Henry Ford has been credited with the invention of the manufacturing production line, and also with the quote “Customers can have any colour they want as long as it’s black”. But as with many of the things that get wrongly attributed to famous people, these two are totally untrue or at best only partially true.
Henry Ford built his first car in 1896. At that time, he and other car manufacturers favoured the idea of electric propulsion, and to this end, he asked his good friend Thomas Edison to come up with a reliable power storage system (battery). However, a suitable, reliable battery that had the capacity to be re-charged could not be found (sounds familiar, don’t it?), and so his very popular Model T, introduced to the world in 1908, continued to use the tried and tested internal combustion engine.
Production lines go way back
Ford was certainly not the first to use a version of a production line to manufacture cars, Ransom E Olds of the Olds Motor Company that later became Oldsmobile has been credited with a rudimentary version of a production line as early as 1897.
The first mass production with interchangeable parts with a simple production line actually began in 1800 when the gunsmith Eli Whitney was hired by the American government to manufacture 10,000 muskets at a time – 17 years after the British recognised American independence – when they were building up their army, presumably to repel the British if they ever came back.
Before this innovation, each part of things from guns, to wagons and ploughs was made independently, probably by the local blacksmith, and therefore parts were not interchangeable. If something broke, a local blacksmith would make another part and off you went again. In battle, if a part broke in a musket, another differently made part would not fit, so the musket then became a very heavy spear.
Watching paint dry – not so bad if it’s black
The quote about black paint was only partially true. Ford had pioneered a very efficient production line that had the item in question, in this case, the car, travelling along a conveyor system, with groups of workers fitting their particular part as the car slowly passed. Initially, this system did not go down well with the workers, as it was very boring, and as a result there was a very high workforce turnover.
To alleviate this, Ford paid them twice the going rate, which, in turn, accidentally or by design, enabled his workforce to have the capacity to buy what they were making and to live a life many others in the working class could only hope for. So, in a way, Henry Ford pioneered what became a highly populated middle class.
The black paint quote only became true in the mid-1920s period. The Model T production line was working so efficiently by then that there was a concern that it was being held up by the length of time the paint took to dry and black paint dried more quickly than other colours. There had been other colours available before and I believe Ford’s first car was blue.
Electric propulsion: from Hungary to Huddersfield
As mentioned above, electrically propelled transport is not a new thing. In fact, the concept has been around since a Hungarian priest by the name of Anyos Jedlik placed an electric motor in a model carriage in 1828 – long before Étienne Lenoir invented the first successful internal combustion engine in about 1860.
The problem with electric vehicles, as outlined above, is the capacity to store and re-charge electric power. Each time a battery became flat it had to be replaced. However, when the battery was fully charged, the vehicle was very quick and efficient. In fact, it was an electric car that held the first land speed record in 1900, when the American Andrew L Riker set a speed of 39.24 mph in New York.
When I was a lad, we had trolley buses on many routes covering 40 miles around Huddersfield. As these were powered by electric wires running overhead, a battery system was not necessary. They had much more acceleration and they were quieter and smoother than the petrol and diesel buses of the time, but the routes were limited by the cost of the overhead cabling.
High maintenance costs and the cheapness of the petrol and diesel alternatives saw the demise of the trolley buses in Huddersfield, and the last one to run was on 13 July 1968. The very final trolley bus service in the country was in Bradford on 26 March 1972.
The sorry example on the first photo above, being towed back to the depot, is the one that fell off the back of Longwood terminus in February 1967. The terminus was originally a turntable, one of only four trolley bus turntables worldwide. It was in use until 1940 and demolished in 1985. The other photo shows another very familiar mode of transport of the time in the shape of a motorbike and sidecar combination. Photos kindly donated by my best mate, Paul Jackson.
Time for a laugh
One of the members of our WARTS walking group has had terrible luck in marriage. I will not say her name to protect the guilty. She has been widowed three times. The first two died in very mysterious circumstances – it was discovered that they had died from mushroom poisoning. It was all very suspicious, of course, but no evidence of wrongdoing could be found. The third husband was found with an axe in his skull and when the police asked her what she knew about it, she said, “He wouldn’t eat his mushrooms”.