This article highlights the inventiveness of engineers that made the auto trade big business in the early 20th century. While lacking the fame and name recognition of others in the US automobile business around the time of World War I, Lloyd R. Smith’s contribution to the industry was major. The A.O. Smith frame plant stands as a vivid case study on the role of engineering and technical innovation in the emergence and growth of the automobile industry. At the start of the 20th century, the gasoline engine initially competed for popularity with the electric motor, which was used on French and English roads. The electric motor was cleaner and easier to shift. It was considered more reliable and safer. The story of the automobile is told around images and symbols of speed and power, beauty and elegance, freedom and open roads. For ASME and the mechanical engineering community, the automobile is also about technological progress and engineering achievement beginning with the 20th century and building for a100 years.
The name of Lloyd R. Smith never appeared in the annals of automotive history alongside Alfred P. Sloan, B.F. Goodrich, and Henry Ford. Sloan was the brilliant business manager who built General Motors into a powerful industrial company. Goodrich designed long-lasting rubber tires. Henry Ford made practical automobiles affordable to the middle class. Sloan, Goodrich, Ford—each of them a giant in automotive lore, each of them a prominent figure in American business and commerce, each of them directly responsible for creating and perpetuating America’s most enduring consumer product.
In 1913, Lloyd Smith was heading a rather mundane factory operation in Milwaukee, watching his workers cut and shape automobile frames at the rate of 10 a day. As word of Henry Ford’s new automobile assembly line spread, Smith contemplated automating his frame manufacturing process. He gathered together his engineers and challenged them to design a completely automated process by which auto frames were gripped, sized, punched, riveted, painted, and placed in a freight car in one continuous operation. In 1921, Lloyd Smith’s dream became reality, as he went online with his automatic plant that turned out 10,000 automobile frames a day. Given the increased production capability, the A.O. Smith Corp. was able to fill large orders from Ford, Buick, and several other automobile manufacturers, which succeeded in speeding up auto production and product delivery time to an eager marketplace. The site where the plant stood has been designated an ASME National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
As ASME celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, Mechanical Engineering will run articles each month highlighting key influences in the Society’s development. This, the fourth in our series, traces the growth of automobile production between 1910 and 1920, and the engineer’s role in putting millions of Americans behind the wheel.
While lacking the fame and name recognition of others in the U.S. automobile business around the time of World War I, Lloyd R. Smith’s contribution to the industry was major. The A.O. Smith frame plant stands as a vivid case study on the role of engineering and technical innovation in the emergence and growth of the automobile industry. It was during ASME’s fourth decade of existence that the auto industry introduced steel body construction, the ignition system, and car heaters, not to mention tools for the assembly line. Many of these technical innovations and others developed for automobiles increased the productivity of industry and the prosperity of the average citizen.
ASME was actually slow to embrace the phenomenon of the automobile. The Society sponsored an Engine Committee in 1911, but the group was concerned more with diesel engines featuring low motive power than with transportation systems. At the end of the decade, in 1919, an ASME member by the name of John Younger petitioned the Society to establish an Automotive Professional Section, and the leadership of the organization agreed to form a committee to explore the notion. It wasn’t until 1921 that ASME created the Internal Combustion Engine Division, which has remained active to the present day.
The spark-ignited internal combustion engine was the great enabling technology for the automobile. The engine provided auto manufacturers with a practical power plant featuring good output and fuel economy. It had a ratio of weight to power that was more favorable for personal transportation than steam engines that had driven the locomotive and the riverboat.
The gasoline engines installed in early cars were not without problems. One problem was engine knock, which was caused by the adverse chemical reactions of fuel in the combustion chambers. Charles F. Kettering and his research associates at Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co. (which later came to be known as Delco) conducted extensive experiments with fuel additives to control engine knocks, finally introducing ethyl gasoline to the auto market following World War I.
At the start of the 20th century, the gasoline engine initially competed for popularity with the electric motor, which was used on French and English roads. The electric motor was cleaner and easier to shift. It was considered more reliable and safer. A hundred years later, it appears that the rivalry between electric and gasoline engines has been renewed.
Other significant inventions of the period included the self-starting system. It was developed in 1912 by Henry Leland, the founder of Cadillac, to relieve the driver of the bothersome, and sometimes risky, task of handcranking the engine.
Edward G. Budd, an engineer in Philadelphia, introduced all-steel bodies for autos. Previously, auto manufacturers used wood for exterior panels. While readily available and easy to shape, wood was not the best building material for cars. The heat of the engine reduced the integrity of the glue that held the panels in place and caused the wood to warp. The rough, unpaved roads of the early 20th century were also punishing to wood. In 1913, Budd received a large contract from John and Horace Dodge, the names behind the famous automobile brand.
At its start, the automobile business revolved around racecar drivers, mechanics, and men who tinkered in machine shops. Early automakers employed workers with craft skills to build perhaps 1,000 or fewer vehicles a year for wealthy customers and niche markets. Henry Ford’s method of mass production closed the era of craft production of cars and revolutionized the motor industry.
Wanted: Industrial Engineers
Ford opened his first moving assembly line in 1913, in Highland Park, Mich. It featured conveyor belts powered by electricity, along with numerous innovations in machining and tooling. Ford’s workers were able to assemble a car axle in 27 minutes on average, compared with 2½ hours using the methods of craft production. Ford produced a complete Model T in just three hours.
Henry Ford’s mass production was predicated on the interchangeability of parts and the complete systematization of factory processes. He hired engineers and industrial management specialists to ensure quality and continuous operations in Highland Park. Ford divided his engineering resources into specialized skills: manufacturing engineers, industrial engineers, product engineers, and so on. Under Ford, engineers became “knowledge workers,” individuals who manipulated ideas and information, and rarely got involved in hands-on factory operations.
Ford’s assembly line and other production operations in this era gave rise to a new type of engineering professional—the industrial engineer, who was charged with the responsibility of bringing all the parts together, and assigning specific tasks to each assembler on the production line. ASME, as early as 1903, recognized the emergence of this specialist within the broader mechanical engineering profession, and set out to delineate the occupational differences between the ME and the industrial engineer.
The story of the automobile is told around images and symbols of speed and power, beauty and elegance, freedom, and open roads. For ASME and the mechanical engineering community, the automobile is also about technological progress and engineering achievement beginning with the 20th century and building for a hundred years.