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America’s Assembly Line

Author(s):Nye, David E.
Reviewer(s):Lewchuk, Wayne

Published by EH.Net (August 2013)

David E. Nye, America’s Assembly Line. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013. xii + 338 pp. $30 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-262-01871-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Wayne Lewchuk, School of Labour Studies and Department of Economics, McMaster University.

2013 marks the centenary of the introduction of the moving assembly line at the Ford Motor’s Highland Park plant, hence it is appropriate that a new volume is produced taking a fresh look at this important event. There is much to like about Nye’s book. It is an ambitious project examining the roots of this invention in economic and cultural terms.? The volume covers a lot of territory! It starts with an extended discussion of the assembly line’s invention, its initial public reception as a miracle technology, attempts to export it to other countries, the growing social critique of its impact on society and work, its symbolism as a sign of American superiority during the Cold War, its identification as a cause of unemployment in the 1950s and 1960s, its transformation under the leadership of Japanese managers in the 1960s and 1970s, and finally its role in facilitating the shift in manufacturing from the United States.

Numerous scholars have already written on the assembly line, its impact on labor and its transformation under the banner of lean production. There are full length manuscripts that cover almost all of the sub-sections of Nye’s work. One might wonder why we need another volume.? Nye makes extensive use of this pre-existing literature, mixing it with archival work where appropriate.? The strength of the volume is its effort to span the entire one hundred year history of the assembly line in one volume and to explore not just the technical and economic roots of this system of production, but also its social and cultural implications.? The volume will appeal to readers looking for a broad overview of the assembly line, but less to specialists focusing on more narrow questions such as its origin or its transformation into Lean Production. Those more interested in the cultural and social implications of the new system of production will find significant new material.

Nye starts by asking why the assembly line emerged in the United States and not somewhere else. This is a good question as the technology itself is not overly complex.? The first lines at Ford in 1912 and 1913 were set up over a weekend with minimal capital investment. He begins to answer this question through an evolutionary view of how technologies emerge and then places significant weight on cultural explanations to explain why the “public” embraces a particular innovation, in this case the assembly line.? Nye sees the American cultural context as particular compatible with the assembly line.

Nye identifies five steps that lead to a “highly accelerated society” in the United States, which created the context for the invention of the assembly line.? These include standardization of space into squares west of the Appalachians; investment in railways to move through this space; investment in the telegraph to move information through space; the standardization of time by harmonizing time zones; and finally the invention of the assembly line “as a fundamental principle of both production and consumption.”? Cultural factors undoubtedly can help us understanding how society is organized and how production is organized.

I am less convinced that the cultural factors that Nye stresses can fully explain the emergence of the assembly line in the United States.? Was the adoption of the assembly line contingent on the emergence of a “highly accelerated society” or should more weight be placed on the willingness of workers to be managed and the willingness of management to dictate to workers. The assembly line relied on a relationship between labor and management that resulted in management being able (or not) to dictate to labor. What about basic economic factors? In the United States, workers were paid more because of the different land/labor/capital ratios in the United States compared to Europe. More American workers had the purchasing power to buy more goods making mass production possible and profitable. In turn, the increased demand for goods created unique manufacturing problems for American entrepreneurs wanting to satisfy this demand. There is abundant evidence that in Ford’s case it was the sheer challenge of keeping up with the demand for Model T?s that lead to the first assembly lines in 1913.? There is not much evidence that those employed on these lines celebrated the accelerated pace of production. They came because Ford offered to pay them twice as much as anyone else. When this wage premium evaporated in the 1930s they turned on Ford and other employers using assembly lines. It could be argued that Ford’s willingness to share more of his profits with labor in 1913 was perhaps the most critical cultural factor in the success of assembly line production in the United States.

A second concern with the cultural argument is Nye’s tendency to treat “Americans” as a homogeneous society. There is little sense of the class nature of early American society or the heavy reliance on recent immigrants to cities like Detroit where the line was adopted.? While later chapters clearly document the growing social divide over the merits of the assembly line, there is less space for dissension in the story regarding its initial introduction.? The same can be said of Nye’s view of the Japanese variant of the assembly line and lean production which is described with some enthusiasm, while the critics of lean production are given only limited treatment in these sections of the book.

Nye forces readers to reconsider the factors leading to the assembly line?s introduction and how it has evolved over the last one hundred years.? The focus on cultural factors is a welcome perspective on how technology evolves. That the analysis raises as many questions as it answers is indicative of the challenge of understanding the process of technical change. None of this detracts from the very real contribution this volume makes to that analysis.

Wayne Lewchuk, Professor in the School of Labour Studies and Department of Economics at McMaster University, is the author of Working Without Commitments: Precarious Employment and Health (2011) and of American Technology and the British Vehicle Industry (1987).? He is currently the co-director of a five year joint university-community research program on Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO).

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Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII