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In 1798 Eli Whitney built a firearms factory near New Haven. The muskets his workmen made by methods comparable to those of modern mass industrial production were the first to have standardized, interchangeable parts.
During the 19th century, New Haven was a vital community that reached beyond its borders across America. Founded as a mercantile center, it grew and prospered. The city served as a crossroads for men of vision. New Haven attracted them, and from here, their investments and achievements spread with the growing nation. Possessing ideas, employing skill and accepting risk, the inventors and entrepreneurs made New Haven a city synonymous with first achievements in the building of industrial America. Eli Whitney ranks high among these early achievers.
The role that Whitney played in early American technology has been debated, however. Whitney’s work in making muskets from a number of interchangeable parts once identified him as the sole originator of the idea. But tests on a collection of Whitney muskets indicate that all their parts were not interchangeable. Historian Robert Woodbury, in his article “The Legend of Eli Whitney and Interchangeable Parts” suggests that the first actual achievement of interchangeability took place at the federal government’s arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1827. As for the idea, Thomas Jefferson, writing to John Jay in August of 1785, described Honoré Blanc’s musket workshop in France, which made gauged parts by machine. Woodbury states that Jefferson discussed Blanc’s methods with Whitney eight months before Whitney made his first delivery of muskets to the government. Certainly Jefferson, as an inventor, a politician and friend, was an enthusiastic supporter of Whitney’s. As Woodbury contends, the concept of interchangeability and even other methods that Eli Whitney used were not necessarily new.
The concept of interchangeable parts was used by Christopher Polhem in the manufacture of clock gears in Sweden at the beginning of the 1700s. The gears were made by machines with precision measurement to insure interchangeability; however, this work was probably not known in America. In his book, The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, Adam Smith had discussed the idea of dividing labor—giving a single task to each worker to perform. By the 1790s, Samuel Bethan and Marc Brunel were using division of labor and machinery in mass-producing wooden pulley blocks for the English Navy. Almost every feature of the American system of manufacturing began in Europe earlier, but industrial progress was hindered by maintaining time-honored methods rather than experimentation.
In 1799, as Whitney worked in New Haven, Simeon North was making 500 pistols for the government by using machines and a division of labor just 20 miles away in Middletown. The parts were so well made that little or no filing was needed at time of final assembly. His son, Selah, invented a filing jig—matching concave molds that held the piece that forced the men to follow the contours of the jig in filling the piece to be shaped. Edwin Battison, in his article, “A New Look at the ‘Whitney’ Milling Machine”, argues that the milling machine, which is a power tool used for cutting and grinding metal parts, originated with Simeon North. Interchangeability requires precision machine tools to make exact parts; it appears that the Whitneyville milling machine was made after Whitney’s death when his nephews modernized the factory in 1827. The inventory of Whitney’s estate at time of death does not list a milling machine or any other tools that were not already in use at the two government armories in that period. Still, as the United States was entering the 19th century and its technology was being rooted, Eli Whitney stands as a central figure involved in its growth.
In 1798, when the Congress voted $800,000 for purchase of cannon and small arms, twenty-seven contracts were let out to private arms makers. They were faced with fulfilling their commitments in their own way. The muskets were to be copies of the 1763 French Charleville model, of which the government gave 2 or 3 to each contractor to follow. At best, the government hoped that the gun parts of a factory would be interchangeable with each other, yet not necessarily with those of other contractors. The army was more interested in guns that could be repaired easily after a battle to prepare for the next day’s fighting. Whitney’s goal was to create a system using unskilled labor and machines making the parts to increase production and do it at a reduced cost. Interchangeability might have been a by-product of his ideal factory; it was certainly not his single goal. Whitney obtained the largest government contract, 10,000 guns due in two years—indeed a challenge in an age when gun-making was the special craft of the gunsmith.
When he signed the contract, Whitney had no factory, no workers and no experience in gun manufacturing. He did have ambition and an idea. In a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, a fellow Yale graduate and friend, Whitney wrote, “I am persuaded that Machinery moved by water adapted to this Business would greatly diminish the labor and facilitate the manufacture of this Article. Machines for forging, rolling, floating, boring, grinding, polishing, etc. may all be made use of to advantage...” (May 13, 1798). The desire to use laborsaving machines, thereby cutting costs, is clear. Whitney’s ideas for his factory would expand; he would adapt known techniques and add his own experience in thinking how to produce large quantities quickly. After a year of construction and training workers, he again arose to Wolcott “...One of my primary objectives is to form the tools so that the tools themselves shall fashion the work and give to every part its just proportions, which once accomplished, will give exceptional uniformity to the whole” (July 30, 1799). For Whitney, interchangeability was only an aspect of the manufacturing process. He had to build the tools, plan the machines to be powered by water, and co-ordinate materials and workers with his machines. His inventiveness and engineering were things to be learned through practice.
Over these years, Whitney was not alone in his work; others involved in production of arms were working toward standardization of the manufacturing process. Besides the work of North and John Hall’s work at Harper’s Ferry, Roswell Lee, a former employee at the Whitney factory, now superintendent of the government’s Springfield, Massachusetts, Armory, began a factory management system. It included inspection and accounting controls which have become important in the American system of manufacturing. Robert Orr, a master armorer also at Springfield, introduced greater standardization of muskets in 1804. Twelve years later, Thomas Blanchard invented a pattern-guided lathe for the shaping of uniform gunstocks based on Whitney’s earlier machine. Whitney himself visited the government’s armories to learn of their efforts; ideas flowed among armory managers as they all were struggling to meet their contracts. The ‘Whitney’ milling machine was built from information given to his nephews by James Carrington. He was a former Whitney foreman who had become an official government inspector of contract gun factories; he most likely told them of Hall’s machines in Virginia. “Time and again factory masters received valuable assistance from itinerant mechanics,” Merritt Roe Smith observes in “John H. Hall, Simeon North and the Milling Machine.” “The evolution of the milling machine clearly illustrates this....It did not spring from the mind of any one person. Rather it took form gradually through a remarkable process of cooperation, transfer and convergence.” Eli Whitney was not the only force in American technological growth, but one of the many involved in the slow process.
Eli Whitney can be a symbol; he was a man who was involved as an inventor and as an entrepreneur in the whole process of manufacturing. Whitney was not an experienced gunsmith. What he offered was an innovative attitude and an idea by which anything could be mass produced. His contribution was the production of a new way not only of making things, but of making the machines that make things. “Without courage and self confidence, he would never have tried it; without manual dexterity he could not have succeeded,” Constancy Green writes of Whitney. Thus, Whitney serves as a model of the development of American technology.
Eli Whitney was a farmer’s son, born in Westborough, Massachusetts on December 8, 1765. The farm had a workshop which Eli preferred to the farm work. A natural mechanic, at the age of eight, he took apart his father’s broken watch and repaired it. He developed strong farmer’s hands, yet they were skillful enough to repair violins for his neighbors. By the age of 18, he had learned to be a general handy-man as farm living necessitated, but he realized that the farm in Westborough was too small a world for him. The mechanical work with his hands made his mind search for more in life than farming.
Whitney prepared himself for college by teaching school for seven dollars a month and attending Leicester Academy over the next five years. With his father’s financial help, Whitney entered Yale as a freshman at age 23 in 1789. He studied law, but enjoyed mathematics and science courses more. To earn more money, he made nails, ladies’ hairpins and walking sticks. His mechanical ability became known when he repaired an orrery for Yale’s President, Ezra Stiles. An orrery or planetarium is a clock-like device which was used to teach the movements and positions of the planets. Stiles’ orrery had been damaged in transit from London and was to be returned to the manufacturer for repair. Whitney spent a week making special tools and then had it working perfectly. While in New Haven, the six foot Whitney made numerous friends among his teachers and the community. The city’s activity was focused on its harbor, exporting various farm products in exchange for sugar and molasses from the Caribbean islands. Yet there were a growing number of workshops that attracted Whitney, including a soap factory, Abel Buell’s mint, an optics shop and Amos Doolittle’s copper-engraving shop. For relaxation, he walked the area visiting them, observing the workmen and talking with the owners.
Upon graduation in 1792, Whitney needed money to repay his father and time to prepare for the bar exam. A tutoring position was found for him in the South, but it never materialized. Instead, he found himself at Mulberry Grove, a plantation near Savannah, Georgia, owned by Catherine Greene, the widow of General Nathanael Greene, and managed by Phineas Miller, a Yale graduate and former tutor of the Greene children. Here Whitney invented the cotton gin that separated seeds from short-staple cotton. The invention solved an economic problem for the south by making the crop worth the effort to grow it for the textile market in New England. Whitney and Miller formed a partnership and in June 1793, Whitney returned to New Haven to take out his patent and to begin manufacturing the gins.
The cotton gin did not bring the partners the expected fortune, however. Whitney’s idea soon leaked out and pirated machines were quickly produced in Southern workshops. A patent was obtained but the problems of getting the gins into production allowed competing gin makers to beat him to the planters. His factory was located at the corner of Wooster and Chestnut Streets; here he improvised his own equipment and trained his workers. Whitney intended that the workers would each work on one part of the gin; the parts would be assembled to complete the whole. Often he would lose men because they were not happy working on the separate parts, but as craftsmen were used to involvement with the entire product; others migrated westward to find new opportunities for their skills. Whitney was in a race with time to get the gins on the market. But during the summer of 1794, epidemics of scarlet and yellow fever swept New Haven with 114 dying in the city, forcing Whitney to close the shop; workmen were scarce. A year later, 1795, while Whitney was away from the shop, the men, taking advantage of the easy working atmosphere, went out for a late breakfast. A fire broke out which destroyed all but a new building in the back.
Whitney rebuilt. In his new shop, he had each worker make only one part of the gin—a crank, a spindle, a wheel, etc.—from just a drawing of it. If all the parts were similar, the gins could be assembled faster. Whitney wanted to make all his gins alike according to his single plan. From his experience of watching clock makers, he knew that if the gears were identical you could exchange them and, with the proper machines, the parts could be made faster. Carlton Beals in Our Yankee Heritage speaks Whitney’s mind: “Put power behind patterns, and you have precise identical parts to interchange. Any part can be used in any gin. It’s the same story as Buell’s coins. They fit into any pocket. My coins are metal parts fitting into any gin” (p. 99). But the inventor had no water power for his machines on Wooster Street.
The contested patent fight would last until 1807, involving about 60 lawsuits. Finally Whitney was established as the inventor of the cotton gin and would collect $90,000 from the suits. However, the time and money spent on the suits meant little profit on the invention. By the late 1790s, Whitney began to search for a new business in which he could use his abilities and make money. One institution that might risk money on his ideas was the U.S. government; and to it he proposed to make a screw press to print stamps. The government had made other arrangements, but it was in need of muskets.
The government at that time was contracting with private arms makers to supply it with muskets. Threat of war with France in 1798 seemed near, and importation of muskets from Europe stopped as those nations prepared for war. The government had established a federal armory at Springfield in 1794, but by 1799 it had only made 7,750 muskets. Thereafter, with improved machinery, only 9 man days instead of 21 would be needed to produce the weapon; and by 1806, 4,000 were made yearly. Another armory was established in Virginia in 1798; this Harper’s Ferry Arsenal, which was organized along traditional craft lines, made 1,700 muskets a year. Gun making was a complex craft; the gun was a precision instrument whose making was the work of a single highly skilled craftsman. The gunsmith fashioned each part and assembled the gun, which was a distinctive hand-crafted object. The number of guns produced depended upon the number of craftsmen available. Because of its need for weapons, the government had to let private contractors help meet the demand.
The near bankrupt Whitney saw an opportunity to apply his idea of using identical parts to gun making and to do it with secure government money through a contract. On June 14, 1798, he contracted to produce 10,000 muskets to be delivered within 28 months at the cost of $134,000.00. Realizing the need for money, even to begin, the businessman in Whitney had in his contract the advancement of $5,000 upon the signing of the agreement, another $5,000 upon his preparation to manufacture, and then payment of $500 for each 1000 guns when delivered. This money, along with $10,000 put up by ten New Haven backers, including James Hillhouse and Pierpont Edwards, assured Whitney of operating capital. Yet two years passed without the delivery of even one musket.
Instead, Whitney spent the time building and equipping his factory at Mill Rock about two miles outside of New Haven. The summer after he signed the contract, he visited the Springfield armory and noted that the water supply was a distance from the factory. Whitney decided to build outside of New Haven on the west side of Mill River and purchased, in September, Christopher Todd’s grist mill. Now he had running water for his “machinery moved by water,” and right on a main road! He bought a house from Captain Daniel Talmage into which he moved, and also property that included a barn and a blacksmith shop. Winter snows delayed work and the shipments of materials, but by May of 1799, his main factory building was completed and the waterworks nearly ready. Men still had to be trained on the machine tools that he was designing and building. Whitney provided houses for his workers as an inducement to draw skilled men out of the city. However he couldn't keep them and found the unskilled easier to train. The houses that he built for the workers on Armory Street in 1800 could be termed the earliest model housing project. During the slack periods at the factory, the men farmed the nearby acres.
Work was slow, but Whitney used his experience (gained from his gin shop and his observations at the Springfield operation) and added his own ingredients. He invented the filing jig, which guided the workmen’s file and designed stencils with up to a dozen holes that helped to bore in the exact places. Whitney fixed mechanical stops to his lathe, which prevented the worker from turning the piece too far or not enough. As well as fashioning the dies and molds for various parts, Whitney was busy arranging for the shipment of metal, wood and more tools. He seemed to be making more and more machines rather than guns. Yet under one roof, he constructed a “new method”—employing water driven machinery which made a quantity of parts using unskilled workers who were concerned with only one step of production. His ten year old nephew, Philos Blake, described the factory in a letter to his sister Betsy in September of 1801.
There is a drilling machine and a boring machine to bore barrels and a screw machine and two great large buildings, one other shop and stocking shop to stocking guns in (sic), a blacksmith shop and a trip hammer shop, and five hundred guns done. I have seen a great many ships since I have been here, and I have seen the cannon.
The “one other shop” was the filing shop. Whitney’s factory, once in operation, was to produce large quantities of a crafted item quickly, or so he hoped.
Despite his hard work, resourcefulness and innovations, the original schedule proved unattainable; by January 1801, Whitney needed money and an extension on his contract. Going to Washington, he demonstrated to President Adams and the military that his system of uniform parts worked. With the election of Jefferson as President, further problems with extensions or advancements were solved. Finally in September, the muskets that his nephew wrote about were delivered. Over the next few years, Whitney continued to spend time getting money from the cotton gin suits and making more machines, which slowed production. The last of the agreed 10,000 guns were delivered in January 1809, ten years after the first contract was drawn, at a profit to Whitney of $2,500.
At the age of 51, Whitney married Henrietta Edwards in 1817. They lived in a house built in 1800 at 275 Orange Street; his only son, Eli Whitney II, was born in 1820. Whitney had money now, for he had secured other contracts during the War of 1812. The management of the Whitneyville factory after 1820 was in the hands of his able nephews. They and his son would make contributions to American life in their own way. In his last years Whitney was troubled by poor health; he died on January 8, 1825. His beginnings in the making of guns left New Haven with a model for future industrial progress in the production of carriages, clocks, springs, rubber products, hardware and more. Eli Whitney III leased the old factory in Whitneyville to Oliver Winchester, who organized the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in 1858, for making .22 calibre rifles. Thus, the factory continued in use toward the 20th century.
Whitney’s world provided a time for innovation in manufacturing systems. His factory would change the precision craft of gun making into routine. The machines would change the role of the worker and the meaning of skill. With a limited American labor supply, his system favored the use of small numbers of unskilled workers. The social and monetary benefits for the skilled craftsmen were reduced by the factory that fostered machine specialization rather than personal craftsmanship. As old crafts became less specialized, the unskilled were afforded more opportunity of employment and social and physical mobility. Whitney particularly closed the door on time honored skills and opened one for those men willing to learn and adapt. Eli Whitney’s vision, successfully applied, would become basic to the American idea of mass production and create a new group of workers.