Ransom E. Olds: Drawing the line

Oldsmobile Assembly Line Production | Courtesy of British V8 Journal

Few people know the name of the person who was awarded the very first United States patent for automobile carriages. Even fewer people know that this person was also responsible for a number of other patents and inventions, such as a chair, the gasoline engine, trucks, and tractors. He invented two automobiles, ran two companies, and had a city named after him.1 The name Henry Ford probably pops into your head. However, the person responsible for these various patents and accomplishments is Mr. Ransom Eli Olds. Olds, a victim to the sands of time, is remembered by only a few, even though he is credited for having some of the most impactful ideas for the automotive industry.

Ransom Eli Olds | Courtesy of Farmer Collector
Ransom Eli Olds | Michigan| Courtesy of Farmer Collector

Ransom E. Olds was born June 3, 1864 to a blacksmith (Pliny Fiske Olds) and a pattern-maker (Sarah Whipple Olds) in Geneva, Ohio. By 1880, his father established a machine shop in Lansing, Michigan, and so it was there that the Olds’ roots were planted.2 Like many of the innovators of the 21st century, Old’s only had a formal education up to high school (technically having dropped out at age 16).3 His education, however, did not impede his dexterous abilities. He went to work for his father after dropping out. His father welcomed him in and even encouraged his tinkering with the machines.4 From the onset, Olds had a vision of a horseless carriage. After working for his father for two years (without pay), his tinkering finally paid off with his first steam-powered engine. Impressed by his son’s creation, Olds’ father began paying him fifty cents a day. After noting how impressive the steam engine was, however, his pay was quadrupled to two dollars a day.5

Oldsmobile Curved Dash, 1902 | MIchigan | Courtesy of General Motors Corp.; RM Auctions
Oldsmobile Curved Dash | 1902 | Michigan | Courtesy of General Motors Corp.; RM Auctions

Old’s purchased a half-share in his father’s business and rebranded it to P.F. Olds & Son.6 Olds’ successes continued, and in 1893, his steam powered horseless carriage became the first American automobile exported to India.7 In 1897, following the immense success of his engine, and only a year after his patent was accepted, Olds founded Olds Motor Vehicle Company to begin manufacturing some of the first steam-powered engines, by method of gasoline. Two years later he sold a large share of his company and it was renamed to Olds Motor Works and relocated to Detroit to begin mass producing the Curved Dash Oldsmobile.8. The Curved Dash Oldsmobile would go on to be one the first commercially available vehicle for the mass market. Starting at just $650 it was this price point that allowed accessibility for citizens of various backgrounds to purchase them.9 One of the reasons it was so cheap to the consumer was because it was being built through an assembly line, the first of its kind.

The assembly line at the Chrysler plant in Windsor, similar to how the assembly line worked at the Old Works Company| Ontario| Courtesy of Flickr images
The assembly line at the Chrysler plant in Windsor, similar to how the assembly line worked at the Old Works Company| Ontario| Courtesy of Flickr images

Ransom E. Olds, not Ford, was the pioneer of the assembly line.10 It allowed for huge workloads to be broken down into various smaller tasks. Apart from cost reductions, it also provided a more efficient work environment. The assembly line led to faster production too. More and more products could be sold at a faster rate and reduced cost. The assembly line paired with industrialization was the catalyst that turned our nation from agriculture towards the modern day machine-driven world we know today. Much thanks is due to Ransom E. Olds, the creator of the assembly line.

  1. George S. May, R. E. Olds: Auto Industry Pioneer (Ann Arbor: Michigan State University, 1979), 363-365.
  2. Encyclopedia of the History of American Management, 2006, s.v. “Olds, Ransom Eli” by Morgen Witzel.
  3. Encyclopedia of the History of American Management, 2006, s.v. “Olds, Ransom Eli” by Morgen Witzel.
  4. May, R. E. Olds, 16, 41.
  5. Bill Vossler, “Man of Vision: Manufacturer Ransom E. Olds Left Lasting Imprint on Early Automotive Industry,” Farm Collector (2012).
  6. Bill Vossler, “Man of Vision: Manufacturer Ransom E. Olds Left Lasting Imprint on Early Automotive Industry,” Farm Collector (2012).
  7. May, R. E. Olds, 186.
  8.  “Ransom E. Olds,” R.E. Olds Foundation, September 30, 2011, http://www.reoldsfoundation.org/ransom-e-olds
  9.  Charles H. Hindersman, Harold W. Fox, and George Fisk, “History and Trends,” Journal of Marketing 28, no. 3 (July 1964): 103.
  10. May, R. E. Olds, 7, 192, 363.
Ransom E. Olds: Drawing the line
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21 Comments

  • It is articles like this one that make me so grateful to be on this website. It gives credit to the true man responsible! It is so sad that Henry Ford has such a bright light shone on him because so many believe he began and invented what Old actually did. I feel so enlightened to now know the truth and that I can share and pass it along. It is incredible how rich our history is, but it is so important to give correct credit.

  • Very well done! Your opening paragraph grabbed my attention because you’re right, you typically think of Ford when you think of the automobile business. But it’s sad that Mr. Ransom didn’t get any credit at all where it was deserved and how we was the reason for the assembly line and automobile. I like how you talked about the life and career of Ransom and how it shed more light on him.

  • I found this article very informative and it was very surprising to me that an invention so popular and important was credited to the wrong person. I found it very admirable at the amount Olds did and invented during his life. I can’t believe I have never heard of Ransom Eli Olds given the importance of his inventions. I like how this article corrected many misconceptions that people may have.

  • Really informative article! I truly believed Henry Ford started the entire automotive business, so it is really interesting to read that it is actually Ransom E. Olds. Really sad that he does not get this recognition. I also really liked how you included the wages, as it is so cool to compare it to now! Overall, it is clear you did your research, and I really enjoyed reading this article.

  • Great information in this article. I distinctly remember watching a video in high school that proclaimed Henry Ford the inventor of the assembly line, and I am stunned to learn it was actually invented by a man I have never heard of before. The story of Ransom Olds reminds me of the story of Tesla. Two great men that invented great things that have (or in Tesla’s case could have) changed the way of life in America but never got the credit they earned and rightfully deserved. Such a shame for history textbooks to get it so wrong.

  • Wow very informative article! I believed that it was Henry Ford was the man who invented the automobile industry. Also, I did not even know who Ransome E. Olds was until I read this article. The photo’s that you chose fit your article very well. You chose a great list of sources to work with. Thank you for doing research and informing us about Ransome E. Olds. I feel that now many people who will read your article, will too, be informed and shocked about this discovery.

  • Wow very interesting and informative article! I am honestly a bit surprised after reading this piece as I was was completely unaware of Olds. While in high school we were taught in my history class that Ford was the one who manly established automobiles. I had truly never heard of Ransom E. Olds. How sad that he doesn’t get the recognition that he deserves.

  • Its hard to think sometimes that aimless tinkering can lead to incredible inventions and Mr. Ransom really proves us wrong by being able to have incredible success, really starting by just tinkering. Very well written article. I learned allot about Mr. Ransom and all his success, I didn’t know much at all around the topic and now I feel like I could describe it to someone.

  • Just like everyone else, I have never heard of the name Ransom E. Olds before. I can understand why Olds was overshadowed by Henry Ford but it makes me wonder why Olds gets little to no recognition. A man who went from dropping out of high school to being the first to patent automobile carriages deserves much more credibility. Wonderful article, good job!

  • this is a very interesting article, i didn’t even know that Ford wasn’t the true pioneer of assembly lines and auto mobile, nor was he the first one to actually start it. its kinda sad that history hasn’t given such an amazing inventor the recognition he deserves. this was a very interesting and informative article and its nice to find out about Ransom Olds.

  • I had never heard of this man in my life. Thank you for giving Ransom E. Olds the recognition he deserves. We hear about Ford in early history courses and as a company that exists today, so I admire your efforts to clear up the misconception between these two men. I liked how the article had details about the beginnings of his life and career. It was fascinating how he took his father’s company and expanded it through innovation. This man truly lived the American dream.

  • I loved that you started your article mentioning all of the well-known inventions Old deserves credit for. One of the things that is always shocking to hear about the price points for some of the most important technology we have today that were in place back then. We often learn about the assembly line in regards to the importance of its function, however we do not too often learn about its pioneer. I was definitely not aware that Ransom E. Olds was the person to credit. Really interesting read!

  • This opened to my eyes about how many individuals don’t get the credit they deserve. That is truly messed up, especially if there is hard work put into it to make something happen. I can’t believe that this happened to him. I did enjoy how you explained it in a way of defending him and giving him credit. I thought it was well done and well explained. I just can’t believe people do this.

  • I wonder how Ford got all the credit for the automobile and the assembly line…. maybe it’s because Ford is still has a popular brand today and it’s in the company’s interest? Maybe? No clue. But that’s honestly depressing to see a great inventor and innovator not given the credit he deserves. Thanks for sharing this information! I hope more people learn about Olds!

  • This article really opened my eyes to who should be accredited with the innovation of the automobile. It’s also a very good example of how determination and hard work can get you anywhere. This article was very well research and I enjoyed reading about Ransom E. Olds. Well done!

  • I find it disturbing that the man that has always been accredited with the automobile has been Henry Ford, not Ransom E. Olds who deserves the recognition. This brought to light, I wonder how many other inventions are awarded credit to the wrong individuals. Also, while reading this I couldn’t help but think if he was a dropout and succeeded in life, I can do the same (probably a bad mentality). This article was very interesting and memorable because of how much it makes the reader think, and question, what they have been taught thus far. Great list of sources and information you chose to work with.

  • I always thought Ford was the man to thank for the automobile industry. I had never even heard of Ransom E. Olds and I’m not even sure how that happened. It’s great that this article is out there so that others can also learn this story and be aware that the man who really started everything was Olds. I don’t know how I never made the connection between Olds an the Oldsmobile! Great article!

  • What a great, interesting and information filled article as it sheds light on the true creator of the assembly line. It is quite sad that Ransom E. Olds is overlooked when speaking of the automobile industry and the emergence of the assembly line. I have never before heard of his name before reading this article, so I will definitely be sharing this with fellow classmates and friends. It is also pretty interesting to compare wages of workers and the cost of an automobile to what we see in today’s world. Well done!

  • Wow! I was unaware of the fact that it was Olds and not Ford – the one we hear about every time the subject of the assembly line pops up – that was the first to begin using assembly lines! It is incredible how assembly lines have grown since the late 1800s and how much the wages have increased and the purchase value for cars has skyrocketed too! Olds is very much “under the radar” in the sense that I have never heard of him but only of his inventions. This article did an excellent job in portraying a brief history of Olds and his contributions to the automotive industry.

  • Well done! Article is well written! I enjoyed the variety of sources, shows efficient research on topic. The article exemplifies the post industrial revolution period. Great job on shedding some light on another figure besides Ford, Carnegie, Morgan, and Rockefeller. Furthermore, good job on illustrating another perspective on the origins of the assembly line. I also enjoyed how you included the wages. It does well to show the difference in value of money from that point in history to modern times.

  • Excellent well written article. I was surprised because I didn’t know about Mr. Ransom at all, it is incredible how he went from dropping out of High School, to being responsible for the first assembly line of auto mobiles in the United States and owning two companies.

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