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


The American system of production in the late 19th century and early 20th century was different in kind and scope from the era of mass production and succeeded it.

While many historians attribute the American system to interchangeable parts and especially Eli Whitney, he was more a promoter than a successful example of the new technique. More credit goes to the US Ordinance Group, who over a fifty year period pushed for the development of interchangeable parts among it's own production facilities and those private ones it contracted with. Initially, the cost of production and production rate was much higher with guns made with interchangeable parts.

Following small arms the concept of interchangeable parts was then applied most notably to sewing machine manufacturing, largely due to the mediating role of machine tool manufacturers who supplied both the armament and sewing machine industries. (Although in hindsight Singer's success was more due to marketing strategy than early application of new manufacturing techniques). Also mechanics would transfer technical knowledge as they moved between industries.

The use of automated machining in the Singer plant was not as complete or revolutionary as legend indicates -- they used fitters to modify each machine during final assembly.

The McCormick reaper industry is also misunderstood -- it was not the model factory that the popular literature portrayed it as. They did not employ the new production techniques and had a very low output. Only later, after Wilkinson arrived from the Colt factory, did the new techniques be applied and output increased. McCormick was also not the birthplace of mass production.

It was the bicycle industry that proved the pivotal role in the transition from the American system to mass production. The machine tool industry helped influence the thousands of bicycle shops that sprung up to meet demand, and they were the first groups to truly embrace the concepts of specialized machinery and interchangeable parts. Punch pressing and stamping techniques were also used. Alfred Pope was the father of the American bicycle industry.

Singer, McCormick, Pope and Western Wheel Works (a competitor of Pope's using the new production technologies) were all dominant firms with high-priced models, which dispels the notion that the new American system succeed because of cheaply-made and low-priced. All of them had production problems.

It was tin he rise of Ford that there was an approach to handle high volume production of multicomponent consumer durables in the millions each year. Ford wanted to manufacture the lowest-priced automobile to increase demand (unlike the previous "greats" in manufacturing). He achieved it through the introduction of the assembly line.

The main features of his success were:

1. Adoption of armory practice techniques (jigs, fixtures, guage techniques, interchangeable parts).

2. Sheet steel punch and press work.

3. The assembly line. It's introduction was swift and total. Ford was inspired either from meatpacking disassembly and/or the flour milling industry (flow technology).

The impact of the assembly line on workers was great. Turnover skyrocketed, which caused him to institute higher wages (the "five dollar day"). Fordism became synonymous with mechanized production, moving line assembly, high wages, and low prices on products.

Ford opened his factories up to writers and other people, and soon other companies began to copy his techniques. Other industries began to adopt mass production techniques, though it failed to mature in housing, furniture production, and agriculture, where consumer tastes rejected the high level of standardization inherant in mass production.

But ultimately the mass production techniques of Ford failed somewhat, as auto consumers began to value variety as well. Ford's changeover to the Model A in response was a long wretching nightmare, and Ford never recovered completely from it. By the 30's a new system of mass production was required that allowed frequent product changes.

Chapter One: American System of Manufacturers in the Antebellum Period

The American system of manufacturing involves "seqential series of operations carried out on a successive special-purpose machines that product interchangeable parts". It's doubtful that the phrase "American system" and it's definition was that widespread in the 1800's and is probably an artifact of more recent writings on the subject.

In the 1950's Britain sent a group to study American small arms manufacturing. Their intial analysis of the Colt manufacturing company was rather confusing -- it was unclear whether they could actually produce interchangeable parts.

The "American System' of small arms manufacturing started much earlier, borrowing on some French ideas. Eli Whitney sold the idea to the American Government to try to secure contracts for high volumes of muskets (though at the time he didn't have the technology, just the idea). He never did achieve either mechnization or interchangeability.

The Springfield Armory was one of the founding places for the American system. They developed the technique of guaging parts during production instead of just at the end. They supported the development of specialized machinery and pushed the concept of interchangeability. John Hall refined the idea of fixturing and guaging in his small arms factory and pushed for it's adoption in other factories. The Springfield armory adopted Hall's system and championed it's use.

Later patent arms manufacturers like Colt adopted the new production technologies. Samuel colt never achieved interchangeability or lower production costs. Though he used specialized machinery and guaging, most of his revolvers were fitted while soft and reassembled later. But he is a good example of how these new techniques were being used and tested in factories.

Other industries like clockmaking also adopted the new techniques, and one of the most impressive production systems to the British was in the wooden gunstock. In the 1850's the British conducted a test with Springfield made muskets that proved interchangeability across multiple years.


Chapter 2: The Sewing Machine and American System of Manufacturers

The Wheeler & Wilson company was one of the first companies to adopt the American system when they hired one of Colt's people over to help run their factory. Browne & Sharp was another company using special jigs and fixtures and striving for interchangeability.

Ironically, the eventual dominant leader in sewing machine manufacturing, Singer, actually failed to adopt many of the new production techniques. They utilized more of a job-shop, European approach. It wasn't until the 1860's, after they had achieved dominance, did they start adding automated and specialized machinery. Even later many of the parts were not interchangeable. They had more of a blend between the American and European systems. Later more advanced sewing machine technology forced them to adopt higher standards of accuracy and precision. After 1886 they adopted limit guages which greatly improved their manufacturing quality. They ultimately beat out Wheeler & Wilson through a superior marketing strategy, not a superior manufacturing technology.


Chapter 3: Mass Production in American Woodworking Industries : A Case Study

While there is nothing inherant in woodworking that precludes mass production, the industry only adopted the armory system in selected situations (e.g., Singer and their high volume of sewing machine cabinets). It seems that the character of the market is more determined by market conditions and fluctuating tastes in furniture styles, which made standardization and interchangeability more difficult to rationalize and adopt. The American system of manufacturing primarily grew in industries that could sell large numbers of identical goods.


Chapter 4: The McCormick Reaper Works & American Manufacturing Technology in the Nineteeth Century

Though McCormick's reaper has been hailed as an example of interchangeable parts in the agriculture industry, further research proves otherwise. Their shop was also initially based on blacksmith job-shop practices with few specialized machinery. Only after Wilkinson (who previously worked for Colt and Wilson sewing machine companies) had come to McCormick did the company adopt armory production techniques in the 1880's.

Ultimately the constant changes to the reaper technology made mass production techniques difficult to adopt. In 1859 an inventory reveals the shop was not unlike a large general machine shop, with few special-purpose machines. Like Singer they relied more on marketing than manufacturing to succeed. But unlike Singer, they had yearly model changes that stifled mass production techniques.


Chapter 5: From the American System Toward Mass Production: The Bicycle Insdustry in the 19th Century


The bicycle craze was short-lived (1890's) but it created a last impression in manufacturing and was a forerunner to true mass production. Many of the sewing machine companies that went out of business with the rise of Singer moved into bicycle manufacturing. They improved upon the armory system of manufacturing, especially through the use of sheet metal stamping.

Albert Pope first imported bicycles from Europe and began US production in 1878. The safety bicycle, with two equal wheels, and chain drive, and rubber tires, revolutionized the industry and spawned a bicycle crazed that lasted 3-4 years and promptly vanished in 1897. The companies who began making bicycles for Pope had previous made arms and sewing machines, so the American system was already in place. They also made innovations in manufacturing techniques like drop-forging (which was replaced by sheet-metal stamping), resistance welding, drawn steel tubing, and ball bearings.

Pope also instituted a rigid system of quality control that later proved useful to the auto industry.

The Western Wheelworks company eventually overtook Pope's operation, through their use of sheet metal stamping, which eliminated most drop-forging and machining.


Chapter 6: The Ford Motor Company & The Rise of Mass Production in America

The Ford Motor Company was established in 1903, but all the early cars were produced in a job shop format. When Henry Ford decided to build the Model T, a vision of a light but powerful car that would be cheap enough to sell to the masses, he set off his engineering staff who began to experiment with new ways of fixturing and guaging and plant layout to achieve higher production rates.

Ford embraced the idea of interchangeable parts and made it a requirement for the new model. Walter Flanders instilled many of the ideas from the Singer plant into Ford, and they began building many new fixtures to build part and he also sequentially located machines in the plant according to production sequence. Flanders emphasized the "art of buying materials, the art of production, and the art of selling".

The initial Model T's weren't produced in an assembly line, but they used sheet metal stamping on many key parts. They built the model T's in the new Highland Park facility, and achieved a 6-10 fold production increase through various means. Every part was machined by special purpose machines and checked for accuracy. Unlike other car companies, Ford didn't test the engines prior to putting them in the cars (only at the end). They also employed a fairly sophisticated production planning system to keep WIP low.

They designed the tools and equipment so they could be used by unskilled labor, and focused on accuracy over speed. Furthermore, Ford's decision to make only the Model T made production simpler.

Later they found that the assembly line allowed them to move the work to the men, and sped up the slow men and slowed down the fast men. It appears that the developement of conveyor systems and gravity slides led to the assembly line. The first assembly line was used in the magneto coil department, and later spread to other areas, and eventually the chassis assembly. They combined ideas from the cattle slaughter business, grain conveying, and brewing experience to create it.

It's unclear whether conveyor systems or assembly lines came first, but the changeover to assembly lines was extremely swift. They started by shifting magnetos from worker to workers, then found that by connecting them by a chain they could control the pace of the total line. By 1914 the whole plant was run by an assembly line.

The assembly line created many labor problems, given it's repetitiveness and work conditions. So Ford enacted the five dollar day, which was an extraordinary wage at that time.


Chapter 7: Cul-de-sac: The Limits of Fordism & the Coming of "Flexible Mass production".

Alfred Sloan and General Motors initiated the idea of yearly model changes, which caused them to eclipse Ford by the mid-20's. Chevrolet figured out how to do yearly model changeovers and still maintain an efficient assembly line. They resorted to less specialized machines, strengthened fixtures, raw material inspection, and a decentralized production system.

In the GM system, different plants made different parts and they also had a number of GM divisions supplying them as well. The decentralized system allowed more adaptability and made changeovers easier. Their 1929 changeover from 4 to 6 cylinders took only a month, while at ford the changeover from Model T to A took six months of downtime and a big upheaval. Flexible mass production became essential to remain competitive.

In the early 1920's Ford had moved into backward integration, building foundaries and buying railroads to transport parts. Their whole operation was very centralized, with detailed records kept on everything. While they incorporated yearly design changes with ease, Henry Ford resisted change. They failed to incorporate many of the new mechanical engineering developments on the outmoded automobile. Their focus on the low-end made them vulnerable to the majority of consumer who already owned a car and wanted to trade up to a more advanced model.

On May 25, 1927 Ford announced that they were stopping production of the Model T and would be producing a new model. But there were endless delays in the design of the Model A. Ford's decision to not use stampings created long delays in desing and production until the rising costs caused them to move quietly back to stampings.

The intial production was only a media event, and there were issues with the first production that caused Ford to request more changes. The new gas tank design was particularily troublesome. The tightness of the plant layout required constant machine moving with each increase in production rate.

But the biggest problem was their single purpose machinery. Half of the Model T machines had to be retooled or refinished for Model A. Initial production was extremely sluggished, and firing most of the experience Model T foremen was no help.

The Model A did eventually bring Ford up to be an up-to-date model. He also instituted a credit program to compete with the GMAC. But they learned that 25% retooling for each model change would not allow them to remain competitive. The learned the value of establishing pilot lines before tearing out old equipment. By 1928 they were back up to full production. Future design changes were much less traumatic.


Chapter 8: The Ethos of Mass Production and It's Critics

There were many critics of mass production, who pointed out it's loss of worker individuality. But there were many who praised it's positive effects. Industrial designers began to embrace the idea of design for mass production. The ethos pervaded American industry -- even prefabricated houses began using mass production techniques. But consumers didn't want the lower variety implied by mass production.

The other outgrowth of mass production was the inciting of mass consumption through modern advertising techniques.