Subject:  Innovation/Analogy – Bill Klann’s visit to an abattoir

Event:  Henry Ford starts his first assembly line, 1914

In 1909, Henry Ford had a vision to “democratize the automobile.”  This vision began to be realized on January 14, 1914, when Ford’s assembly line began to produce his Model T.  Certainly Ford deserves credit for making the automobile affordable and accessible to the American people; however, there is one man — one of Ford’s employees — who also deserves a large share of the credit.  

In 1907, a machinist named Bill Klann got a job working for the Ford Motor Company.  Previously he had worked for an ice company, a streetcar company, a brewery, and a shipbuilder.  After demonstrating his talents for problem-solving and for building heavy machinery, Khan was tasked with speeding up the production of engines for Ford’s Model T.

In 1913, Klann toured a slaughterhouse in Chicago.  There, he observed the butchering of hogs, cattle, and sheep in the abattoir and was especially captivated by the way that the animal carcasses were transported through the facility on overhead trolleys.  Instead of being butchered in one place, different parts of the carcass were cut off by different butchers as it moved through the facility.  As he watched, Klann had an epiphany:  maybe this process for disassembling animals could be adapted for assembling automobiles.

Klann first applied his idea to assembling just engine components, and it worked so well that soon an assembly line was built for building entire Model T engines.  By January 1914, the entire automobile was produced via the assembly line process.  Before Klann’s idea came to fruition, it took 12 hours to produce a car; now it took just 90 minutes.

The Ford Motor Company’s ability to produce more cars in less time and with less labor allowed the company to reduce the price of each vehicle.  Soon a Model T was cheap enough that an average American family could afford it.  Ford’s vision of “democratizing the automobile” had been realized, and a large chunk of the credit goes to Klann.

Klann’s invention of the assembly line should be remembered as a celebration of the human mind’s ability to generate ideas through analogies — to make connections between even the most disparate ideas.  Watching butchers dismember animals doesn’t seem like a very logical pastime for a machinist whose job is to put things together.  Nevertheless, Klann’s imagination went to work, allowing him to see similarities in dissimilar things — to envision how the process of slaughtering cattle might be transformed into a process for constructing automobiles (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How did analogical thinking by Bill Klann contribute to the success of Ford Motor Company?

Challenge:  Invention By Analogy

Research other examples of inventions and ideas that have come about through analogical thinking.  Klann took ideas from one domain — the slaughterhouse — and applied them to another domain — the auto factory.  What is an example of another inventor who applied this type of thinking?  What did he/she invent?


1-Pollack, John.  Shortcut:  How Analogies Reveal Connections Spark Innovation and Sell Our Greatest Ideas.  New York:  Avery, 2014.