As the U.S. lurches into a fourth year of depressed economic conditions and high unemployment, manufacturing has once again become a hot topic. As M.I.T. President Faith Hochberg has noted, the U.S. is good at inventing things -- think Silicon Valley -- but companies consistently look overseas for the advanced manufacturing processes needed to put them together -- think Apple's relationship with the mega-Chinese manufacturer Foxconn.
It's worth looking back at the factories that have, for various reasons, changed the course of manufacturing and, in doing so, history. Some factories, like Ford's Highland Park Plant, are notable for their assembly line innovations, while others, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, changed conditions for American workers because they were so catastrophically bad. Here's a look at ten factories that changed the world:
The Venice Arsenal, 1104
During the Renaissance, the city-state of Venice was a trade superpower that did business with Asia and the Middle East. Then as today, superpowers who relied on trade needed a dominant navy. And that's where the Venice Arsenal came in. Using unique mass production methods to assemble the galleys that dominated the Mediterranean, the arsenal pioneered standardization of parts and perfected a continuous flow process, a distant, Italian cousin of Henry Ford's production line. The arsenal completed nearly one ship a day at its peak in the 16th century.
Image: The Venetian Navy at work in the Battle of Lepanto, 1571.
Portsmouth Block Mills, 1802
Marc Brunel devised equipment for mass-producing pulley blocks for England's Royal Navy, whose huge sailing ships depended on them to raise and lower sails and other rigging. Once installed at Portsmouth Block Mills, Brunel's pulley sequences could be operated by unskilled workers, and at ten times the speed of production. By 1808, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, the plant was producing 130,000 blocks per year.
Photo: The block mills today
The Springfield Armory, 1777-1968
The Springfield Armory was the primary center for the manufacture of U.S. military firearms. It became a global site for innovation because of Thomas Blanchard, who pioneered the assembly line style of mass production and the invention of interchangeable parts while working for the armory. His signal invention, the Blanchard replicating machine, was a lathe that could produce precisely matched gun barrels quickly and efficiently. The armory is now a national historic site.
Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Lab, 1876
Not a factory in the traditional sense but, as Thomas Edison held, an "invention factory." Edison's first workshop was built in the tiny village of Menlo Park in what is now (appropriately enough) Edison, New Jersey. The workshop itself was a breakthrough -- the world's first commercial research and development facility. Over the years, it produced the phonograph, the movie camera and the first practical incandescent light-bulb. (General Electric sponsors this magazine).
Photo: The Menlo Park "factory"
To see the remainder of the "factories that changed the world," go here.