The Model T Ford and the Liberty ships

September 27th was an important date in the development of mass production on two occasions. In 1908 it marked the beginning of production of Henry Ford’s Model T car in Detroit Michigan. The idea of using interchangeable parts that could be slotted together had been pioneered and popularized by Eli Whitney when he had won a contract to supply muskets to the new US army in 1798, but Henry Ford took it further. Using a moving production line, instead of individually crafting each car, as carriages had been made at one time, his workers put pre-assembled pieces together to make a car that became an icon. It could be made so cheaply that motoring ceased to be a plaything of the rich, but became accessible to the common man.

Suddenly America became mobile, and people could travel from their remote farms and dwellings into nearby towns and cities. It changed not only people’s mobility and lifestyle; it changed the American economy. Detroit became the motor city (Motown), and the US became a consumer society in which the automobile industry was to play a central role for decades to come.

By coincidence, it was also on September 27th, some 33 years later in 1941, that the SS Patrick Henry, the first Liberty ship was launched. The US was not yet in World War II, but it saw that ships would be needed in vast numbers. If it were to be the arsenal of democracy, it would need to ferry food, supplies and munitions across the Atlantic to the beleaguered island of Britain. Conventional ships might take two years to build, but the Liberty ships, so-called because they could bring liberty to Europe, were made like the Model T Ford of interchangeable parts that could be fitted together.

Henry Kaiser was to develop new methods of ship-building, enabling him to out-produce other yards and build 1,490 ships, 27 percent of the total Maritime Commission construction. Kaiser's ships were completed in two-thirds the time and a quarter the cost of what it took other shipyards. Liberty ships were typically assembled in a little over two weeks, and one was put together in less than five days. Altogether 2,700 of them were to be built, enabling the Allies to keep well ahead of U-boat sinkings, and to ferry across the Atlantic the supplies, troops and equipment that would win the war.

The mass production of identical items made items affordable, but at the expense of variety. Henry Ford offered “any colour you like as long as it’s black.” But technology has advanced to the point at which individual preferences can be incorporated into the manufacturing process. The Tesla customer specifies the accessories, the trim, the colour and the materials before the car is made, so that no two cars coming off Elon Musk’s production line are identical. Each one is unique, made for an individual owner to meet their tastes and preferences.

Technology has moved us beyond the age of standardized mass production of identical items to the stage where individual choices and preferences can be satisfied. The Model T Fords and the Liberty ships were valuable in their day, but the world has moved on to become one. not of collective mass production to standards determined by producers, but to one determined by the individual choices of consumers. So, two cheers for identical mass production, and three cheers for the personal choices that technology now makes possible.