We're generally told that mass production and the Industrial Revolution go hand in hand, that the Industrial Revolution gave us the miracle of complex tools made of identical, interchangeable parts that make mass production possible.

But people have been creating identical, interchangeable metal articles for thousands of years: coins. We have surviving examples of ancient coins cast from molds, each one as similar to the others of its mintage as two pieces of metal can be after thousands of years of age gets through with them. So clearly the knowledge for creating identical, interchangeable tools was not the "secret sauce" that gave us mass production.

What was it about the Industrial Revolution that was actually new, that made the wonders of mass production available to society, when molds for creating identical metal articles have been around since antiquity?

  • 4
    IMHO the relation isn't really a "A allowed for B" one as much as a "B is part of the thing we call A". Asking why something had to wait for itself doesn't make a lot of sense. Are you just wanting to know why large-scale industrial mass production didn't happen earlier in human history than it did?
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 11 at 0:55
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    In fact mass production existed long before industrial revolution, and your example of coins is valid. In ancient Rome and Greece they mass produced pottery, and many other things including warships, for example. If you can built 300 triremes in a couple of years, what is this, if not mass production?
    – Alex
    Mar 11 at 1:19
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    "Mass Production" is not the same as "Produce lots of something". Mass production is a combination of techniques (some technical, some related to access to non-biological energy, and some organizational) which never came together previously. Even where the Romans edged towards mass production, their limitations of organization -- the Empire was not innovation-friendly, not were any ancient cultures! -- and the lack of mechanical power sources proved a severe limit.
    – Mark Olson
    Mar 11 at 1:57
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    I'm no numismatic, but I'm not sure coins were identical mass-produced objects until at least the early modern era, and probably not even then. Draconian penalties were imposed for debasing coinage, clipping/short-weighting them, which suggests there was far less standardisation than the question suggests.
    – TheHonRose
    Mar 11 at 3:33
  • I think mass production has to wait until there is consumer demand. You've got a hypothesis that coin product is a model for mass production; I'm not convinced, but let's assume that it is. In the absence of a middle class, who will buy the goods? I believe the dominant market forces were either conspicuous consumption or else monopsony support to producers.
    – MCW
    Mar 11 at 19:12

I wouldn't equate the quality of production of an ancient coin to that of a modern or early industrial age coin. I've never seen an ancient coin that was perfectly circular or had crisp clear lines of later coins.

What the industrial age managed to achieve, that earlier periods weren't able to, was the ability to make large machines that could produce "things" in vast quantities, quickly and repeatably, such a weaving looms producing textiles.

Being able to create large machines and place a large number of them in one location enabled the commencement of mechanization and thus mass production. This also relied on the availability of vast amounts of energy for all the machinery to operate, which was only made possible with the manufacturing of efficient steam engines that were powered by continuous supplies of coal. Initially water power was used, but that limited where factories could be located because energetic rivers occurred in particular locations, in limited numbers. Much later, electricity would replace steam as the energy used.

The industrial age wasn't simply about the ability to make interchangeable tools and equipment. It's about the ability to make large machines and power them with vast amounts of reliable energy that wasn't previously available and to have greater freedom where factories could be located. It also coincides with, then, newly developed iron making processes and chemical manufacturing.



You are absolutely right that ancient civilizations did mass produce certain objects. Examples are plentiful : coins, ships, swords, spearheads and armor (especially for Roman armies) , bricks, stone slabs (for Egyptian pyramids) etc ... Production was never completely "biological", coal was used widely, also molds, watermills and windmills etc ...

What makes the difference is interchangeability of parts. For object that doesn't have parts like a coin for example, nonuniform is not that important. As mentioned in other answers, ancient coins were visibly non-identical. However, aside from shaving some gold or silver from the coin, they were usually counted as such. However for objects that have at least two parts like spear (spearhead and shaft), things get interesting. Do to inability to produce them completely uniformly, you could not just take any shaft and any spearhead and join them. Usually, wooden shaft was wider than spearhead, so it would have to be filed and grinded down until perfect match was achieved. In some designs it would be secured with iron nails.

As we can see, this lack of uniformity hampered mass production of any complex design like for example mechanical clocks .To put it simply, you could not just take faulty gear from the clock and replace it with another of the same size and shape. It would have to be matched to the clock, which drove the cost of production and maintenance. Although various clock-makers and other manufacturers wanted to make things more uniform, they could not achieve this in earnest until 19th century (or even early 20th century) . Therefore, each object produced was in a sense unique.

Only after tolerances of produced parts became low enough to achieve interchangeability mass production of more complex designs became possible. And this in turn could not be done with production based on unassisted human labor. Uniformity was achieved only when machines took over dimensioning and shaping (cutting, molding ... ) of an object. Also, late 18th and 19th century saw the rise of metrology, scientific discipline concerned with measurement. This lead to standardization of measures, first in one country (France, Britain ...) , than on the world stage. Standards and etalons were established and latter more and more precise instruments to measure basic physical quantities like length, weight etc ... This in turn allowed uniform measurement of above mentioned tolerances and first forms of quality control.

Finally, it should be noted that one human activity where ancient civilizations did achieve reasonable level of uniformity without machines was construction, or actually brick-making and stone-cutting. This was especially true for civilizations like Rome, Greece, Egypt and China were we could find relatievly uniform bricks, roof tiles, stone slabs etc ... And this is the reasons why those civilizations built large cities and left plenty of constructions we could admire even today.

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    Nice answer. Personally, I would add metrology (the way of measuring the adequation of the produced objects) concerns: being under the "tolerance" threshold (you mention it) has been an increasing concern. In the second part of the 19th century, increasingly precise measurement tools/devices for length, weight, speed, etc., by direct or indirect means (increasing use of optics for example) have been developed. The use of statistics comes only in the first decades of the 20th century (see for example the life of statistician Gosset) Mar 11 at 15:41
  • @JeanMarieBecker I added few sentences about metrology, although, I admit, this is not my area of expertise :) But I do understand how would it affect standardization of various parts and tolerance measuring.
    – rs.29
    Mar 11 at 19:04
  • Interchangeability (interchangeable parts) was one of the hallmarks of the second industrial revolution, late 19th century to early 20th century. Mass production of textiles and other goods precedes interchangeability by a century. Mar 12 at 9:56
  • @DavidHammen I would disagree. Textile produced even in early days was sufficiently interchangeable. In other words, you could produce one sleeve from one piece of textile and other from another (of the same type) and there would be no noticeable difference. Same could not be said for textile produced by manual weaving.
    – rs.29
    Mar 14 at 7:39

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