Henry Ford is one of the most recognizable names in recent history (recent being the last century or so, that is). Everyone attributes the automobile to Ford, but he hardly had anything to do with the first automobile. He was “thinking” about the first automobile, but that title would not be his to claim. Instead, Ford had a far grander role in the formative years of a young nation.
Cars existed back then, but only for the extremely wealthy. They were hand-built, took forever to put together, and the retail price reflected this. Henry Ford had a daring ambition to put the “working man” inside his very own motor vehicle, but with wages rivaling your pocket change for a day’s work, that was a lofty goal.
It would take decades, hundreds of thousands of workers, labor reform, and multiple reorganizations to realize his goal. Some view him as an industrialist hero that brought the little man out of poverty, educated a migrant workforce, and spearheaded great things like the 40-hour work week and increased wages. Others see him as prejudiced, as a corporate crony, and—in extreme cases—as a downright madman.
Henry Ford is all of these things; he is a product of his time. He gave more back to his workers than almost any other industrialist of his day. He’d also simultaneously drive them to the brink in a production crescendo that knew no boundaries. Mobilizing a nation would test not only challenge conventional wisdom—it would challenge the resolve of every man in the shop. Especially when they had a bunch of weird rules they had to follow.
19 Don’t Clean The Machines (While They’re Running)
This sounds like something you shouldn’t need to say in the first place, but humans will be humans and therefore, shortcuts will be taken. The working environments of the day would astound you. Ergonomics, schmergonomics; you’re lucky to even have a drinking fountain. Despite all the danger lurking around every exposed, belt-driven pulley, men still went out of the way to hurt themselves. The machine shop floor was especially treacherous to one’s health. High-powered machinery operating at breakneck speeds would continuously operate in such close proximity to limbs and fingers that men began “consolidating” their cleaning and maintenance duties with their regular workload—oftentimes to ill effect.
18 You Can’t Go On Strike (But Your Troops Can)
There were strict policies in place outlining the prohibited nature of organized labor strikes (and the disciplinary action to follow the incursions of such policies). But in a “Do as I say, not as I do” act of self-righteousness, he broke his own rule with the “Peace” boat. It was an ocean liner he’d commissioned for a special “peace” voyage in 1915. Ford had erroneously thought that he and a few other “regular” Joes could stop a war machine with some smooth words and a handshake. The voyage failed on many more fronts than simply not securing the peace. But the message was clear: you were prohibited from striking against your employer, the same employer who had no problem compelling your troops to organize a walk-out during the middle of a war.
17 Don’t Work Too Hard
In 1900, the average workweek was approximately 53 hours long. In the 1890s, workers would sometimes have to work 100 hours. As impossible as that sounds to our 2018 perspective, it was just how life was. However, if Henry was to achieve his lofty goal of a cheap production car, it would have to come with a fine balance of efficiency and rest. Ford didn’t initiate it, but he was a spearhead for the 40-hour work week, and his induction of the policy didn’t change wages! “It’s…time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure, for workmen, is either “lost time” or a class privilege.”
16 Dust Collection Systems Must Be Everywhere (And Functional)
The only real accurate comparison of Ford’s working conditions would be to contrast them with the adjacent conditions at other factories of the day. Ford cared greatly for his men and he understood what safety and morale meant for efficiency. Exhaustive efforts were made to keep his men healthy in a time when nobody else cared about the working man (other than the working man himself). Ford didn’t invent the dust collection system but he employed them judiciously throughout his factories (with dedicated crews to tend to them). If you were on that “collection” team, you’d better make darn sure each machine in your charge was clean and emptied on schedule. Ford wasn’t a man for excuses.
15 Air Conditioning All Over
Ford would end up running crews ragged—quite literally to the bone—in a never-ending push to drive the bottom line through the basement. By the very end of Model T production, one would be pumped out every 12 seconds and 15 million Model Ts would be sold by the year 1927. That’s a lot of cars. That’s also a lot of blood, sweat, and more sweat. (Seriously, factory work was hot!) His assembly lines would eventually speed up enough to facilitate a $550 price drop—over half the $850 original price. Ford would eventually work to install massive air conditioning units to filter and cool the air, even in the most remote corners. (And somebody had to keep that machine running!)
14 Safety Goggles Must Be Worn—Everywhere
If this one sounds like a no-brainer, you definitely have the qualifications to swing a ball-peen on a moving assembly line. It wasn’t hard work, at least not for the brain. In fact, some of it was so redundant and monotonous that it became dangerous. Workers naturally have the tendency to “get comfortable” in their jobs. On the assembly line, Ford’s management was noting injuries and safety violations—or lack thereof—that directly correlated with each other. Already dealing with an atrociously high turnover rate, Ford had to curb the hemorrhaging labor force. One of those “tourniquets” was the implantation of mandatory eye protection for “dangerous” positions. Laugh if you will but this actually helped.
13 Tools Must Be New
Overhead, you can see the exposed skeleton of the ceiling-mounted belt drive system, transmitting power from the drive pulley via a massive belt, whining right next to worker’s faces and limbs—all with no guards! As it was, factory working conditions were already dangerous enough without people hurting themselves with their own, measly hand tools. Ford would have inspectors perform “spot checks” on big tools and small tools alike to ensure their quality and condition. Hammers with mushroomed tips and other dangerous tools were a big no-no (because half the time, you weren’t wearing your safety goggles, anyway). Surprisingly, many of Ford’s “safety innovations” were resented by workers for taking them away from their normal way of doing things.
12 No Running
Ford was as savvy a businessman as ever had lived—he refused to let the government finance the Willow Run plant. Instead, since he maintained control, he opted to build the plant, sell it to the government, and lease with an option to buy it back afterward. Ford never would buy it back, but he nonetheless let the government know who was boss. His B-24 builders seem to have the same truculent resistance to his rules that he has for those of the government’s; at least three people in this frame are actively breaking the “No Running” rule that applies just about everywhere. (It applied specifically to scissors and other “sharp objects” but guys would sometimes get in trouble just for the act of running.)
11 The Sociological Department
It’s time to tie it all together. Up until now, only a vague mention has been made of an ambiguous “safety department” lurking ominously in the shadows. The truth was, there actually was an ominous safety department lurking in the shadows, and they pretty much ruled everything. You may have heard of the revolutionary “$5 workday” but not everyone was eligible—and it was up to the Sociological Department to determine whether or not you were. It was highly controversial in many, many aspects, but they did provide financial assistance and additional benefits to employees with “upstanding moral fiber.”
10 Upstanding Moral Fiber (Ya Gotta Have It)
This safety department business was really no joke. They were charged with the tool inspections, making sure the climate control systems were working, chasing down dust on the nozzle of the drinking fountain…stuff like that. Ford actually invested so much power within the department that it would employ spies and investigators to “ensure” that his workers were upstanding citizens. Upstanding citizens, in Ford’s mind, were comprised of a myriad of attributes, traits, beliefs, and even nationalities; all coming together in his model worker. Was this fair? Absolutely not. But neither was spying on employees whenever the mood strikes, either (on or off the clock.) Did that stop the Sociological Department? No, sir!
9 $5 A Day
So, now that you’re familiar with Ford’s “$5 a day,” you should appreciate just how remarkable this was. The inflation-adjusted $5 figure equates to approximately $127 in 2018 dollars. Nothing to write the family about, but compared to the going rate of $2.50 per day, this was big news! So big, in fact, that over 10,000 applicants would gather outside the Ford Highland plant shortly after the wage hike was announced to try to get in on the action. We don’t know when the last time you felt compelled about something enough to stand in a 10,000-person line to try and get it, but they must have had some free time on their hands.
8 Your Safety Card Needs To Be Signed
Don’t think you can just blend in with the masses and not get noticed; Ford employed numerous systems of checks and balances to track productivity and drive the belts of the conveyors ever faster. He started many programs—many in very rudimentary forms—that would help drive safety innovation forward for the working man. Part of this innovation was called accountability. The Sociological Department developed “safety cards” to educate and refresh workers on important safety practices regarding their jobs. The safety cards required your signature, and that signature bound you to the responsibility of performing your job duties to the letter.
7 Keep Your Body Parts...Out Of Moving Parts
Handguards must be installed on all machinery where it is applicable—anyone could tell you that’s probably a safe bet. But if you were to walk through any shop in the nation, despite management’s best efforts, mechanics love removing safety devices! Sure, they’re great and all, but only for the simpletons who need them; not you and me, however! “It’ll never happen to me,” said the man with 8 ½ fingers. Today, machinery is built with safety as a much higher priority but back in the early 20th century, oftentimes there was little more than a flimsy guard between your fingers and thousands of pounds of compressional force exerted by steel jaws, clamps, and dies.
6 Cuff-Style Hand Guards Were Prohibited
As safe as Henry aimed to make his factories, there was a fine line that was never to be crossed. Much of what he did was driven by the desire to “increase efficiency” (a mantra that would be hammered into the line workers over and over, in multiple languages, all day long). If he was to lower the cost of a Model T to a “working mans” price point, he’d have to keep every employee he could. One battle that would never gain him ground, though, was a cuff-style wrist shackle that would mechanically “pull” worker’s hands free from machinery while it was stamping. Employees resented being shackled up to machines and the safety department knew they couldn’t force it. In 1913, the turnover rate was a borderline hilarious 370%.
5 Access To Basic Education Is Free
As you know by now, Henry Ford ran through employees faster than you go through socks—and that gets expensive. In order to promote a cohesive work environment, Ford offered English classes to the masses of workers to allow better communication on the production line. This was offered free of charge, but you were required to attend classes either before or after work, which was already a long day in and of itself. Should workers be able to complete their coursework, a graduation ceremony was conducted and a diploma awarded (which also counted towards naturalization). Ford’s curriculum was so successful that other schools and social programs would use its framework as a foundation for years.
4 Time Is Always Of The Essence
This is less of a rule and more of an underlying methodology that applies to just about every business—past, present, and future. As tight as profit margins were, Henry Ford drove the bottom line down with vehement focus. He was on a mission to pump production units into every driveway that he possibly could. All of this sounds like model management practices in action, right? But have you ever stopped to think what it meant for assembly line workers? Prior to the advent of the mechanized assembly line, Model T production took 12 labor-hours per car. Ford would successfully whittle that number down to two hours and thirty minutes.
3 Water All Over
The assembly line wasn’t the only thing Henry Ford would become noteworthy for; albeit, only his workers would ever be the ones to “really” appreciate his studious dedication to the enhancement of their work environment through uninhibited access to drinking water. It sounds trivial now, but water fountain placement during the tail-end of the 19th century was seldom a concern for anyone—besides the thirsty chops of the workers themselves. Despite the widespread corp0rate cronyism of his day, Ford bolstered plants with thousands of drinking fountains so that everyone had access to water. Previously, there were simply no real considerations made for the garden-variety laborer.
2 Cold, Clean Water All Over
Henry had a wild-hair idea to pump cars into every driveway in the nation—and that ambition wasn’t cheap. It came with a very steep price, actually, one to be paid for with the sweat and (hopefully not too much) blood of the men down in the trenches. Ford wasn’t going to stop at just water everywhere, he ensured that every drop pumped through a filtration system, and was then subsequently cooled before being delivered to the nozzle. Ford would eventually start a department that would ensure all of this happened like clockwork (because gas tank assemblers need filtered water, too.)
1 Don’t Be An “Expert”
One thing Ford hated was a know-it-all. In fact, he detested them so much, that the Ford Motor Company did not employ any “experts” and not even anybody with advanced engineering or design skills. This would famously bite him hard when a massive generator was malfunctioning and Ford’s engineers, baffled, couldn’t properly diagnose the problem. Reluctantly, Ford would hire Charles Proteus Steinmetz—an expert—to inspect his generator. Upon his arrival, Steinmetz almost immediately found the problem and put a chalk mark on the generator case where he instructed Ford engineers to replace 16 coils. When Ford received a $10,000 bill for two days of labor, he demanded an itemized list for the charges. Steinmetz, knowing Ford’s disposition, submitted a list with two line items:
- Making chalk mark on generator: $1.00.
- Knowing where to make chalk mark: $9,999.00.
Sources: History, The Henry Ford, and Oxford Research Encyclopedia.