Friday, September 09, 2005

Eli Whitney and the Industrialization of America

How One Inventor Revolutionized Production--And Helped America Fight a War

by Shrikant Rangnekar

In 1803, Eli Whitney had little to show for the last ten years of his life except the name he had made for himself. During the sametime, thanks to him, the production of raw cotton in America had increased six- to eight-fold.

Ten years back, he had visited a plantation in Georgia and seen for himself the bottleneck in cotton production--the arduous task of separating lint from seeds by hand. In ten days, he designed and built a small machine that could be used to gin more cotton in an hour than several men could in a day.

The news of this simple and wondrous cotton gin spread through the Southern states like wildfire and within a few weeks an avalanche of new cotton was growing in the fields in anticipation of the new machine. Then followed the widespread pirating of Whitney's cotton gin throughout the South, which resulted in the evaporation of his expected profits and instead drove him deeply into debt.Whitney spent the next ten years fighting court cases and petitioning state legislatures. The few victories in these battles werebarely enough to pay the costs of waging them.

Meanwhile, America itself faced a larger problem. The belligerent European powers had not given up their territorial ambitions in the Americas. In the likely event of a war with one of them, America did not have the ability to produce sufficient quantities of firearms needed to sustain a long conflict, for three reasons.

First, each individual musket was hand-made by a gunsmith and was unique. Whenever it broke down--as was common, especially during a war--a gunsmith was needed to remake the unique part needed to fix it.

Second, each of the relatively small number of gunsmiths in America could make only a small number of muskets per year. The total number of muskets that could be produced per year fell woefully short of the numbers needed to sustain a war.

Third, to become an expert gunsmith capable of producing reliable firearms required mastery of several distinct skills through anapprenticeship that could last several years; America could not produce new gunsmiths fast enough.

Eli Whitney approached the US government and offered to solve all three problems and produce ten thousand muskets--an unheard ofnumber at that time--in two years. His name alone, as the inventor of the cotton gin, was sufficient to earn him one of the largestmonetary contracts in early US history.

He chose to build his muskets with interchangeable parts. Since any malfunctioning part could easily be replaced, the muskets could be repaired simply and quickly.

He devised an assembly line of production where each man would focus on a single, relatively simple function, and the muskets being built would be moved from one work area to the next. This resulted in a dramatically higher speed of production, as a large numberof muskets were being worked on at the same time by a large number of men in an integrated fashion.

As each man needed to master a relatively simple skill, a farmhand could learn the needed skill and become part of the production process within days rather than years.

It took eight years for Whitney to work out all the problems of this new production system and fulfill the original contract. In the last two years of this period the factory made almost ten thousand muskets, and in the following two years another fifteen thousand more, in time for the war of 1812. More important, by pioneering ideas like interchangeable parts, the assembly line, and an easily trainable workforce, Eli Whitney laid the foundation for industrial revolution in America.

[Thanks to the Eli Whitney Museum of New Haven, CT for its excellent preservation and presentation of Eli Whitney's achievements, and to its director, William Brown, for a thought-provoking discussion on the place of Eli Whitney in the history of industrial revolution in America. -- Shrikant Rangnekar]

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