Technology and Worldbuilding, Part Two

by Kevin L. O’Brien

In this second part of my series on technology and worldbuilding (see Part One), I would like to examine mass production. This is the concept of manufacturing many copies of a product quickly and efficiently, rather than creating each copy by individual effort, as in craftwork. Mass production is in turn based on the concepts of standardization and interchangeability and to a lesser extent the assembly line process. Items produced manually are unique, and even if produced with high precision are rarely able to substitute for one another without substantial modification to make them fit. Then too, high precision is labor and time intensive. Standardization imposes a set of technical specifications on a product that ensures that each item produced is for all intents and purposes identical to all other copies of the same product, whereas interchangeability, which depends on standardization, is the concept that any manufactured part used in an assemblage of parts can substitute for another identical part in a different assemblage. While an assembly line is not required for mass production, it is the concept of manufacturing parts and/or finished products using a series of workstations, each performing a specific task in sequence using machine tools operated by different workers, instead of one worker creating the entire part or product himself. In fact, an important aspect of mass production is that the workers need not be skilled since the skill is built into the machine tools.

Standardization probably began with standard weights and measures, which came into use as early as 2700 years ago. The Chinese are known to have mass produced crossbows using interchangeable parts as early as the 5th century BC, and there is evidence the Carthaginians mass produced ships using standardized, possibly even interchangeable, prefabricated parts in the 3rd century BC. Beginning in the 14th century AD the Venetians mass produced ships and firearms using prefabricated interchangeable parts in an assembly line. By the 16th century, they had become so efficient they could produce a ship a day, at a time when the rest of Europe took months.

Unfortunately, the Venetian system did not spread beyond the confines of the city, though they continued the mass production of ships right up until the start of the classical Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. It is therefore interesting to speculate what the modern world would be like if all of Europe had adopted assembly line mass production using interchangeable parts, or what a fantasy world that saw its widespread use might be like.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that until the development of machine tools, even the Venetian system would have been unable to significantly increase capacity beyond its historic limits. The Venetians made it work by employing tens of thousands of workers and working around the clock to manufacture huge numbers of prefabricated parts, but they were still limited by the speed at which people could create precision parts. As such, to make assembly-line mass production work efficiently a culture would have to invent machine tools to perform the needed work.

Though the definition of a machine tool varies with the profession, at its most basic it is a device that helps people make things. All machine tools have three features: a tool that performs the work, and methods for constraining the workpiece and for guiding the tool. The choice of tool depends upon the kind of work the machine is to perform, and the method of constraint depends upon the nature of the workpiece, but for most machines, the method of guidance is either a template or restraints on the degree to which the tool can move. For example, jigs are used to allow a cutting tool to only go so far in a particular direction and no further, thereby preventing the tool from cutting too much.

For reasons that should be apparent, it is difficult to identify genuine medieval machine tools, but a few may qualify. Forerunners include bow drills and pottery wheels from at least 2500 BC, and lathes going back as far as 1000 BC. As far as actual machines are concerned, one of the simplest was the cannon bore. Whether made from bronze or iron, by the Middle Ages cannons were cast as two halves that were welded together. However, this seam weakened the finished cannon and made it more likely to fail, explosively. With a cannon bore, people could cast solid cannons, then set them to turn on a lathe. The actual bore consisted of a bar with a cutting head. The bar was advanced using a screw with an attached jig to stop the bar at a precise distance. The head entered the cannon dead center and bored out the hollow interior with extreme accuracy. This not only increased the rate at which cannons were manufactured, but also made them stronger, and so safer. Another machine tool was a pattern lathe that used a prefabricated template model to guide a carving tool to form precise shapes. The machine operator didn’t have to know how to use the carving tool himself; he just needed to operate levers in a specific sequence.

Fantasy worlds need not follow the example of medieval Europe with regard to when and how quickly machine tools developed, but they need to have three features: a mechanical power source, such as a water or wind wheel; a mechanical operation that does not depend upon the craft skill of the worker; with manual input limited to placing the raw workpiece, operating at most a few levers, and removing the finished workpiece. Similarly, an assembly line of machine tools should be composed of individual workstations, each with its own machine tool, so that raw material can literally be introduced at one end and a finished product or part comes off at the other. With this development, a medieval industrial revolution would finally be in the works.


Kevin L. O’Brien is a hybrid author who has sold stories to Weirdbook and Sword and Sorceress, has been granted an Honorable Mention by the Writers of the Future award, and has published ebooks through Kindle and Smashwords. He primarily writes speculative fiction, particularly sword & sorcery and paranormal thrillers, but he has also branched out into other genres, including mainstream fiction. He is the creator of Team Girl and Differel Van Helsing. His general interest in science and history provides the basis for his posts. He lives in Denver with his three cats.