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Ford Introduces Assembly Line

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 88th installment in the series. 

October 7, 1913: Ford Introduces Assembly Line

Although engineers had been tinkering with internal combustion engines in “horseless carriages” since the late 19th century, it was the cheap, reliable Ford Model T that truly opened the automobile age. In the four years after the first Model T rolled out of Henry Ford’s Piquette Plant factory in Detroit on September 27, 1908, production jumped from 10,660 in 1909 to 82,388 in 1912.

Model T sales were almost doubling annually, but Ford wasn’t satisfied: In a country with a burgeoning population growing wealthier every year, he knew there was huge unmet demand for the status and convenience afforded by a family automobile. The key to tapping this demand was simple: producing vastly more vehicles at an ever-cheaper price. Ford vowed: “I will build a car for the great multitude … it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one.”

Ford had already sped up production by simplifying and standardizing parts, but the crucial step came on October 7, 1913, when the company started using a moving assembly line for the Model T chassis at its new factory in Highland Park, Michigan. Following some earlier tests with assembly line production for individual components, the chassis itself would now be towed across the factory floor by a rope attached to a steam-powered windlass.

Although Ford is often credited as the inventor of the assembly line, it was actually a team effort by his top executives, including Charles E. Sorensen (“Cast-Iron Charlie”), Clarence Avery, Ed Martin, and Walter Flanders, who together pioneered what would later be termed industrial rationalization or “Fordism.” Ford and his managers broke the Model T construction process down into 45 separate tasks, handled in sequence by around 140 workers positioned on both sides of the tow rope (later conveyor belt), each concentrating exclusively on one job.

By enabling workers to become proficient at a single task, the assembly line technique accelerated production while decreasing the level of skill and training needed, thus increasing the pool of potential employees to draw from. The time required to build one Model T fell from over 12 hours to just under six hours, then three hours not long after; within a year additional improvements reduced it to a mere 93 minutes. With 52,000 workers forming three 14,000-person shifts, by the 1920s new Model T cars were rolling off the assembly lines at the rate of one every 24 seconds.

Mass production was accompanied by a steep decline in price: where the first model cost $950 in 1908 and the 1912 model cost $690, the price for a new Model T dropped to $550 in 1913, $440 in 1915, and just $360 in 1916 (an especially impressive achievement considering the effects of wartime inflation). With prices tumbling, sales soared from 170,211 vehicles in 1913 to 735,020 in 1917, and by 1918 half of all cars on the road in the U.S. were Model T’s of various types. Ultimately, 15 million Model T’s would be sold around the world.

The rise of car culture literally transformed the American landscape, as private groups, cities, states, and eventually the federal government began pouring money into building and improving roads, funded by taxes on gasoline—one of the few instances in American history where there was broad public support for new taxation. Tennessee’s chief tax collector summed it up in 1926: “Who ever heard, before, of a popular tax?” In fact Americans were so eager to get on the road that some of the first national highways, or “auto trails,” were actually the work of private (or hybrid private-public) groups like the Lincoln Highway Association and the National Old Trails Road Association, both formed in 1912; the Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway Association, formed in 1914; and the Yellowstone Trail Association, formed in 1918.

Meanwhile assembly line techniques were critical to the war efforts of all the major combatants in the First World War—a “total war” or “war of production,” where advantage went not necessarily to the side with the best generals or bravest soldiers, but rather the biggest and best-organized industrial base.

Among the Allies, French industrial giant Citroën built a munitions plant with a moving assembly line at Quai Javel in 1915, where 13,000 workers were soon producing 35,000 shells a day; the same year saw French aircraft makers create assembly lines for fighter plane engines in new factories at Toulouse (still the center of the French aviation industry today) while Italian industrial concern Fiat used assembly line techniques for its new vehicle factory at Lingotto. Back in France, the Vénissieux plant opened by Berliet and Renault in 1917 employed 10,000 workers on assembly lines producing trucks and tanks.

Inevitably, the adoption of assembly line techniques went hand in hand with a huge increase in power consumption, and electricity production became another key front in the “war of production.” In Britain total power consumption doubled from 2.5 billion kilowatt-hours in 1913 to 4.9 billion in 1918, while Italy also doubled from 2 billion to 4 billion, and Germany jumped from 8 billion to 13 billion over the same period.

The introduction of assembly lines (along with the loss of skilled workers to the military) also shook up industrial labor relations: in Britain, unions agreed to suspend rules about which employees could do what tasks, allowing managers to break down complicated jobs—previously performed by a few skilled workers—into smaller tasks that could be handled by unskilled laborers.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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James Cameron is Making a Documentary to Reassess the Accuracy of Titanic
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While making the 1997 blockbuster Titanic, James Cameron was a stickler for the details. The writer-director wanted his homage to the tragic ocean liner to be as historically accurate as possible, so he organized dives to the site, solicited experts to analyze his script, and modeled the set off photographs and plans from the Titanic's builders. He even recreated the ocean liner’s original furnishings, right down to the light fixtures. Now, 20 years after the film’s release, E! News reports that Cameron will scrutinize the film’s authenticity in an upcoming National Geographic documentary.

Titanic: 20th Anniversary is slated to air in December 2017. It will feature Cameron and a team of experts who, together, will evaluate the film's accuracy using new historical and scientific insights about the ship's fateful sinking on April 15, 1912.

"When I wrote the film, and when I set out to direct it, I wanted every detail to be as accurate as I could make it, and every harrowing moment of the ship's final hours accounted for," Cameron said in a statement. "I was creating a living history; I had to get it right out of respect for the many who died and for their legacy. But did I really get it right? Now, with National Geographic and with the latest research, science, and technology, I'm going to reassess."

It's not the first time Cameron has revisited his Oscar-winning epic; in 2012, the director made some tweaks to the film for its 3-D re-release after receiving some criticism from renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

“Neil deGrasse Tyson sent me quite a snarky email saying that, at that time of year, in that position in the Atlantic in 1912, when Rose is lying on the piece of driftwood and staring up at the stars, that is not the star field she would have seen," Cameron explained. “And with my reputation as a perfectionist, I should have known that and I should have put the right star field in." So he changed it.

In the case of Titanic: 20th Anniversary, Cameron and his team will give viewers an updated interpretation of the Titanic’s sinking, and reexamine the wreck using new underwater footage, computer-generated simulation, and research. They’ll also scrutinize some of the film’s most famous scenes, and provide biographical context about the filming process.

We’re sure fans, historians, and, of course, Kate and Leo, will approve.

[h/t Mashable]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
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Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
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Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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