History Timeline 1790s

Image above: America builds its Navy. Image right: Independence Hall, Philadelphia. Engravings courtesy Library of Congress.


U.S. Timeline - The 1790s

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  • 1799 Detail

    The American System of Manufacturing is invented by Eli Whitney, who uses semi-skilled labor, machine tools, and jigs to make standardized, interchangeable parts, then an assembly line of labor. Whitney first used the system to manufacture ten thousand muskets for the U.S. Government in a two year contract let in 1798, but took eight years to fulfill. Some contend that Whitney did not invent this method, but just promoted it.

    Eli Whitney Gun Manufacturing Forge
    Did he actually invent the system? Yes, there's debate to that. Some contend that Whitney, when confronted with the United States government contract to manufacture muskets at a higher rate of speed than previously done (prior to 1798, the armories at Springfield or Harper's Ferry could only make slightly more then two hundred per year), he invented a system that used the principles of precision machinery that could make interchangeable parts. The United States government needed to bolster the supply of weapons for the Quasi War with France.

    Others say he should not get credit, as this was not exactly interchangeable parts and that others were doing similar, and perhaps, more pertinent manufacturing techniques than he was in 1799. But there's no doubt that Whitney, from the letting of the contract in 1798, through the next eight years would produce muskets at a higher rate than ever before. Whether he produced the five hundred muskets some contend he did in the first year, again, is debatable. Some say he didn't produce one prior to 1801. And despite the fact that he could not produce the ten thousand muskets in those first two years as he had promised, Whitney and his first blush into the industrial revolution and assembly line type manufacturing did produce them in eight years. That's a whole lot more muskets per year, over one thousand, than had previously been manufactured, and the American System of Manufacturing, whether born from this, or bathed from it, had begun in earnest.

    During the contract, Whitney would prove its concept to the political class in Washington, showing President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson in 1801 just how the muskets and their manufacture made them interchangeable. He took apart ten muskets, then switched parts between them, amazing the politicians. Of course, some historians contend that the muskets he used were not from the assembly line after all, and hand picked for the demonstration to insure that they would work.

    Eli Whitney Before 1798

    Whitney was twenty-seven years old on March 14, 1794 when he patented his invention of the cotton gin, one of the first and most important inventions at the beginning of the age of industrialization. He had been born to a wealthy farming family in Massachusetts, manufactured nails in his father's shop during the final years of the American Revolution, and graduated from Yale in 1792. After college, Whitney migrated south to become a private tutor and worked on the Georgia Plantation of Nathaniel Greene's widow, eventually becoming a business partner of her next husband, Phineas Miller.

    Over the next decade, Whitney's invention of the cotton gin and his role in the manufacture of interchangeable parts would have diverse impacts on the south. The invention of the cotton gin augmented slavery, as it doubled its capacity, with slave labor, to process raw cotton and make its growing profitable. By the end of the Civil War, the ability to manufacture, both weapons and other items, would end the conflict in favor of the industrialized north.

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    Others Who Should Get Credit for the American System

    Genesis of the American System use of jigs, machine tools, and semi-skilled labor to produce interchangeable parts for individual items can be traced to other inventors, both in the United States and abroad. This led to the rise of factories versus individual workman's shops.

    Late 18th century - French General Jean Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval had the idea of making interchangeable parts for muskets to speed up repairs on the battlefield. His protege Honore Blanc attempted to implement the General's system, but did not succeed. Thomas Jefferson was intrigued with Blanc's work, however, and introduced the ideas to Secretary of War Henry Knox.

    1803 - Marc Isambard Brunel, Henry Maudslay, and Simon Goodrich at the British Naval Works in Portsmouth, use the system for sailing blocks.

    1822 - United States Government achieves interchangeability at their armories at Springfield and Harper's Ferry. Some claim this ability occurred in 1815.

    Photo above: Painting of the Whitney Gun Manufacturing Forge in Whitneyville, Connecticut, 1827, William Giles Munson. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. There were approximately eighteen buildings in the Whitneyville factory village. The village and site were first visited and used by Whitney in 1798, where he could harness its water power to run the gun manufacturing machines. Photo below: Eli Whitney Forge on Mill River, Date Unknown, Historic American Buildings Survey. Courtesy Library of Congress. Info source: Digitial History digitalhistory.uh.edu; Eli Whitney Museum; Wikipedia Commons.

    Eli Whitney Forge

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