The Model T is a timeless symbol of American innovation, the Industrial Revolution and the beginning of an age to be marked by the advent of modern amenities. There’s no question that Henry Ford’s claim to fortune was the spearhead of the proliferation of automobiles, but it is not the beginning of automobile history.
The advent of steam
Steam-powered vehicles were the first step in technological advances that paved the way for the automobile. Experimental vehicles capable of transporting people and cargo were being developed in the 18th century and culminated in the creation of the first working railway locomotive in 1804 by British engineer Richard Trevithick. On February 21, Trevithick’s locomotive pulled the first train across the tramway of the Penydarren ironworks. However, it wouldn’t be until 1812 that Matthew Murray would implement the first commercially successful iteration in Leeds.
As steam power and its commercial and industrial applications began to thrive throughout the 19th century, engineers around the globe worked on an application for personal vehicles. Some of these early inventions included Josef Bozek’s oil-fired steam car, Walter Hancock’s 2-seated Phaeton and Henry Seth Taylor’s 4-wheeled steam buggy.
In 1871, Dr. J.W. Cahart in Wisconsin devised a steam-powered carriage-sized vehicle that spurred the state’s offer of $10,000 for a vehicle that could replace horses. Several inventors submitted their inventions to the world’s first automobile race held in Green Bay, Wisconsin. A submission from Oshkosh was the only one to finish the 201-mile course and was awarded half of the posted prize.
The path to petrol
Of the countless inventions leading to the modern automobile, the creation of the petrol engine was one of the most significant. In 1876, Nikolaus August Otto invented the first practical petrol engine. Shortly afterwards, a man named Carl Benz received a patent for a petroleum-powered automobile. Benz started multiple factories, each facing hurdles in production and finance. Although he bears the namesake of the popular car, he was not alive at the time of the production of the first Mercedes Benz, although it was his company that lived on to be incorporated with Daimler-Benz that eventually led to the production of the Mercedes Benz in 1926.
The assembly line
As you likely already know, Henry Ford’s innovation wasn’t specifically the automobile, but rather in its assembly. Ford started his first foray into an automobile company in 1901. He left the Henry Ford Motor company shortly afterwards in 1902 along with his name.
In 1903, Henry launched the Ford Motor Company in a converted factory with $28,000 of capital from 12 different investors. In its early phases, the Ford Motor Company was producing no more than several cars per year, but by 1908, the company was producing a few thousand annually.
The Model T began production in 1908, leading to several million sales over the course of the next two decades. The ability to produce such a massive number of cars stemmed entirely from Ford’s innovation in the moving assembly line. Whereas preceding the assembly line, a car would take up to 12.5 man-hours for production, it would now take an hour and a half. In fact, the assembly was so rapid that the bottle neck of production was in the painting process. Only “Japan Black” could dry fast enough to keep pace with output, and it was for this reason that the original Model T forced the Ford Motor company to drop its initial offering of color variants. Ford’s techniques and mindset were implemented across countless industries and gave rise to the term “Fordism.” Ford became a household name synonymous with capitalism, equally responsible for the amenities and shortcomings of the economic system at large.