Applied the principle of interchangeable parts to the firearms industry
An interest in mechanics and an ability to simplify manufacturing processes characterized Eli Whitney from an early age. His prosperous farmer father wanted his son to go to college, but Eli was more interested in puttering around his father's workshop. At the age of 15 he began the manufacture of nails there and soon had to hire a helper. When the demand for nails declined at the end of the Revolution, he turned his attention to hatpins and almost monopolized that business in his area of the state. By the time he was 18, however, an interest in going to college developed, and he set out to prepare for it and finally to enter Yale, from which he graduated at the age of 26.
After college, Whitney went south to prepare for a law career, and while there he developed the cotton gin that was patented in 1794. Succeeding years were filled with patent suits and struggles to manufacture and market his products. Despite the fact that he eventually won his suits. Whitney received little financial reward for his epoch-making machine.
As early as 1798 Whitney realized the cotton gin was a lost cause financially, and he turned his attention to firearms. In that year he obtained a contract for 10.000 muskets from the Federal government, and he decided to attempt to manufacture the guns on an assembly-line basis with parts as nearly interchangeable as possible. The theory of interchange-ability was not new with Whitney, but he was one of the first ever to apply it and certainly the first to use it in the manufacture of firearms. His project required the designing of entirely new machines and processes, and it took him 8 years to complete the contract instead of 2 which were specified. He had proved his point, however. His system was adopted in the Federal armories, future contracts were forthcoming, and the firearms business finally brought him the financial security he had been denied so long.—Harold L. Peterson.
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