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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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History
When Lexicographer Samuel Johnson Became a Ghostbuster
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Getty Images (Johnson) / iStock (ghosts)

Dr. Samuel Johnson is today best known for his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which remained the foremost authority on the English language until the Oxford English Dictionary appeared more than a century later. The dictionary took Johnson nine years to complete, for which he was paid the princely sum of 1500 guineas—equivalent to $300,000 (or £210,000) today. Although it wasn’t quite the commercial success its publishers hoped it would be, it allowed Johnson the freedom to explore his own interests and endeavors: He spent several years editing and annotating his own editions of all of Shakespeare’s plays, and traveled extensively around Britain with his friend (and eventual biographer) James Boswell—and, in 1762, helped to investigate a haunted house.

Johnson—who was born on this day in 1709 and is the subject of today's Google Doodle—had a lifelong interest in the paranormal, once commenting that he thought it was “wonderful” that it was still “undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it, but all belief is for it.” According to Boswell, however, he was more of a skeptic than an out-and-out believer, and refused to accept anything without seeing the evidence for himself. So when the news broke of an apparently haunted house just a few streets away from his own home in central London, Johnson jumped at the chance to perhaps see a ghost with his own eyes.

The haunting began in the early 1760s, when a young couple, William and Fanny Kent, began renting a room from a local landlord, Richard (or William—sources disagree, but for clarity, we'll use Richard) Parsons, at 25 Cock Lane in Smithfield, London. Soon after the Kents moved in, Richard’s daughter, Betty, began to hear strange knocking and scratching sounds all around the house, and eventually claimed to have seen a ghost in her bedroom.

Richard soon discovered that William was a widower and that Fanny was in fact his deceased wife's sister; under canon law, the pair couldn't be married, and Richard became convinced that the ghost must be that of William's deceased first wife, Elizabeth, blaming William’s presence in the house for all of the strange occurrences. He promptly evicted the Kents and the noises soon subsided—but when Fanny also died just a few weeks later, they immediately resumed and again seemed to center around Betty. In desperation, a series of séances were held at the Cock Lane house, and finally Fanny’s ghost supposedly confirmed her presence by knocking on the table. When questioned, Fanny claimed that William had killed her by poisoning her food with arsenic—an accusation William understandably denied.

By now, news of the Cock Lane Ghost had spread all across the city, and when the story broke in the press, dozens of curious Londoners began turning up at the house, queuing for hours outside in the street hoping to see any sign of supernatural activity. According to some accounts, Parsons even charged visitors to come in and “talk” to the ghost, who would communicate with knocks and other disembodied noises.

But with the suspicion of murder now in the air, the Cock Lane haunting changed from a local curiosity into a full-blown criminal investigation. A committee was formed to examine the case, and Johnson was brought in to record their findings and investigate the case for himself.

On February 1, 1762, one final séance was held with all members of the committee—Johnson included—in attendance. He recorded that:

About 10 at night the gentlemen met in the chamber in which the girl [Betty] supposed to be disturbed by a spirit had, with proper caution, been put to bed by several ladies. They sat rather more than an hour, and hearing nothing, went down stairs, when they interrogated the father of the girl, who denied, in the strongest terms, any knowledge or belief of fraud … While they were enquiring and deliberating, they were summoned into the girl’s chamber by some ladies who were near her bed, and who had heard knocks and scratches. When the gentlemen entered, the girl declared that she felt the spirit like a mouse upon her back.

But the committee were suspicious. Betty was asked to hold out her hands in front of her, in sight of everyone in the room:

From that time—though the spirit was very solemnly required to manifest its existence by appearance, by impression on the hand or body of any present, by scratches, knocks, or any other agency—no evidence of any preternatural power was exhibited.

Johnson ultimately concluded that it was “the opinion of the whole assembly that the child has some art of making or counterfeiting a particular noise, and that there is no agency of any higher cause.” And he was right.

As the investigation continued, it was eventually discovered that Richard Parsons had earlier borrowed a considerable amount of money from William Kent that he had no means (nor apparently any intention) of repaying. The two men had a falling out, and Parsons set about elaborately framing Kent for both Fanny and Elizabeth's deaths. The ghostly scratching and knocking noises had all been Betty’s work; she hidden a small wooden board into the hem of her clothing with which to tap or scratch on the walls or furniture when prompted.

The Parsons—along with a servant and a preacher, who were also in on the scam—were all prosecuted, and Richard was sentenced to two years in prison.

Although the Cock Lane haunting turned out to be a hoax, Johnson remained open minded about the supernatural. “If a form should appear,” he later told Boswell, “and a voice tell me that a particular man had died at a particular place, and a particular hour, a fact which I had no apprehension of, nor any means of knowing, and this fact, with all its circumstances, should afterwards be unquestionably proved, I should, in that case, be persuaded that I had supernatural intelligence imparted to me.”

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The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery
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The Mountains of Kong: The Majestic West African Range That Never Existed
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The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

If you look closely at a 19th century map of Africa, you’ll notice one major way that it differs from contemporary maps, one that has nothing to do with changing political or cartographical styles. More likely than not, it features a mountain range that no longer appears on modern maps, as WIRED explains. Because it never existed in the first place.

A 19th century map of West Africa
From Milner's Descriptive Atlas, 1850

The “Mountains of Kong” appeared on almost every major commercial map of Africa in the 1800s, stretching across the western part of the continent between the Gulf of Guinea and the Niger River. This mythical east-west mountain range is now the subject of an art exhibition at London’s Michael Hoppen Gallery.

In "Mountains of Kong," stereoscopic images by artist Jim Naughten—the same format that allowed Victorians with wanderlust to feel like they’d seen the world—reveal his view of the world of wildlife that might have existed inside the imagined mountains. As the gallery describes it, “he imagines a fictitious record made for posterity and scientific purposes during an expedition of the mountain range.” We’ve reproduced the images here, but to get the full effect, you’ll have to go to the gallery in person, where you can view them in 3D with a stereoscope (like the ones you no doubt played with as a kid).

Toucans fight a snake in two almost-identical side-by-side images.
The Toucans © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

Naughten created the images by taking two photographs for each, and moving the camera over some 3 inches for the second photo to make a stereoscopic scene. The landscapes were created by shooting images of Scottish and Welsh mountains and dioramas in natural history museums, using Photoshop to change the hues of the images to make them seem more otherworldly. His blue-and-pink-hued images depict fearsome apes, toucans sparring with snakes, jagged peaks, and other scenes that seem both plausible and fantastical at the same time.

The Mountains of Kong appeared in several hundred maps up until the 20th century. The first, in 1798, was created by the prominent geographer James Rennell to accompany a book by Scottish explorer Mungo Park about his first journey to West Africa. In it, Park recounts gazing on a distant range, and “people informed me, that these mountains were situated in a large and powerful kingdom called Kong.” Rennell, in turn, took this brief observation and, based on his own theories about the course of the Niger River, drew a map showing the mountain range that he thought was the source of the river. Even explorers who later spent time in the area believed the mountains existed—with some even claiming that they crossed them.

Two colobuses stand in a tree on a mountaintop.
The Colobus © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

The authority of the maps wasn’t questioned, even by those who had been to the actual territory where they were depicted as standing. Writers began to describe them as “lofty,” “barren,” and “snow-covered.” Some said they were rugged granite peaks; others described them as limestone terraces. In almost all cases, they were described as “blue.” Their elevation ranged from 2500 feet to 14,000 feet, depending on the source. Over the course of the 19th century, “there was a general southward ‘drift’ in the location,” as one pair of scholars put it.

Though geographers cast some doubt on the range’s existence as time went on, the Mountains of Kong continued to appear on maps until French explorer Louis-Gustave Binger’s Niger River expedition between 1887 and 1889, after which Binger definitively declared their nonexistence.

By 1891, the Mountains of Kong began dropping off of maps, though the name Kong still appeared as the name of the region. By the early 20th century, the mountains were gone for good, fading into the forgotten annals of cartographic history.

[h/t WIRED]

All images courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

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