|Whitney's Cotton Gin |
(just in case one lands in your driveway)
We all know he invented the cotton gin, even if we wouldn’t recognize a cotton gin were one to land in the middle of our driveway. Whitney, we are told, made Cotton “King,” extended the institution of slavery and started the Civil War.
Or not. There’s that nagging story about his friend, Catharine Green, really inventing the gin. And there are all those “saw gins” manufactured by other mechanics that worked better than Whitney's original gin, and all those patent cases he lost in court.
Even if all that seems controversial, at least we can be sure that Whitney was the Father of Mass Production for his use of interchangeable parts in the musket locks he made for the US government. In fact, in one of the great product demos of all time--presented to President Adams and future President Jefferson--Eli Whitney allowed the founding fathers to miss and match parts, building must locks in any combination they liked.
It was a tour de force. One biographer concluded, “For the initiation of the mass production that has given the United States the highest material standard of living of any country in the world, the nation is indebted to the genius of Eli Whitney.”
Or not. Around 1960 a clever technology historian disassembled a batch of Whitney’s musket locks and discovered them to be hand-filed, irregular, and marked for specific guns—in other words, not interchangeable at all. His product demo was a scam. And even Jefferson fell for it.