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Pioneers of the Machine Shop

Eli Whitney - firearms and the birth of standardization


Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney

Mary Bellis
As early as 1798, Eli Whitney had turned his talents to the manufacture of firearms. He had established his machine shops at Whitneyville, near New Haven; and it was there that he worked out another achievement quite as as the cotton gin: namely, the principle of standardization or interchangeable parts.

What is Standardization?

Standardization is the foundation of all large-scale production. Manufacturers produce separately many copies of every part of a complicated machine to use on an assembly line. Standardization also allowed owners of machines to order and replace any broken or lost parts, taking it for granted that the new part would fit easily and precisely into the place of the old.

Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney was one of the first manufacturers in the world to carry out standardization successfully in practice. Eli Whitney wrote that his objective was "to substitute correct and effective operations of machinery for that skill of the artist which is acquired only by long practice and experience," in order to make the same parts of different guns.

Eli Whitney went to Washington, taking with him ten pieces of each part of a musket. He exhibited these to the Secretary of War, as a succession of piles of different parts. Selecting indiscriminately from each of the piles, he put together ten muskets, an achievement which was looked on with amazement.

Simeon North

Simeon North, another Connecticut mechanic and a gunmaker by trade, adopted the same system of standardization. Simeon North's first shop was at Berlin. He afterwards moved to Middletown. Like Eli Whitney, he used methods far in advance of the time. Both Eli Whitney and Simeon North helped to establish the United States Arsenals at Springfield, Massachusetts, and at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in which their methods were adopted. Both the Whitney and North plants survived their founders. Just before the Mexican War the Whitney plant began to use steel for gun barrels, and Jefferson Davis, Colonel of the Mississippi Rifles, declared that the new guns were "the best rifles which had ever been issued to any regiment in the world." Later, when Davis became Secretary of War, he issued to the regular army the same weapon.

Eli Whitney's Death

Eli Whitney died in 1825, at the age of fifty-nine. The business which he founded remained in his family for ninety years. It was carried on after his death by two of his nephews and then by his son, until 1888, when it was sold to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company of New Haven.

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