Manufacturing history from the year you were born
Between the mid-to-late 18th century and early-to-mid 19th century, economies in what would come to be called industrialized nations made a dramatic shift from hand production to machine production during the Industrial Revolution. In much of the world, however, modern manufacturing truly came into its own in the 20th century, and the United States of America led the charge—at least at first.
More than any other sector, manufacturing produced the American middle class and established the United States as a global superpower with the highest standard of living in history. By the 1920s and ’30s, about 20% of the U.S. workforce labored in the manufacturing sector. Those laborers didn’t only make toasters, roller skates, transistors, and Barbie dolls. The country’s factories also formed the backbone of its military might—America’s enemies learned the hard way that, when needed, the U.S. Armed Forces could rely on the country’s manufacturers to produce supplies and armaments in quantities so massive that no enemy could possibly withstand the onslaught.
American manufacturers developed astonishing innovations in everything from automobiles and household goods to computers and communications. They changed the way electricity is transmitted, how people talk to each other, and how products were packaged. Some of their greatest technological advances were improvements in how their own factories operated and produced goods—and some of the greatest manufacturers in history were lost forever along the way.
Stacker compiled a year-by-year list of manufacturing history over the course of a century from a variety of sources, including historic St. Louis Fed data on employees since 1939, hourly earnings since 1939, average hours since 1939, and manufacturing production since 1920. Stacker also used inflation data from the Minneapolis Fed and historical GDP (since 1947) data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
The following is a synopsis of how manufacturing evolved during—and steered the evolution of—an American century defined by advances so revolutionary that their impact is still being felt today.
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- Manufacturing output index: 5.2 (+3.2% compared to previous year)
The year 1920 kicked off one of the greatest and longest periods of economic expansion in American history as the United States emerged from World War I as the world’s manufacturer. With most of Europe in ruins, the victorious and unscathed United States would produce almost half of everything the world made as the American economy grew by an astonishing 42% in the decade leading up to the Depression. The aviation and auto industries came of age in the 1920s, electricity went mainstream in homes and factories, mass-production entered the modern era, and an insatiable demand for new and exciting consumer goods of all kinds became the norm.
- Manufacturing output index: 4 (-23.7% compared to previous year)
Established in 1921, the Workers Educational Bureau (WEB) signaled the start of organized vocational education in the United States. American universities started adopting labor extension programs and manufacturing began its modern partnership with academia.
- Manufacturing output index: 5.2 (+30.2% compared to previous year)
In 1922, a group of scientists and academics created the company that would become Raytheon Technologies. Originally focused on refrigeration and electronics, it would grow to become one of the biggest aerospace and defense manufacturers in the world with 40,000 patents, 195,000 employees, $74 billion in annual sales, and an $8 billion research-and-development department. It remains one of the most enduring symbols of the powerful partnership between the U.S. government and private-sector manufacturing.
- Manufacturing output index: 6.1 (+17.3% compared to previous year)
Founded in 1908, General Motors came of age when Alfred Sloan took over as president in 1923—he would later serve as chairman of the board through the 1950s. Sloan restructured the company to focus on five main automotive divisions: Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Buick, and Cadillac. Under Sloan’s stewardship, GM became one of Detroit’s famed “Big Three” automakers and one of the greatest manufacturing companies in history.
- Manufacturing output index: 5.7 (-6.3% compared to previous year)
The Toyota Motor Company can be traced to 1924, when Sakichi Toyoda invented the Toyoda Model G Automatic Loom. The most efficient and productive loom in the world, it was based on the concept of “jidoka,” which describes an automated process that stops right away when a problem is detected so that a human supervisor can intervene. The advance allowed one human to supervise as many as 50 looms, and jidoka became a key principle in the Toyota Production System (TPS), and later, lean manufacturing.
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- Manufacturing output index: 6.4 (+11.8% compared to previous year)
On June 6, 1925, Walter P. Chrysler formed the Chrysler Corporation from the struggling Maxwell Motor Company. It would join GM and Ford to form the greatest triumvirate in American manufacturing history. Michigan would remain the heart of the auto manufacturing world for generations.
- Manufacturing output index: 6.7 (+5.1% compared to previous year)
By 1926, Buick had combined all its operations under one roof, even manufacturing the bolts, nuts, and screws that would be used to fasten its vehicles together in-house. That year in Flint, Michigan, its engineers unveiled a revolutionary new system called the “unified assembly line.” The world’s largest and most efficient car assembly system, it used overhead conveyors to ferry components and supplies from all over the facility and provided a model for modern automation.
- Manufacturing output index: 6.7 (-0.5% compared to previous year)
The year 1927 marked the end of one glorious American manufacturing era and the beginning of another. That year, Ford stopped production of the car that started it all, the venerable Model T, after 18 years and 15 million cars. At the same time, Ford unveiled the Model A, a far more advanced and highly customizable vehicle—customers snapped up 4.8 million of them by the time the Model A’s production run ended in 1932.
- Manufacturing output index: 7.1 (+5.6% compared to previous year)
When it opened in 1928, the Ford River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Michigan—known informally as “the Rouge”—was the largest integrated factory on the planet. It represented near-total manufacturing self-sufficiency, with Ford in control of the coal mines, rubber plantations, iron mines, and forests that provided raw materials to the thousands of suppliers that served the Rouge. One year later in 1929, the Rouge employed more than 100,000 people.
- Manufacturing output index: 7.8 (+10.6% compared to previous year)
The Roaring ’20s came to a screeching halt when the stock market crashed starting on Thursday, Oct. 24, 1929. Manufacturing output would plummet for several consecutive years to come. Jobs dried up and the recently unemployed bought fewer goods, which reduced output and evaporated jobs even further in an endless cycle that swept all industries into the Great Depression.
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