25 Greatest Inventions of the 20th Century: The assembly line

Category: Technology/Innovations


Unlocking Word Meanings

Read the following words/expressions found in today’s article.

  1. at the turn of (something) / æt ðə tɜrn əv / (idiom) – at the time when one thing ends and another begins

    At the turn of the 21st century, mobile phones became smaller and lighter.

  2. swap / swɒp / (v.) – to replace something with something else

    I swapped my old phone for a new one.

  3. put (something) into high gear / pʊt ˈɪn tʊ haɪ gɪər / (idiom) – to make something very active or productive

    The organization put its new campaign into high gear last week.

  4. stationary / ˈsteɪ ʃəˌnɛr i / (adj.) – not moving

    I like to use the stationary bike at the gym.

  5. slash / slæʃ / (v.) – to cut or lessen something

    Many stores slash the prices of expensive products on Black Friday.


Read the text below.

At the turn of the 20th century, cars were made almost completely by hand and were very expensive. But two Americans — Ransom E. Olds and Henry Ford — brought the car to ordinary people.

Olds was the inventor of the Oldsmobile. He thought he could make cars cheaper by building them faster. The way to do this was through mass production.

Instead of building every part of every car himself, he asked other companies to make car parts separately. When he got the parts, he put the cars together. Each part was standardized so that each Oldsmobile was the same quality. Some parts could even be swapped among Olds’ car models. His assembly line began operating in 1901.

Olds’ company soon became the top-selling car company in the U.S. But it was Ford who put Olds’ ideas into high gear.

Olds’ assembly line was stationary, but Ford’s line — which started in 1913 — moved, pulling each car from the beginning of the line to the end. Workers stayed in the same spot and assembled the same part again and again.

Ford’s innovation slashed the assembly time of his Model T car. It used to take more than 12 hours, but now each one was done 24 seconds ahead of the next one. That cut the cost almost threefold.

However, you couldn’t choose a color. Ford liked to say: “You can have (the Model T) in any color, as long as it’s black.” No one is sure why, but it may be because only a black lacquer called “japan black” dried fast enough to let the line move at a quick speed. And that’s why Model T’s were black. (T)

This article was provided by The Japan Times Alpha.

Viewpoint Discussion

Enjoy a discussion with your tutor.

Discussion A

  • Some people think that the Model T was only offered in black because only a black lacquer dried fast enough to let the line move at a quick speed. If this is true, do you think Ford’s decision was smart, or should he have introduced more colors that took longer to dry? What colors are common for cars in your country now? Discuss.
  • At the turn of the 20th century, cars were very expensive, but Olds and Ford brought them to ordinary people. In your opinion, what expensive goods/technology will be brought to ordinary people in the near future (ex. space travel, self-driving cars)? Which goods/technology are you most excited about? Discuss.

Discussion B

  • How do you think the world would be different if the assembly line had never been invented? Why? Discuss.
  • In recent years, some people have begun to place more value on handmade goods. Why do you think this is? Do you own any handmade goods? Do you like to make anything by hand? Discuss.