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Eli Whitney: Nemesis Of The South
Having given slavery a new lease on life, he then made Northern triumph inevitable
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
Here was a man who as early as 1798 could visualize the government’s need of a constant supply of firearms, who could devise methods of production that would guarantee such a supply, and who, handicapped by the lack of a machine that would enable workmen to cut metal according to pattern, proceeded to invent one which has remained unchanged in principle for a century and a half.
This milling machine, as it was called, was in itself a major innovation. It was the cornerstone of his new system of interchangeable parts, by means of which he was able to make the same parts of different guns as much like each other as “the successive impressions of a copper-plate engraving.” Life in America had produced plenty of mechanics, particularly in New England, but few craftsmen. What Whitney did was to substitute for the skill of the craftsman the uniformity of the machine.
Foreigners have often observed as one of the characteristics of American industry that we build from the top down rather than from the ground up. Eli Whitney did not start with a few workmen and then gradually expand. He “tooled up” first. Before a single workman walked into his factory lie designed and built all the machinery he would need for his method of production. At the same time he proved himself a practical businessman as well as an inventor. He understood how to obtain contracts, finance their execution and provide funds for future expansion.
The importance of what Eli Whitney was doing did not readily penetrate the official mind. His friend Oliver Wolcott had been replaced in the Treasury by Samuel Dexter, a Massachusetts lawyer, who instinctively distrusted theories not sanctioned by experience. Whitney’s methods seemed to him unorthodox. As if to justify his suspicions, Whitney was soon running behind on his schedule of deliveries. In the first year only 500 guns were produced instead of the stipulated 4,000. Dexter was not surprised by his request for an advance of $10,000, but he took his time answering the letter and only agreed very grudgingly after insisting on further guarantees.
Fortunately the new President, Thomas Jefferson, was blessed with the receptive, ranging mind of his generation. The idea of interchangeable parts was already familiar to him. In 1785, while minister to France, he had visited the workshop of a certain Monsieur LeBlanc who was engaged in manufacturing muskets on exactly that principle. He had himself put together the parts of fifty locks, “taking pieces at hazard as they came to hand.” So impressed was he by this new method of manufacture that he suggested bringing Monsieur LeBlanc over to America, but the government was not interested in newfangled techniques. Nor indeed was the French government, which probably distrusted any invention that might possibly lead to unemployment.
Nothing more is heard of Monsieur LeBlanc. “I do not know what became of him,” said Jefferson. He had flashed across the screen of history and disappeared. In England, too, other men had anticipated Whitney in the application of mass production to an article with interchangeable parts. Joseph Bramah, the great machine designer, and Marc Brunei, a young French Royalist officer who had been driven out of his country during the Revolution, had manufactured pulley blocks on this system for the British Navy, but it was left to an American to develop the process and put it to the service of mankind.
Whitney himself probably never realized how far his system would reach. The new technique which had been adopted as a defense measure for the manufacture of firearms was soon found to be no less applicable to other industries. The Connecticut clockmakers began making brass clocks instead of wooden clocks, as soon as the advantages of interchangeable manufacture were recognized. Elias Howe and Isaac Singer followed with the sewing machine, and before the outbreak of the Civil War Cyrus McCormick and his rivals were producing the harvesters and reapers that rolled back the frontier and revolutionized farming the world over.
For these inventions and a hundred others Eli Whitney paved the way. The successful application of his theory of interchangeable parts proved a landmark in the over-all growth of American mass production. In Europe, where there was no shortage of skilled labor, the idea of mass production made slow progress. It caught on only in the gun-making industry where the advantages were too obvious to be ignored. By the middle of the century nearly every government in Europe was supplied with American gun-making machinery, all planned to operate on what was known everywhere as the “American System.”
In the southern states the rich planters who had profited so enormously from the cotton gin paid no attention to the increasing tempo of industrial activity in the North. One southern state, South Carolina, paid $50,000 to the inventor of the cotton gin as a belated acknowledgment of what society owed him, hut no one in the South seemed to be aware of the new techniques in manufacture evolved by (his same inventor, techniques of which the seceding slates were soon to find themselves desperately in need. The fact was that conditions of labor, soil, and climate had produced a static society in the South which refused to accept the implications of the Nineteenth Century.