Book Review

Born in the U.S.A? Reconsidering the Origins and Legacy of the Assembly Line

Emily Redman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is currently working on a book manuscript on the politics of math education reform in the 20th century United States.

 America’s Assembly Line

David E. Nye

MIT Press, 2013

assembly line bookDespite its straightforward title, historian David Nye’s America’s Assembly Line expands the narrative of the iconic manufacturing process to position the assembly line as historically contingent, variably defined, and international in scope. America’s Assembly Line, then, actually questions both the “American-ness” and the specificity of the assembly line as a recognizable and fixed object. Yet Nye avoids an aggressive tearing down of a narrative so often remembered as a shining example of American ingenuity that ushered in economic prosperity and modern capitalism; at the same time he avoids a celebratory history of the assembly line, and in fact does so despite the publication of the book in the 100th anniversary year of the development of the assembly line.

Instead, Nye locates the assembly line as emerging from an America set on improving efficiency, increasing production, and accelerating the pace of life more generally; still, the author is clear that even as the elements of the assembly line were available in the United States it is wrong to assume it was historically inevitable that they would be combined. The assembly line, for Nye, cannot be divorced from American ideals emerging at the beginning of the 20th century and must be understood as developing in the context of politics, consumerism, and evolving social concerns—in this sense, America’s Assembly Line is an apt title. But the richness of Nye’s narrative lies in the ways in which he demonstrates how the assembly line, born gradually and primarily unintentionally out of American manufacturing, extended its sphere of influence globally, ultimately being redefined in various markets and re-imported to a changed American context.

One could argue that Nye’s history—widely accessible to scholars and interested lay readers alike—is only somewhat actually about the assembly line. As an American Studies scholar, Nye uses the assembly line to focus a narrative on American culture throughout the twentieth (and into the twenty-first) century, and the ways in which American culture was adopted, critiqued, and re-purposed internationally and indeed even within the evolving context of United States during this time period. The assembly line, then, serves not as a subject of conventional historiographical study, but rather a lens through which we can understand the role of manufacturing and consumerism as they shaped larger societal elements over the last century.

Nye necessarily begins his book with the history of the development of the assembly line; very little of this history will be new to historians of technology, yet his treatment of the subject is approachable (and would be used well excerpted in undergraduate courses) and appropriately concise. In Chapter 2, Nye defines the assembly line as being comprised of five clear components, and describes the history of each of these developments. These are: 1) the subdivision of labor, described in Adam Smith’s 1776 The Wealth of Nations; 2) interchangeable parts, which Nye offers many examples of this occurring back to the early 1700s; 3) electrification; 4) that machines should not be grouped by type, but rather by the consecutive order in which the jobs needed to be done; and 5) that parts and sub-assemblies were moved automatically from one stage of production to the next.

This definition is important, because it provides the boundaries within which Nye defines the many iterations of the assembly line; without such boundaries there would exist far too much fluidity in a study of the assembly line, which even Nye recognizes is rife with variables in each new context.

It is in Chapter 3, “Celebration,” that Nye’s approach, far more heavily supported by popular press sources rather than archival, begins to unfold. In this chapter Nye begins a wide-reaching study of the early reception of the assembly line, even as he reports that the evolutionary-rather-than-revolutionary origins of the manufacturing process rendered this reception a gradual process—Nye offers that it took approximately ten years from the 1913 “invention” for the public to fully understand the new technology. Nye uses magazine advertisements, World’s Fair exhibits, factory tour reports, newspaper stories, and a host of other popular media sources to describe both the palpable excitement building around the assembly line—or the idea of it—as well as the ways in which the assembly line influenced the development of new cultural phenomena. In some examples, the direct line of influence in clear; for instance as the assembly line finds new uses in new industries such as food processing, in farms, and in the development of mass-produced housing. Other examples are a bit less obvious. Nye argues that the success of the assembly line bled into thinking about the reorganization of education, however the move toward modularization and standardization of education during this time has a more complicated history than can be explained simply by the apparent success of American manufacturing. Similarly, the origins of synchronized swimming and chorus lines are better understood as more complicated. In some such examples, Nye seems to place perhaps too much importance on the exuberant reception to the assembly line rather than more broadly considering the common milieu that supported the fascination with efficiency, production, uniformity, and precision. Nevertheless, viewing American culture through the lens of the assembly line offers a potentially tantalizing interpretation.

In Chapter 4, Nye expands his approach to examine the assembly line’s reception throughout the rest of the world—though primarily in Europe in this chapter. He outlines the ways in which the assembly line was introduced to the international stage, both through European industrialists visiting the Ford factories as well as Ford’s installation of assembly lines in overseas factories, and in engineering publications, exhibits, and government programs extolling the values of this new manufacturing process. Nye outlines the problems in translation; British Ford plants were run as if they were in Detroit, for example, and had no existing mechanism to account for workers’ insistence on breaking for afternoon tea. Other locales presented different challenges—Nye describes the ways the assembly line was adopted and transformed in the Soviet Union, Germany, France, and Italy, using a wide variety of popular sources as well as contemporary theorists who considered the introduction of the assembly line as it entered new markets. In this chapter, Nye argues that while the assembly line might have looked similar at first glance, there were significant variations in practice and use based on varying markets, local geographies, consumer desires, cultures of work, educational systems, unions, and craft traditions. In doing so, Nye remains within his defined boundaries of the assembly line as stated in Chapter 2, yet demonstrates how these boundaries allow for the continued evolution of the assembly line to meet local social, political, and cultural needs.

Nye also describes in Chapter 4 the reception of the assembly line and mass production as one contingent on local custom, politics, and attitudes toward not just the assembly line, but also American culture. For instance, in Weimar Germany, Nye argues, many considered Americanization to threaten centuries of high culture and historical traditions that anchored social identity: “From this perspective, Americanization represented the triumph over uniformity over Kultur, and the assembly line as an instrument of banalization that undermined quality and difference” (85). Yet Nye argues that much of European dissatisfaction of mass production—in Weimar Germany and beyond—arose more out of fear of its influence rather than any reality of it fundamentally infiltrating European markets. The assembly line was instead used in these contexts as a metaphor for unwanted modernity—in much the same way, in fact, Nye continues to use the assembly line as a metaphorical lens to examine larger cultural considerations. In the following chapters, Nye uses this framework to demonstrate how emerging critiques of the assembly line were not only developing in Europe, but also in America where mass production was, unlike in Europe, deeply embedded in society.

Chapter 5, “Critique,” outlines the ways in which Americans began to question the assembly line style of work, primarily in how it represented the dehumanization of labor. Unlike in much of Europe, the debate was not about whether to adopt the assembly line—it was already well established—but rather about its meanings and social consequences. Nye approaches this era through popular writings, theorists, in theater performances, novels, movies, union documents, museum exhibits, and magazine articles. In this chapter, Nye comprehensively documents the growing sentiment that assembly line work was destroying the individual and numbing the worker. As complaints against the “inhumane” system of capitalism flourished during the Depression, many looked toward mass production as symbolizing the decline in quality of life that many Americans experienced. Nye cites Theodore Dreiser as summarizing the collective distrust many Americans were developing toward the once-celebrated American style of mass production when he complained “the developing machine age speeds, reduces, and discards men” (106). Though most with even a passing familiarity with the history of the assembly line will not find these fears—those of a mechanized future, devoid of individuality and rendering human workers obsolete—will not be surprising, Nye’s treatment of the subject has two clear merits. First, he approaches the subject with breadth, offering the reader a wide variety of examples from many types of source material to clearly make the point that these sentiments were deeply pervading the American consciousness (and only a few years after many seemed to fully celebrate the same technologies). Second, and more importantly, Nye presents these critiques as part of a larger continuum of reception, and one that extends not just in time but also in space. Nye does not end his history here, but rather uses the subsequent chapters to complicate the good-then-bad narrative to bring his story to the present, where global mass consumption remains a complicated, demanded, reviled, and championed fixture in modern society.

Nye ends Chapter 5 with a question: would the ramped-up efforts to counter the bad publicity against the assembly line (as evidenced in the book’s popular culture examples, as well as the increasing number of sit-down strikes organized by union leaders and workers) have eventually saved American manufacturing? Nye of course cannot (and does not) answer this, but leaves it as a counterfactual, unanswerable due to the start of WWII distracting from these efforts in a huge way. The final lines of this chapter—my favorites in the book—succinctly lead the reader to this crucial turning point in the global adoption of the assembly line and American-style manufacturing: “Ideal visions of the world of tomorrow gave way to an embattled present. In World War II, mass production became a matter of life and death” (125).

Despite such dramatic language, Nye gives somewhat short shrift to the transformation of American production during WWII, allotting only five pages to the era. Somewhat unexpectedly, his coverage of Rosie the Riveter as an inarguable icon of mass production is awarded only a half paragraph. (This paragraph, too, is shared with yet another mention of the Radio City Rockettes that is weakly argued. Nye offers that the Rockettes’ WWII era performance “expressed the patriotic synergy between manufacturing and national defense” by presenting a stage dominated by facsimiles of battleships and with the women dressed in Navy uniforms (128). While such a performance might indeed have celebrated manufacturing as a key component of national defense, Nye’s limited argument that battleships were featured prominently does not adequately make the point that manufacturing itself was championed by the dance performance.) Despite limitations of his WWII history (which, to be fair, is available in many other sources), Nye uses this concise history as an effective springboard to describe how the revival of mass production during the war led to Cold War era redefinition of the importance of mass production for the American economy (as well as the economies of other countries emerging from WWII). In the remainder of the chapter, Nye describes how mass production was marketed as uniquely American, and repackaged for international audiences. Unsurprisingly, this was a double edged sword; even as Europeans in the Cold War era licensed American technology and dismantled national barriers to trade, academic critics began to re-argue in the postwar era that mass production was a homogenizing force, imposing uniformity and social control. These sentiments spread; despite the fact that many during the Cold War touted mass production as key to ensuring the victory of people’s capitalism, these familiar arguments began to reemerge more vocally in the 1960s. In Chapter 7, Nye is careful to distinguish the critiques that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as somewhat different from their earlier counterparts, however, primarily by looking at the practical differences in assembly line implementation (robots and mechanized lines were becoming increasing realities) as well as describing the increased interest in the domestic issue of technological unemployment. Overall, however, Nye uses this chapter to document the growing sense of discontent not only over the social implications of the assembly line, but also the economic failures that many thought were wrought by the manufacturing style.

Nye moves outside of the United States—and of Europe—in Chapter 8, where he describes the ways Japanese industrialists adapted American innovation, combining “American practices with home-grown innovations” (195). Nye presents this somewhat differently than earlier narratives of international adoption, because in Japan, he argues, the development of a system of “lean production” emerged as a competitor to (and not just a modification of) the American system—and importantly at a time when the traditional American assembly line was facing limitations. In this narrative, American industrialists failed to recognize the superiority of the Japanese system in the 1970s and 1980s—when Japanese manufacturing was thriving. Nye attributes this due primarily to inertia, or the theory of path dependence; by the 1970s, most auto workers and managers simply could not remember a system other than the assembly line, and remembered the decades of international visitors who toured factories to bring similar techniques back to their home countries. The assembly line worked in the past, after all, and it took quite awhile for American industry to accept that a new modernity had arisen. Nye argues this is not a unique reaction, but rather the reluctance to adopt Japanese methods is typical of established industries confronting a major innovation; often, industries will fight back by improving old technology, and when that fails, industries will adopt pieces of the new approach. Though accurate, what this argument fails to do is recognize the lingering Cold War anxieties and nationalistic rhetoric as another factor influencing reluctance to adopt rival economies’ strategies.

The final chapters of Nye’s history focus on the re-organization of labor in America—in part influenced by the reluctant adoption of Japan’s system of lean manufacturing. He touches upon issues familiar to anyone versed in contemporary economic concerns over manufacturing: outsourcing, the erosion of the size and wages of the working class, the role of robotics and mechanization on labor, and the balance of white- and blue-collar jobs. Nye spends time comparing the Ford factory of 2013 with that of 1913, recognizing equivalence and discontinuity, and also considers emerging and related concerns, such as the environmental impact of mass production in the 21st century and the growing interest in fostering “green” manufacturing methods. These chapters bring the reader to the present, continuing to use the assembly line as a focus and a metaphor for larger political and cultural considerations.

Fundamentally, Nye makes three major points about the assembly line. First, he rejects (as other scholars do) the idea that the assembly line can be clearly defined as a distinct innovation; rather it developed and evolved to a considerable degree from a combination of earlier practices and adapted to various contexts. Second, Nye argues that the assembly line follows established patterns typical of new technologies, with the public moving through celebration, adoption, naturalization, complaint, and resignation. In this, Nye does not denigrate the assembly line as “yet another” technology, but instead places it in a larger discourse in the history of technology that anchors it to broader context. Finally, and most importantly, Nye’s history clearly and effectively demonstrates the pervasiveness of the assembly line in American consciousness (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in a global consciousness). Nye argues that the assembly line became a “natural” way to organize work and to structure the built environment and other social structures. The assembly line, Nye argues, “became a common way to organize experience” (8). Nye masterfully demonstrates this through his thorough use of popular source material, offering the reader ample evidence of the pervasiveness of the assembly line across nearly all areas of culture.

Yet at times the use of the assembly line as a lens to explore larger culture can seem a bit overstated, as in the implication that the chorus line developed directly out of admiration for American manufacturing. Most noticeably, Nye’s assertion that the goals of the assembly line “weren’t at all the same” as those espoused by the earlier Taylorism (33). Nye even goes so far as to say that “nothing could have been further from Taylorism than Ford’s assembly line” (34):

“Whereas Taylor designed ideal shovels, Ford abolished shoveling by using electric cranes, moving belts, and other devices as aids to continuous flow manufacturing. Taylor retrained a worker to do the same job more efficiently; the assembly line redefined and simplified jobs. Taylor offered workers incentives to do piecework more quickly; Ford made piece rates pointless, because the assembly line paced the work, pushing everyone to move at the same speed… Taylor maximized efficiency in existing production technologies; Ford transformed the means of production. Taylor saved time; Ford sped up time.” (34)

Certainly, Nye is reasonable in asserting that the ideals of the assembly line cannot be conflated with those of Taylorism, yet his vehement denial of any similarities is tenuous. One might, for example, see the common goals of rationalizing work and improving efficiency (which Nye himself accepts) as demonstrative of at least some limited similarity. One might, too, question the contention that Ford abolished shoveling; might not electric cranes be simply a better mousetrap? And couldn’t one argue that perhaps Ford did not so much transform production—Nye himself is careful to avoid terms like revolutionary—but instead simply be an improvement of existing technologies (an argument, in fact, that Nye seems to make throughout the text).

Nye seems to stumble on a few occasions over his contention that Taylorism remains a polar opposite to the assembly line. In Chapter 5 he mentions a reporter comparing Ford’s system to Taylor’s scientific management, with the former being preferable. Though Nye refrains from elaborating on this, such an example seems to demonstrate the relationship between the two systems. Complicating the assertion more fully is Nye’s own discussion of American re-engineering of white collar work in the 1990s in Chapter 9. Nye describes this process of reorganizing and deskilling labor on the model of the assembly line, but describes that this was linked to the scientific management of Taylorism. One such example he offers, too, is that of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, offered in 2005. Mechanical Turk, Nye describes, was one of the many “improvements in the assembly line,” breaking tasks “into small parts and then sent out over the Internet to people willing to do ‘microtasks’ for a piece rate.” Furthermore, businesses offer “rewards for each task completed” (235). With such an example, Nye effectively negates his earlier contention that the assembly line “made piece rates pointless.”

Despite such inconsistencies and some weakly correlated arguments, such examples are few and far between in Nye’s text. Furthermore, Nye’s reluctance to embrace Taylorism as a related concept to the assembly line does provide the reader an unimpeded (if at times bounded) perspective on how the assembly line—in practice and idea—infiltrated cultural consciousness, and in that sense can be predominately overlooked. Though some readers might prefer a broader consideration of the larger milieu in which the assembly line originated and evolved—a context that yes, was influenced by ideals of Taylorism—overall Nye’s treatment of the subject is at once thorough, accessible, and compellingly stated. Readers of all backgrounds will no doubt close the covers of the book and view the world as far more influenced by hundred-year-old manufacturing principles than previously assumed.