“A good musket is a complicated engine and difficult to make — difficult of execution because the conformation of most of its parts correspond with no regular geometrical figure.”– Eli Whitney
We all know Eli Whitney for his invention of the Cotton Gin but it was his contribution to industrial engineering and the manufacture of MUSKETS that made Whitney his fortune.
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.
“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…”– Eli Whitney
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. 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.
“…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”– Eli Whitney