Walter Ong was, to my knowledge, the first to observe that the first assembly line was created not to make cars, but to print books.
The printing press is the earliest example of progressive assembly. The Venetian shipyard known as the Arsenal worked as a production line, but there was variation in the ships it produced.
Not the same with the Gutenberg press, which produced identical copies each time. The only variation came from the amount of ink and the quality of the paper used – both subject to human input. The machine did not fail to bring out the same item every time. The assembled type, moved into position and suitably placed. The 2,500 pieces of type used in the Gutenberg Bible produces 1,286 pages in a fraction of the time needed by a scribe to write the 42-line pages.
The printing press opened the way to the big assembly lines of the Industrial Revolution, from the steam and electric conveyors of the meatpacking industry in Chicago to Henry Ford’s line.
The book was the first to witness the passage from homemade to ready-made, from the care for the single item to the worry about numbers. The first run of Gutenberg’s press ushered in the age of efficiency, replication and convenience. It set the modern conveyor belt in motion.