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Henry Ford's Automobile And It's Effects On American Culture

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Henry Ford’s Automobile & It’s Effects on American Society

Brian Miller

Professor Sheehan

10 December 2007

HIST 1120-03

Over the course of the 20th century, the automobile has gone from being an expensive toy of the rich, to being the standard for passenger transport in most developed countries around the world (Urry). Not unlike the effects of the introduction of Railways into society, automobiles have changed social interactions, employment patterns, goods distribution and the basic face of urban society. The automobile itself is a rather controversial issue. Supporters of the automobile claim that it is a “marvel of technology” that has brought about prosperity, while opponents aver it leads to urban planning that discourages walking and human interaction, uses non-renewable fuels, generates air and noise pollution, and facilitates urban sprawl and urban decay (Kay). It is also important to recognize the effects the industry of automobile production has had on the economy. Automobile producers emphasized principles of mass production, and Henry Ford himself was a pioneer of what’s called “welfare capitalism”; a system “designed to improve the lot of his workers and especially to reduce the heavy turnover that had many departments hiring 300 men per year to fill 100 slots. Efficiency meant hiring and keeping the best workers (Crowther).”

Henry Ford incorporated the Ford Motor Company in 1903 with 12 investors supplying him with only $28,000. By 1918 half of all cars in America were Ford Model T’s. The Ford Motor Company developed an assembly line which mandated that all cars produced were painted black because of the paint’s quicker drying time. Henry Ford writes that “any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black (Ford & Crowther).” By 1927, the total number of Model T’s produced was 15,007,034; a record which stood for the next 45 years.

On January 5, 1914 Henry Ford announced his new “five-dollar day” program which reduced daily work from 9 to 8 hours, established a 5 day work week, and raised the minimum daily pay from $2.34 to $5 for qualifying workers (Crowther). Ford believed that by paying people more, he would enable Ford employees to afford the cars they were producing and be good for the economy. This new wage plan was offered to men over the age of 22 who had worked for Ford for at least 6 months, and whose lifestyles were approved by Ford’s Sociological Department (150 investigators and support staff who maintained “employee standards”). Another defining characteristic of Ford Motor Company is Henry Ford’s adamant opposition to labor unions. Ford Motor Company was the last Detroit automobile company to sign a contract with the United Auto Workers union, having done so in June of 1941.

In more recent years, the Ford Motor Company has encountered some resistance from environmentalists. “Ford motor co. ranked 7th as one of the top corporate air polluters in the United States releasing 9.67 million pounds of toxic air in 2002” (PERI). In an attempt to appease the criticism received due to their environmental standing by announcing a plan in 2000 to improve the average gasoline mileage of a line of its trucks by twenty-five percent by 2005. This goal was never met; Ford announced that “competitive market conditions and technological and cost challenges would prevent the company from achieving this goal.” In 2005 Ford released a gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle which has caused other automobile makes to attempt to keep up, and release their own forms of hybrid-electric cars. Ford has continued to study fuel cell-powered electric powertrains and is currently developing hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engine technologies.

Automobiles created new industries and expanded old ones into greater significance. Before the invention of the internal-combustion engine, gasoline was often discarded as a waste product. When automobiles became more common, gasoline production became such an important industry that national governments take direct action to ensure their constant supply of oil. The automobile production industry created a huge demand for steel, bolstering the steel industry. Rubber industries, chemical industries, petroleum industries, all were rebuilt to satisfy the needs of the automobile industry. Service stations, motels, automobile insurance, all sprang up as a result of the automobile. Even the sign industry grew as highways developed and cars began traveling at faster speeds a need for larger signs and billboards grew.

Another major effect the automobile has had on the world is the incredible increase in the amount of surfaced roads; The United States Government spent $40 billion on roads between 1921 and 1941 (Kay). The effects of this road-building program were more significant than expected:

In addition to federal, state, and local dollars for roadway construction, car use was also encouraged through new zoning laws that required that any new business construct a certain amount of parking based on the size and type of facility. The effect of this was to create a massive quantity of free parking spaces and to push businesses further back from the road. Many shopping centers and suburbs abandon sidewalks altogether, making pedestrian access dangerous. This had the effect of encouraging people to drive, even for short trips that might have been walkable, thus increasing and solidifying American auto-dependency (Jakle & Sculle).

Another result of this change was the loss of jobs that require an automobile by those who couldn’t afford a car, or who weren’t physically capable of driving a car.

American automobile producers began to search for ways to increase productivity, that is, produce more cars faster, and cheaper. Instruments of mass-production such as the assembly line were used to make this goal possible. Henry M. Leland, president of the Cadillac Automobile Company introduced the idea of using many small identical and interchangeable parts. This added to the need for assembly lines and assembly factories while at the same time prolonging the life of an automobile (as replacement parts could be shipped to car owners quite easily). Henry Ford improved this assembly method by adding the use of conveyor belts on the assembly lines (Brinkley).




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