Not many history books put it this way, but the history of the 20th century in the United States is writ most boldly when its advances in technology are tallied. Chronologically, the first to come along was the widespread availability of low-cost steel with high tensile strength. As the century progressed, you could add rural electrification, pharmaceuticals, plastics, jet power, television and the Internet. Every one of those advances fundamentally changed the way people conducted their daily activities. Obviously, so, too, did the rise of the automobile and the industry that produced it.
By that measure of technological advance as history, Charlie Sorensen was one of the century’s most pivotal individuals. A great early acolyte of Henry Ford, Sorensen was as much a hands-on architect of the company’s rise to global proportions as old man Henry was the face behind its products. He perfected Ford’s ability to build increasingly complicated cars cheaply and in tremendous quantities. Those production techniques were successfully adapted to military materiel during World War II, and later co-opted by Japan. The significance of what Sorensen achieved as Ford’s production boss outlived him, and will probably outlive all of us, too.
Charles Emil Sorensen was Denmark’s other major contribution to the early U.S. auto industry– the better-known Danish export was William K. “Big Bill” Knudsen, who also had a memorable run at Ford. Sorensen was born in 1881, and arrived in the United States with his family four years later. He was apprenticed as a foundry worker at the Jewett Stove Works in Buffalo before the family moved on to Detroit. Once there, Sorensen found a job with Ford as a patternmaker, by all indications hired by Henry Ford himself. That was in 1904. Within three years, he was chief of patternmaking for Ford, as the company readied the Model T for its production launch.
It’s a misconception that Sorensen headed Ford’s production from the start, although he was unquestionably the most influential production manager in the company’s existence. As the Model T rolled out in 1908, Sorensen was actually second-in-command to Ford’s then-production chief, Edward Martin. Possessed of a temper that could be reasonably compared to a nuclear warhead, Sorensen transfixed the workforce. That appealed to Henry Ford.
While the exact roles played in that era’s history are not completely transparent, it’s clear that Sorensen was among the first Ford managers to demonstrate a straight, moving assembly line at the Piquette Avenue assembly plant. The subsequent Highland Park plant was designed by noted architect Albert Kahn around those principles. In his memoirs, Sorensen said that he also worked up figures demonstrating that the Model T could be built so quickly and cheaply that Ford would outgrow Highland Park within a few years, and make a fortune even while paying Ford’s stunning five-dollar daily wage. Old man Ford liked that, too. Better still, Sorensen’s projections were accurate.