Armies and navies have often been innovators when it comes to speeding up manufacturing. Marc Isambard Brunel used some of the first machine tools to make pulleys for warships at the Portsmouth block mills in 1802 (on the orders of Sir Samuel Bentham, the brother of the famous philosopher). The first products made with interchangeable parts were military muskets, manufactured in France and the United States. Throughout the nineteenth century, wars attracted engineers who accelerated the production of weapons of war. The whole process probably reached its apex in the Second World War, when the Ford Motor Company’s airplane plant at Willow Run, MI which made 20 four-engined bombers a day in 1944. Willow Run and Ford’s other war factories were mechanical marvels, but their task was simple compared to what Ford did towards the end of the the First World War: build entire ships on an assembly line.
When the United States entered the First World war in 1917, Henry Ford was an obvious person to advise the US government on how to get the most out of wartime industry. Famous for adopting the moving assembly line and using it to churn out the first widely affordable automobiles, the Model T, Ford offered to build warships the same way. Steel-hulled anti-submarine patrol boats (known at the time as Submarine Chasers), the 200-foot “Eagle boats” were supposed to travel down a conveyor belt at Ford’s plant at River Rouge just like Model Ts, and Ford promised the US Navy 100 boats.
Reality was trickier. It turned out that 200′ boats were too large for any conveyor belt, so they were carried down the assembly line on cradles towed by giant tractors. Without shipfitting experience, Ford’s workers couldn’t put the boats together quickly or efficiently. Only seven boats were finished in 1918 and another 53 in 1919 before the Navy pulled the plug on the whole project.
Ford’s failure wasn’t the end of the dream of building ships as easily as cars. In the Second World War, Kaiser Shipyards used simplified design, welding, and prefabrication to get the average construction time for its Liberty cargo ships down to 42 days. In a publicity stunt, they launched the Robert E. Peary in four days and 15 and a half hours. Unlike the Eagle boats, the Liberty ships were cargo carriers not warships – but they kept the lifeline between Britain and the US open.