Today, a brilliant invention is forgotten. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
machine-made, interchangeable parts isn't the same
as the modern assembly line. Interchangeability had
to be well developed before we could begin
mass-producing goods. The idea of
interchangeability goes back to Gutenberg's
invention of precision type. Clock-makers had
started making certain parts interchangeable in the
18th century. And Americans like to credit Eli
Whitney with inventing the idea in 1803 to make
But, for the first whole product whose parts could
be interchanged, historian Ken Alder takes us to
Paris in 1790 . Gunsmith
Honoré Blanc had made a thousand muskets and
put all their parts in separate bins. He called
together a group of academics, politicians, and
military men. Then he assembled muskets from parts
drawn at random from the bins. By then, Jefferson
had already visited Blanc's workshop and written
back to America about the method.
Jefferson was president when Eli Whitney duplicated
Blanc's demonstration 18 years later. No one
realized it then, but Whitney was faking it. He'd
carefully hand-crafted each part so they'd fit
together. Whitney sold the government a huge
contract for four thousand muskets. He took eight
years to deliver them and then the parts weren't
interchangeable after all.
But other Americans went on to make the method
work. Before the Civil War, we had rifles with
parts that could be swapped. After the war, we
began making complex merchandise like sewing
machines and typewriters with interchangeable
So what became of Blanc and his method? The
answer's a surprise. For one thing, Blanc wasn't
first to make muskets this way. Various French
makers had worked on the idea since 1720.
Furthermore, Blanc went into business and, by the
time Whitney made his demonstration, was producing
10,000 muskets a year for Napoleon.
Then, in 1806, the French government sacked the
whole process. Why? By using unskilled labor,
Blanc's method had made manufacturers independent
of government control over the old crafts. The
government raised the arcane argument that workers
who don't function as a whole can't produce
harmonious products. They simply declared that
Blanc's method wasn't working and they scrapped it.
Meanwhile, America built upon Whitney's scam. By
1850, English visitors back from America described
what they now called the American System of
Manufacture. When they told the French about our
use of interchangeable parts, they found the French
military had never even heard of it. The French had
buried it that completely!
The story grimly reminds us that technology doesn't
progress in simple logical ways. Our choices depend
on a hundred subjective matters, and they are only
thinly influenced by what works best.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds