It happened today - December 1, 2015

Just over a century ago, on Dec 1 1913, a momentous event occurred in Michigan. Like many pivotal moments, it wasn’t headline news at the time. Indeed, the world was less than a year away from the horrors and geopolitical upheavals of World War I and it didn’t seem like huge news that an American inventor had adapted the technique of meat packers to the new-fangled automobile.

He had. Because I’m talking about Henry Ford switching on his assembly line. And what he did changed the world dramatically. Perhaps as dramatically as the collapse of the old European world order in the trenches and on the steppes of the Great War.

Ford’s innovation wasn’t so much the Model T, which first appeared in 1908, as it was having the work come to the workers instead of them going to it, and automating tasks instead of relying on workers’ knowledge, judgement and initiative. It had a huge, lasting impact not limited to the automobile, though the mass availability of cars (the 1908 Model T cost over $800, two thirds of an excellent annual salary; by 1916 it was down to $345) changed how Americans worked, lived, even courted in enormous ways.

And everyone else, though sooner in America, where half of families had cars by 1929, prompting Will Rogers to quip that when the Great Depression hit, the US was the first nation that could go to the poorhouse in an automobile. That 50% figure was not achieved even in Britain until, believe it or not, 1980.

It is easy to forget now how the automobile and the associated blacktop road helped end rural isolation and lessen the physical burden of farm work. Very often the old Model T was hoisted up on blocks and the axle used to power a conveyor belt leading to the well, a saw or something else as a kind of all-purpose mechanical power source.

Later, the car spawned suburbia with the aid of ill-advised zoning rules, and contributed to the obesity crisis and, for those who take it seriously, man-made global warming. But its success with cars made it a model for any number of other consumer goods. In that sense Ford is the father of modern prosperity, for good or evil; his innovation in production methods put refrigerators, radios, televisions, stereos and computers in all our homes.

As for the claim that it mattered at least as much as, say, Naziism or Bolshevism that arose directly from World War I, or decolonization that resulted indirectly, it was mass production plus the inherent resilience of free societies that brought down Hitler’s Third Reich, and consumerism and technological dynamism that doomed Communism. And the lifestyles available in Western “consumer” societies fascinated and repelled the newly independent nations, creating a love-hate relationship that is still helping drive phenomena like ISIL, with jihadis listening to anti-Western rap on iPods and posting it online.

At the same time, mass production created mass labour, well-paid but boring, and then as automation advanced it destroyed it without bringing back the manual or artisan work that had existed previously. It’s increasingly problematic in the modern world, where the “creatives” flourish smugly especially in the parastatal sector, but the average working stiff increasingly isn’t working. And mass production is so effective that it’s very hard to make money doing it, in industries from cars to computers, while luxury threatens to undermine virtue and the social order.

All that in just a century. And to think people are excited about what future innovations might bring. I’m still wondering how to cope with that one.

It happened todayJohn Robson