I've spilled a lot of pixels criticizing tech reporters both for a lack of skepticism and historical perspective, so I highly recommend this article by Peter Baida which shows that the tendency to confuse good PR for innovation goes back to the very beginnings of American manufacturing.
Eli Whitney’s Other Talent
Though it took him a long while to master the art of musket making, Whitney was quick to master the art of obtaining extensions from government authorities. Part of his technique was to insist upon the revolutionary nature of the production methods he was developing. As early as July 1799, he explained to worried officials that his factory would embody a “new principle” of manufacturing: “One of my primary objects,” he wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, “is to form the tools so the tools themselves shall fashion the work and give to every part its just proportion—which when once accomplished, will give expedition, uniformity, and exactness to the whole....In short, the tools which I contemplate are similar to an engraving on a copper plate from which may be taken a great number of impressions perceptibly alike.”
This is a description, and an elegant one, of the principle of “interchangeable parts.” If machine tools make parts of a weapon (or other product) so “perceptibly alike” that broken parts can be replaced without special fitting, then the parts are said to be interchangeable.
Though Whitney spoke of adopting a “new principle” in his factory, not even his most ardent defenders credit him with discovering the principle of interchangeable parts. Years before Whitney contracted to manufacture muskets, a Frenchman, Honoré Blanc, was making musket firing mechanisms (“locks”) on the interchangeable system. Thomas Jefferson saw a demonstration of Blanc’s work in 1785: “He presented me with the parts of fifty locks taken to pieces, and arranged in compartments. I put several together myself, taking pieces at hazzard as they came to hand, and they fitted in a most perfect manner.”
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.”
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.
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