not simply pocket the increased profitability it brought to his company but to share the spoils with his workers.
By doubling their pay he made it possible for them to buy his cars. That can’t be stressed enough. It set the stage for American companies to make more profits by paying workers more.
That concept is lost on more than a few employers today who keep squeezing labor to squeeze bigger and bigger profit margins.
Ultimately less and less people will be able to afford their products.
And when that happens companies will make less money as well.
Henry Ford wasn’t a scholar but he deserves credit for putting in motion an economic theory that helped bring America to the cusp of the 21st century.
Now the question is whether the titans of business today more worried about Wall Street instead of Main Street will ultimately undo what Ford helped create — the Great American Middle Class.