In a Nutshell
To many people, the assembly line was invented in the early 20th century by carmaker Henry Ford. However, assembly lines were a major component of the Venetian Arsenal, a 14th century shipbuilding complex in Venice which was capable of building large merchant ships in a single day.
The Whole Bushel
The Venetian Arsenal represents one of the earliest industrial complexes in history. From 1104 to 1797, it ensured Venice’s dominance as a trading power within the Mediterranean by building and maintaining a vast fleet of merchant ships and military vessels. The installation of a moving assembly line — not dissimilar to that used by Henry Ford during the production of the Ford Model T — did not occur until 1325, when the entire site was redeveloped to provide room for the state navy.
The speed at which the Arsenal could manufacture a ship (in some cases, only 24 hours) was a result of the way in which the production process was arranged to provide maximum efficiency and ease of component transport. Each of the three production areas — framing, planking, and final assembly — were staffed with workers whom were well-trained in their respective specialism, whilst the ships themselves were built using only standardized, interchangeable parts in order to allow a quick and well-organized assembly process. As well as this, the production areas were connected by a canal, down which completed ship sections were sailed towards the next production stage.
This assembly line allowed the Arsenal to keep over 100 ships in simultaneous production, and was so renowned throughout Europe that the poet Dante described it in his seminal work, Inferno.