In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition.
The Assembly Line
Knowing that the Venetians had a vigorous boat building program to maximise their commercial strength in the eastern Mediterranean, coupled with my interest in yacht design and building dinghies, I thought I might research this medieval industry. What a revelation!
Hundreds of years before Henry Ford rolled his first Model T off the assembly line, the Venetians were building a sailing galley a day on their assembly line in an area called the Arsenal back in 1104. I consulted Google to find out who invented the concept of an assembly line, characterised by the product being built not swamped by dozens of competing craftsmen, but moved along to the specialist sections where prefabricated parts are added and then moved on to the next. I was not surprised to see only Henry Ford’s name on all the first page sites and nothing at all about the medieval Arsenal of Venice. Then my eye caught the heading: ‘Henry Ford did not invent the assembly line’. For a moment I was happy that the truth will out, only to find that another car manufacturer, Ransom E. Olds is given the credit! All I have to say is: “GARBAGE!”
Let’s take a look at the real contender to the title of: ‘Inventor of the Assembly Line’.
Venice is unique. From the first settlers, who had to cross from island to island in the lagoon, to the inhabitants today that use water transport to get around their city, Venice has always needed boats. As the population grew and dwellings became more permanent, the need for building material became imperative. Wood and stone and later marble came from hundreds of miles away so they built cargo boats. When trading expanded, they built trading boats. When pirates harassed their commercial fleet, the Venetians built war galleys to counter them and protect their sea lanes and the city itself! Venice always needed boats, and as that need escalated, their building facility became more sophisticated and the shipwrights and tradesmen more skilled.
The area set aside for boat building became known as the Arsenal. A massive impenetrable wall was built around it and became a huge fortress, a testimony of how important the boat building industry was to Venice. Eventually it was not only boats that were being built there, but also canons and other weapons as well as ropes and sails to equip the boats. They replaced the Roman square sail with the more efficient triangular lateen rig. What intrigued me most was HOW they built the boats.
At first, they copied the Roman technique of building a complex outer shell for the hull and later fitting frames and stringers inside it. Changing the process to create the framework first and then cladding it with planks speeded up the building time tremendously. The hull was then floated on a canal which became the conveyor belt to move it along to the next assembly point to have a set of prefabricated parts fitted. This movement allowed the next hull to take its place behind the one ahead of it. As they floated down the canal more and more bits and pieces were added till the vessels were complete. It is said that the Arsenal even recruited and crewed the boats before they sailed out! At its peak, the Venetians produced a fully equipped galley a day!
Please bare in mind, we are talking about the 12th and 13th centuries here.
Skilled craftsmen in all the trades enjoyed privileged positions in the Venetian society and lived in homes on the outside of the fortress wall, right next the job.
The Arsenal also attracted other skills not directly connected to boat building. The emerging glass blowing industry was contracted to supply hour-glasses for time keeping at sea. Even Galileo Galilei was hired to help redesign the rowing system of the galleys and became a consultant about instrumentation and ballistics.
The Arsenal as it today.
The Arsenal lasted into the early Industrial Revolution, yet in spite of this, the assembly line production process was only next seen with the Model T Ford in the 20th century.
Without the Arsenal, Venice would never have reached its powerful position as an influential and dominant leader in the Eastern Mediterranean.
I would like to thank all the readers of my blog for your encouraging comments. Thank you very much!
I will always try to respond and enjoy doing it. Lately I seem to be inundated by brainless trash and relegate these comments to the trashcan immediately. I have heard that some of this unwanted rubbish could find it’s way into the content of my writing and this scares and annoys me greatly. Most of my readers have seen what I post, so if something crude finds it’s way into what I publish, please ignore it, it does not come from me.
Sometimes I receive mail with nothing in it at all. Please feel free to make a comment, even if you disagree with what I write. Criticism can only improve the blog.
See you again in TOM #14. I’ve got a Monster for you and this time it is not drawn by me. Will post as soon as I can.
All the best,
TOM [The Other Marco]