The current economic recession has a tendency to obscure the genius and achievement characteristic of much of American business history.
Scarcely a week or month passes without an anniversary relating to some aspect of the nation's inventive or productive milestones. Take January, for example, the month in which, in 1809, Eli Whitney made his mark as a contractor for the federal government in Washington, D.C. As a historic figure, Whitney would become a household name for another reason--his invention of the cotton gin in 1793. But he was much more than the man behind the machine that revolutionized the cotton industry.
Not that Whitney's early life was radically different from the quiet existence of most New England residents in the late 18th century. Born in 1765, he spent his youth on his parents' Massachusetts farm, gaining little formal schooling but much practical learning, especially as a tinkerer. As a teen-ager, he repaired violins and even established a business producing nails during the Revolution. When peace came, he illustrated the versatility that would come to identify subsequent American entrepreneurs: he switched from the manufacture of nails to a not dissimilar item--hatpins.
But young Whitney perceived a void in the path he was pursuing and decided, at the rather old age of 23, to attend college and gain the polish that polite society demanded. At Yale, Whitney balanced the quest for gentility with the practical bent of his farm background, at once learning the social graces while earning extra money repairing equipment at the college. And the story circulated that a good mechanic was probably wasting his time at Yale.
However, without the Yale degree there would have been little opportunity for Whitney to serve as a tutor on a Southern plantation and observe the inadequacies of short-staple cotton production, which would lead to the invention of a gin. To be sure, the matter of the cotton gin was not a bright spot in Whitney's life. Its manufacture in New Haven was insufficient to meet demand, and Whitney could not prevent unauthorized copying, in spite of long and expensive lawsuits. What was worse, his New Haven shops burned to the ground in 1795.
But Whitney learned from the experience. Never try to monopolize inventive genius and do not fret about competitors. Instead, build a firm business foundation and employ effective technology.
Thus, Whitney's second venture--manufacturing muskets for the United States government in 1798--was ultimately successful. He relied upon his Yale connections to furnish bond and capital for the enterprise. Purchasing a mill outside of New Haven, Whitney tackled problems of manpower and lack of tools. He was convinced that the key to manufacturing muskets was the "uniformity system," that is, "to make the same parts of different guns, as the locks, for example, as much like each other as the successive impressions of a copper-plate engraving." He was scheduled to deliver 10,000 muskets in two years, the lion's share of 30,000 contracted by the government from 27 firms.
At the end of the first year, Whitney produced only 500 muskets, but he continued to make partial shipments until the quota was met in January, 1809. All the while he bore the opprobrium of skeptics who came and went with each presidential administration, and he was forced to travel to Philadelphia and Washington for periodic inquisitions.
But the achievement of January, 1809, combined with Whitney's continuing sophistication of the process of interchangeable parts, did not escape notice. In time, additional contracts came from Washington, as well as various states. Again, Whitney relied upon his Yale friends for support (specifically, investment advice) and emerged a solid and respectable financial figure by the time he was 50.
Of course, Whitney did not perfect the system of interchangeable parts, nor did he originate it. But he proved the utility of a movement that would reach its peak with the assembly lines of the 20th century. What is more, Whitney illustrated a temper for risk, perseverence, experimentation and formal learning that would come to identify the American character and lead to the booms and busts of the nation's economic history.