Eli Whitney’s Other Talent

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If Whitney did not introduce the principle of interchangeable parts, might he not have been the first American to make practical use of the principle? Modern researchers have tested the Whitney firearms that survive, with results that astonished those who had grown up believing the Whitney legend. The tests showed that, in some respects, the parts of Whitney’s firearms were not even approximately interchangeable. Moreover, many parts of Whitney’s muskets are engraved with special marks—marks that would only be necessary if the manufacturer had failed to achieve interchangeability.

These discoveries raise another question. An episode that figures prominently in the Whitney legend is a demonstration that he made in Washington in January 1801 before an audience that included President Adams and Presidentelect Jefferson. “Mr. Whitney,” Jefferson later wrote to James Monroe, “has invented moulds and machines for making all the pieces of his locks so exactly equal, that...the hundred locks may be put together as well by taking the first pieces which come to hand.”

In view of the deficiencies of the firearms that survive, how are we to explain the demonstration of 1801? Merritt Roe Smith, one of our foremost authorities on the history of arms manufacture, concludes that only one explanation makes sense: “Whitney must have staged his famous 1801 demonstration with specimens specially prepared for the occasion....it appears that Whitney purposely duped government authorities...[and] encouraged the notion that he had successfully developed a system for producing uniform parts.”

It took Whitney a long time to learn to make muskets, but he quickly mastered the art of getting contract extensions.

Let’s consider again the ten years that it took Whitney to complete a two-year contract. Whitney’s letters of this period bristle with complaints about how busy he is, and there is ample evidence that he was busy indeed, but not making muskets. In April 1800 Congress corrected the defect in the patent law that had prevented Whitney from winning his patent-infringement suits. New suits were filed, and over the next six years Whitney frequently went south to press his claims.

Woodbury comments, “Is it any wonder that a man of Whitney’s ambitions and self-interest rushed off to Columbia [South Carolina] and left the troubles and problems of arms manufacturing behind?...fortune beckoned, and the arms contract could wait.” A full examination of Whitney’s activities in this period leads Woodbury to the conclusion that “from 1801 to 1806 Whitney not only failed to fulfill the contract, he regularly substituted long letters of excuse for honest effort to carry out his obligation, while he chased the richer prize of rewards he expected from the cotton gin.”

So far, so bad, but there’s more! “By his tenacity he so perfected the manufacture of arms that with the subsequent adoption of his system...the government saved $25,000 annually”—so says the Dictionary of American Biography, which goes on to give Whitney credit (as do Nevins and Mirksy) for an invention of exceptional importance in the history of manufacturing: “Of the various machines designed and used by Whitney only one is known to exist. This is a plain milling machine which was built prior to 1818, and is believed to be the first successful machine of its kind ever made.”

It’s bad enough to discover that you can’t count on the things you learned in the seventh grade, but you know you’re really in trouble when you realize that you can’t count on the Dictionary of American Biography. In “Eli Whitney and the Milling Machine,” published in the Smithsonian Journal of History in 1966, Edward A. Battison concludes: “There is no evidence that Whitney developed or used a true milling machine.” The so-called Whitney machine of 1818 seems actually to have been made after Whitney’s death in 1825. The first true milling machine was made not by Whitney, Battison suggests, but by Robert Johnson of Middletown, Connecticut.

In the work of contemporary scholars, as the star of Eli Whitney has dimmed, other stars have become visible for the first time. Men like John H. Hall of the Harpers Ferry armory, Simeon North of the Staddle Hill factory in Middletown, and Roswell Lee of the Springfield armory are beginning to receive the recognition they deserve. More is at stake here than the reputations of a few obscure men. Setting the record straight about Eli Whitney means setting the record straight about the origins of mass-production manufacturing in the United States.

Whitney deserves to be remembered, but not quite in the way that most of us learned in school. “In the final analysis,” Merritt Roe Smith wrote in 1981, “Whitney’s most important contribution to the American System stemmed not from any technical innovations he made but from his active promotion of the engineering ideal of uniformity.” In addition to Eli Whitney the inventor of the cotton gin and Eli Whitney the overrated manufacturer, what historians give us now is Eli Whitney the promoter and publicist—an early master of the art of public relations.