Who invented interchangeable parts?

by on September 4, 2011 at 7:09 am in Books, History | Permalink

This I had not known, but apparently it is old news:

The symbolic kingpin of interchangeable parts production fell in 1960 when Robert S. Woodbury published his essay “The Legend of Eli Whitney and Interchangeable Parts”…Woodbury convincingly argued that the parts of Whitney’s guns were not in fact constructed with interchangeable parts…

With Eli Whitney reinterpreted as a promoter rather than as a pioneer of machine-made interchangeable parts manufacture, it remained for Merritt Roe Smith to identify conclusively the personnel and the circumstances of this fundamental step in the development of mass production.  Smith demonstrated that the United States Ordnance Department was the prime mover in bringing about machine-made interchangeable parts production of small arms.  The national armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, played a major role in this process, especially in its efforts to coordinate its operations with those of the Harpers Ferry Armory and John Hall’s experimental rifle factory, also at Harpers Ferry.

That is from David A. Hounshell’s excellent From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932.  Here is a related article, possibly gated, here is another.

Mike Huben September 4, 2011 at 7:58 am

Ah, yet another example of how many of our most important technological breakthroughs come from big government.

Integrated circuits, hybrid seed, internet… the list is endless.

Gary Gunnels September 4, 2011 at 8:58 am


No, not really. They came from the minds of individuals – some of those individuals were working for the government, some not. Take the integrated circuit, its history includes people working for Siemens AG, the British Ministry of Defense, Fairchild Semiconductor, etc. You will find that the same is true of the internet – the concept and efforts to create it existed before ARPA, all manner of components associated with it were invented outside government, etc.

Mike Huben September 5, 2011 at 11:11 am

Gary, you could also say they came from individual cells in the brains of those individuals, but that would also be stupid and besides the point. Big government incentivized, hired, financed, and otherwise was proximally responsible for many of our most important inventions.

If we were to use your style of argument, Microsoft products would be said to come from individuals, and Microsoft would get no credit for them.

If only people at this blog could admit that government does some good things and deserves some good credit, rather than attempt to turn everything into a denunciation of evil government.

Ron Potato September 5, 2011 at 11:30 am

What kind of government do these inventions come from?
- Military, a strict hierarchical authority-driven organization unlike the general government bureaucracy.
- Researchers/Think Tanks given a free hand, which other than funding are nothing like the general government.

Passing around money is nothing like the regulatory minutiae and bureaucratic ineffectiveness that characterize an actual government organization. It is expected that a sliver of good projects would come out of the trillions of dollars spent on pork barrel and favoritism.

andy September 5, 2011 at 11:56 am

Mike, please…. don’t tell me that without TCP/IP there would be no internet…. please…. although it may seem to you as a quite complex piece of technology, I can assure you that any reasonably able programmer would be able to come up with a similar protocol within a few months. The only reason the army was the first was, that it was the only subject willing to pay such an inefficient thing as fixed data lines. In the moment the prices went down, people started to use TCP/IP because…well because it was first and network effects do play a role in ..ehm..computer network. If there was no government involved in arpanet? No big deal, somebody would come up with a different protocol. And HTTP/HTML? HTTP is probably the simplest protocol that could exist to provide a ‘give me a resource’ semantics, HTML is just one of monay ways to provide a hypertext, which isn’t a big deal either… I mean, how could anyone claim there would be no internet without government? That’s absolutely preposterous….

Gary Gunnels September 5, 2011 at 4:30 pm

“Gary, you could also say they came from individual cells in the brains of those individuals, but that would also be stupid and besides the point.”

If you read Dawkin’s _Selfish Gene_ he basically argues that all we are is evolved containers for genes (so as to protect them).

“Big government incentivized, hired, financed, and otherwise was proximally responsible for many of our most important inventions.”

Big government also created all manner of Western water projects which have proved to be rather environmentally deleterious (to me at least). Big government also created national parks from which it chose to eradicate all manner of magnificent predators (including of course wolves, large cats, etc.) – indeed, big government created incentives for the slaughter. Big government also drove extant human populations from said parks in an effort to make them a “wilderness” which privileged groups could visit based on certain claims about their historical “emptiness” and primeval nature (this is true of almost every national park I can think of across the planet).

Anyway, is your argument that but for big government the internets would have never come into being? I’m fairly skeptical of such a claim. And of course the question always is, what was not pursued as a result of crowding out effects? That was one of Bastiat’s questions whenever the state did X or Y or Z.

“If only people at this blog could admit that government does some good things and deserves some good credit…”

Shouldn’t those claims be based on a full analysis of the effort? Looking at what was foreclosed via the state action? What damage was done via it? Etc.?

Eric H September 9, 2011 at 10:11 pm

“If only people at this blog could admit that government does some good things and deserves some good credit, rather than attempt to turn everything into a denunciation of evil government.”

Which government? Which people? Who said anything about “evil”? I could easily say that I think German cities and transit appear to be well-run, and I think Tyler would agree. The same can not be said about the TSA.

I could as easily say, it’s too bad that so many people who otherwise bring incisive analysis of private actions are unable to do the same when analyzing governments. Too often, they offer a panglossian defense of government that either echoes their high school civics class or collapses to a version of Caplan’s Fallacy. Why should we let someone get away with advocacy for programs or policies that (1) displace or distort private action with no additional benefit, (2) do no more than bandage a bad policy while letting the root cause remain unchecked, (3) don’t even address the thing they are supposed to, or (4) form a double-edged sword whose negative side they won’t acknowledge? I’m not sure where you stand with respect to military action and defense spending, but many government advocates are against them. And those same people would probably nod their heads in agreement with those items you listed at the top (the ends) without any regard to the fact that most of them came from the same military spending they oppose (the means). In my view, they’re mirror images of the type of person who opposes socialism but thinks we ought to spend more on defense without any intent of irony. Both types are people who think that the problem with power is that the other party is allowed to access it.

Eric H September 4, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Those would be the military technological breakthroughs that led to mass production, income inequality, and which therefore require government intervention in the economy, which lead to more such developments, which lead to more … ? Yes. The war machine and existing capitalism have many interlocking pieces, and no wonder that technocrats have enthusiastically embraced the model. David Croly had the entire philosophy of progressivism summarized a hundred years ago.

Eric H September 4, 2011 at 8:56 pm

Herbert, not his father David.

Ted Craig September 4, 2011 at 8:16 am

More specifically, defense. When it comes to government spending, guns trumps butter.

Bill September 4, 2011 at 11:42 am

But, butter tastes better.

Ted Craig September 4, 2011 at 6:27 pm

But it clogs your arteries.

Claudia September 4, 2011 at 7:57 pm

Everything in moderation

Bill September 4, 2011 at 8:35 am

The first interchangeable part was Adam’s rib.

It says so in the Bible.

Pierre Desrochers September 4, 2011 at 8:55 am

And Hounshell and others were later criticized by Donald Hoke who again highlighted the earlier role of the private sector in this respect. None other than Murray Rothbard rejoiced in Hoke’s argumentation in a book review available at http://mises.org/journals/rae/pdf/RAE6_1_7.pdf

E. Barandiaran September 4, 2011 at 9:01 am

Tyler, to give a context to your post, I suggest that your readers take a look at the Wikipedia entry on the Second Industrial Revolution. Then, you and your readers will benefit from reading


It may help you to develop a theoretical framework for a new version of your poorly-researched TGS idea.

E. Barandiaran September 4, 2011 at 11:03 am

Tyler, you will also benefit from the work of my late mentor in applied economics, Vernon W. Ruttan. As a disciple of T. Schultz and in collaboration with Y. Hayami, in the 1960s and 1970s Vernon contributed greatly to the understanding of tech change in agriculture, and later to tech change in general and in particular to induce change and general purpose technologies. His last book on “Is War Necessary for Economic Growth?” has an extensive discussion of interchangeable parts and mass production as part of his detailed analysis of military and defense-related procurement as a source of tech change.

dearieme September 4, 2011 at 9:05 am

My understanding is that Brunel’s father had set up a production line using interchangeable parts for making “blocks” for the Royal Navy. But I’ve never heard any claim that he was the first in the world to do the like. WKPD seems to confirm:-

“Ships had been mass-produced using prefabricated parts and assembly lines in Venice several hundred years [before the 20th century].. The Venetian Arsenal apparently produced nearly one ship every day, in what was effectively the world’s first factory which, at its height, employed 16,000 people. Mass production in the publishing industry has been commonplace since the Gutenberg Bible was published using a printing press in the mid-15th century.

In the Industrial Revolution simple mass production techniques were used at the Portsmouth Block Mills to make ships’ pulley blocks for the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars. These were also used to make clocks and watches, and to make small arms. Though produced on a very small scale, Crimean War gunboat engines designed and assembled by John Penn of Greenwich are recorded as the first instance of the application of mass production techniques (though not necessarily the assembly-line method) to marine engineering. In filling an Admiralty order for 90 sets to his high-pressure and high-revolution horizontal trunk engine design, Penn produced them all in 90 days. He also used Whitworth Standard threads throughout.”

Gary Gunnels September 4, 2011 at 9:14 am

Yes, it is an old story; Merritt Roe Smith’s _Harper’s Ferry Armory and the New Technology_ (1977) was what introduced me to the subject.

You might also be interested in Geoffrey Parker’s _The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800_ (1996) and Ken Alder’s _Engineering the Revolution: Arms and Enlightenment France, 1763-1815_ (1999).

Bill Harshaw September 4, 2011 at 10:59 am

This book (http://www.amazon.com/Inventing-Cotton-Gin-Antebellum-Technology/dp/0801873940) also challenges the myth of simple legend of Whitney and the cotton gin.

Bernard Yomtov September 4, 2011 at 11:02 am

dearieme’s information about the Venetians is something I’ve heard before.

My understanding is that they not only designed warships with standardized interchangeable parts, but that their merchant ships used the same basic design, so they could be easily converted to military use.

Bill September 4, 2011 at 11:39 am

Now, if we could just convert an aircraft carrier to non-military use.

Bill September 4, 2011 at 11:42 am

That does raise an interesting cruise possibility for decommissioned naval vessels. Maybe someone can make a market in this, or maybe cruise ships can be designed for dual use so we would not have to purchase navel vessel, but simply rent them in times of trouble.

Bill Harshaw September 4, 2011 at 1:16 pm

Used to go the other way. The “United States” was an ocean liner built in the 50′s, competing with the original Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. If I recall, the government ponied up part or all of the cost, because she was intended as a troop carrier in the event the Soviets invaded Western Europe.

Dave Tufte September 4, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Not to be a smart-ass Tyler … but I’m surprised you didn’t have this bit of trivia at your fingertips (I thought everyone knew it was the armories). I suppose there has to be a first time ;)

Nik Kondratieff September 4, 2011 at 7:30 pm


If more economists paid more attention to Historians perhaps your discipline would not be so lost in the world of econometric modeling of human behavior–it is a bankrupt proposition. Then you might realize that history provides a critical lens through which to view human behavior. Start tossing out the equations and mathematical models and start looking at History. You’ll find a lot more valuable insights like those of David Hounshell.

Pandaemoni September 6, 2011 at 12:00 pm

History and econometrics are not mutually exclusive, but looking to history without the statistics is to substitute historical anecdote for data.

JSK September 5, 2011 at 2:30 am

The great Kondratieff would be ashamed by you Nik.

John Quiggin September 6, 2011 at 4:03 pm

The version I knew (maybe from McPherson’s history of the Civil War) is as stated above, with specific reference to the Great Exhibition in London, where a craftsman dissassembled a pile of US-made guns, shuffled the parts and then rebuilt them.

Also, what Mike Huben said.

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