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.
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  • It intrigues me that people can believe so truly something about history and yet it is wrong in its totality. I have believed for so long that the assembly line was coined and patented by Henry Ford. In fact, I was taught this by my grandfather who is a car enthusiast and a civil engineer. This article was enlightening and shocking to a point and it is refreshing to hear the true origin of things that we have become so familiar with.

  • Although this article was really informative and kept me engrossed throughout, I wished that there was more information about the steam engine and Olds himself, such as why did he drop out of high school, and how he built the steam engine and what inspired him to do so. It is also interesting that student in high school never learn about him or are never tested about him in U.S history. He seems to be such an important man that has revolutionized the automobile industry.

  • Interesting article with lots of information. I had heard about Olds in my history class in high school as the inventor of the assembly line, and I knew he had a car. I did not know he had the first car nor that he had accomplished all these other things. I find it especially tragic that although he invented the gasoline engine, this is not something we learn about in school. I think one could argue that this is a vital invention, at least as worthy as the assembly line. It seems that Ford has gotten credit for things he did not accomplish, however this is common in the world of inventions.

  • The first thing that came to my mind when I think about the first automobile is Henry Ford because that’s the popular name today. I know what an Oldsmobile is but I never knew that it was the first vehicle made and manufactured. I knew Henry Ford took both the ideas of the first automobile and the assembly line and made something of his own out of it. Unfortunately Olds is a name that many have forgotten and has been overshadowed by people throughout the past. The incomplete education does not surprise me due to the fact that some of the greatest inventors today failed out of school at some point.

  • Everything having to do with the first car and assembly line, in my mind, was just automatically linked to Henry Ford. I had to no idea of Old’s or his work. It’s amazing how little you can know about such things that are taken for granted everyday. The assembly line affected so much core elements of the country down to the employment rates and economy.

  • I am one of those people who had not known about Ransom E. Olds. It is reasons like these, that I enjoy having the stmu media history. You learn so many things from it! Prior to reading the article, I did not know of Olds’ and would have never even questioned who was credited for all these accomplishments.

  • Reading this article really brought insight into the creation of automobile carriages in the U.S. and the creator. Ransom Eli olds was an interesting person to read an article about. Because he was not only responsible for the carriage but for the chair and gas engine. I appreciated that the reader stated what we were all thinking by saying we mostly think of Henry ford as the inventor of these things.

  • I found this article to be very eye opening as it gives credit to where credit is due. Until reading this article, I did not know of Olds who really oversaw the assembly line in the automobile industry and was not given enough credit for what he did. This article highlights people like him who deserve the recognition they deserve for being instrumental to revelations like the assembly line.

  • This is an incredible read, to think that the iconic name and man Henry Ford is not actually responsible for the inventions that made him a household name is astounding. It makes me wonder if Ransom Olds and his father look down on American history for almost completely scrubbing his name out of the history books. I also find it interesting that although he did not have a complete education he was still able to create the steam engine just from tinkering in the workshop.

  • 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.

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