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Eli Whitney

Summary:
A remarkable American who made a profound impact on history was born on December 8th, 1765. This was Eli Whitney, an inventor, engineer and manufacturer. He found fame not only as the inventor of the cotton gin, a device that separated the cotton fibres from the hard seeds, but also as the pioneer of mass manufacture based on putting together interchangeable parts.The new machines of England's Industrial Revolution needed cotton, but it was very labour-intensive. It took one person a full day to separate one pound of the cotton fibres from the attached seeds by hand. Whitey thought this process might be done by a simple hand-cranked machine, easy to make, operate and repair. Cotton was fed via a hopper onto a revolving cylinder bristling with short wire hooks to snag the fibre. A mesh

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A remarkable American who made a profound impact on history was born on December 8th, 1765. This was Eli Whitney, an inventor, engineer and manufacturer. He found fame not only as the inventor of the cotton gin, a device that separated the cotton fibres from the hard seeds, but also as the pioneer of mass manufacture based on putting together interchangeable parts.

The new machines of England's Industrial Revolution needed cotton, but it was very labour-intensive. It took one person a full day to separate one pound of the cotton fibres from the attached seeds by hand. Whitey thought this process might be done by a simple hand-cranked machine, easy to make, operate and repair. Cotton was fed via a hopper onto a revolving cylinder bristling with short wire hooks to snag the fibre. A mesh allowed the fibre through, but not the seeds, and finally a drum rotating in the opposite direction brushed off and collected the cotton. The seeds could be used to plant more cotton, or to make cottonseed oil,

Whitney's simple cotton gin could enable someone to process 50 pounds of cotton in a day, vastly increasing he profitability of the crop, and transforming the economy of the American South. Whitney gained a patent in 1794, but the planters were reluctant to pay for his machines and service costs because the machine was too easily copied. Bootleg versions spread through the South, and Whitney was unable to enforce his patent protection in the courts. Planters grew rich by using slave labour to plant and harvest their cotton, and to process it, but Whitney's reward was a tiny fraction of the profits his machine made possible.

Arguably his bigger contribution came when the US government feared there might be a war with France, and needed muskets. They turned to outside contractors to supply 40,000, since the government armouries had only made 1,000 over a three-year period. While other suppliers made muskets using skilled artisans to fashion each piece, Whitney had derived an idea from his cotton gin manufacture, and bid to make 10,000 muskets by fitting together parts made by specially designed machine tools. Since the parts, including the stock, the barrel, the trigger, and so on were all made with precision separately, any of them could be fitted together with any of the others to make a musket.

Whitney described his tools as being "like an engraving on a copper plate," from which many identical prints could be made. In 1801 in front of newly elected President Thomas Jefferson and US officials, he had them pick parts at random from assembled piles of musket constituents and fit them together into complete muskets. They did so, and the age of mass manufacture from constituent parts was born.

Skilled craftsmen and artisans, together with their privileged patrons, bemoaned the fact that the products were identical, lacking individual craftsmanship. But they were cheap to make, and became accessible to those of more limited means. Henry Ford, later to invent the moving production line, gloried in the similarity and low cost of his cars, offering "any colour you like, as long as it's black."

The development of modern information technology and automation means that products are no longer identical. During manufacture the customer can specify individual requirements such as trim, colours, materials, etc., which are fed into the production process so that in the case of cars, no two coming off the production line are identical. Each one instead is custom made for the buyer. The process has become sophisticated enough to combine mass production with individual variation, such that each customer receives a different product. Whitney, who stared the process, would have ben astounded, but probably delighted, to see where it would lead.

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