Friday, November 16, 2012

Government Directed Innovation

The final weapon is the brain, all else is supplemental. John Steinbeck

On Veterans Day our family recognized the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 with a visit to Fort McHenry. I assumed, correctly, that I'd learn a lot about the writing of the US National Anthem and found, happily, that it would keep the kids engaged for many hours. What I had not expected was to uncover the dawn of the invention of the industrial revolution.

In a corner of a display case tucked behind a pile of cannon balls were a few rifles with a yellowed index card stating unceremoniously that these rifles were made with interchangeable parts. At the time, I understood interchangeable parts fueled the industrial revolution. What I didn't realize without some research was that the War of 1812 accelerated the commercialization of interchangeable parts.

While the idea of interchangeable parts can be traced back thousands of years, the invention is generally granted to Eli Whitney. In 1801, Whitney presented to the US Congress ten rifles, disassembled them, mixed up the parts and reassembled them.

Like many inventors, Whitney failed to commercialize the invention as he was never able to organize an economic manufacturing operation. The research costs to do so were prohibitively large, intellectual property protection was questionable, venture capital was scarce and the narrow rifle market was unlikely to create large returns on capital.

Congress, however, learned their lessons from Whitney and ordered a standardization of parts for weapons. There was a large lag in the mandate for interchangeability and the manufacturing processes to provide it. But the War of 1812 brought an urgency and Congress tasked and, more importantly, funded the Springfield Armory (a federal facility) with developing the needed processes.

"The Springfield Armory set out to solve this problem, and in the process of doing so invented the system of mass production that was to revolutionize American and world industry. By employing precise gauging and measuring of parts, breaking up complex tasks into simple steps, and devising machines to carry out repetitive operations, the Armory was able to make muskets with interchangeable part and to produce them more quickly. This achievement owes credit to the Armory's administrators and officers, but also to its shop floor workers, who contributed many important innovations, and to a network of independent contractors in the surrounding region who exchanged ideas and inventions freely with the government facility" Forge of Innovation.

While it is likely that interchangeable parts would eventually have been commercialized by capitalists, it is clear that government greatly accelerated the process by seeing the need and determining that it could BE different.

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