|Developer Diary · You Heard It Here First · Sunday 4 January 2004|
|Eli Whitney and Standardization|
On Friday I wrote about the way steam power created the basis for the industrial revolution and listed Eli Whitney as a prime beneficiary. This may be slightly erroneous because his factory was originally designed to be water powered. From the 1879 engraving of his factory in New Haven below you can see that it was eventually fitted with steam power from the coal-burning stack off to the left.
Whitney's invention of the cotton gin enriched the south but brought Whitney himself nothing but fame as his patent was ignored. The fame was useful, however, because later the government gave him a large contract to produce muskets. He used the money to produce a factory instead of the muskets. While the government ended up having to pay a lot more to eventually get the muskets the factory was still a success because it embodied and modelled the future of industrialization.
Whitney was a great popularizer of standardization which he called the "Uniformity System". Instead of having musket parts crafted and fitted individually by experts he promoted the idea of making the parts of the musket uniformly. In practice his muskets weren't that great, but his theory was sound and widely influential. It marked the decline of artisans like gunsmiths and blacksmiths.
Whitney implemented his ideas by developing filing jigs and lathe patterns that reduced the need for custom fitting. As I wrote in the earlier essary an important part of the standardization was simply bringing all the workers into one place--the factory. People making things all in one place will tend to turn out a more uniform product than when they are scattered. What Whitney missed was the importance of gauging. A keyway to mass manufacture is the use of measurement to achieve the correct tolerances. If Whitney had seen this as well and developed gauges his products would have been not only mass produced, but high-quality as well.
His original musket contract was not profitable because he spent all the money, but later the advent of the War of 1812 finally made Whitney rich as he raked in many smaller armaments contracts that his establishment could easily handle profitably. Eventually his heirs sold out to Winchester and the factory was used to produce the famous Winchester .22 rifle. The name of this rifle which uses a measurement aptly summarizes the culmination of the marriage between standardization and measurement.
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