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American system of manufacturing

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The American system of manufacturing was a set of manufacturing methods that evolved in the 19th century. The two notable features were the extensive use of interchangeable parts and mechanization for production, which resulted in more efficient use of labor compared to hand methods. The system was also known as armory practice because it was first fully developed in armories, namely, the United States Armories at Springfield in Massachusetts and Harpers Ferry in Virginia (later West Virginia),[1] inside contractors to supply the United States Armed Forces, and various private armories. The name "American system" came not from any aspect of the system that is unique to the American national character, but simply from the fact that for a time in the 19th century it was strongly associated with the American companies who first successfully implemented it, and how their methods contrasted (at that time) with those of British and continental European companies. In the 1850s, the "American system" was contrasted to the British factory system which had evolved over the previous century. Within a few decades, manufacturing technology had evolved further, and the ideas behind the "American" system were in use worldwide. Therefore, in manufacturing today, which is global in the scope of its methods, there is no longer any such distinction.

The American system involved semi-skilled labor using machine tools and jigs to make standardized, identical, interchangeable parts, manufactured to a tolerance, which could be assembled with a minimum of time and skill, requiring little to no fitting.

Since the parts are interchangeable, it was also possible to separate manufacture from assembly, and repair—an example of the division of labor. This meant that all three functions could be carried out by semi-skilled labor: manufacture in smaller factories up the supply chain, assembly on an assembly line in a main factory, and repair in small specialized shops or in the field. The result is that more things could be made, more cheaply, and with higher quality, and those things also could be distributed further, and lasted longer, because repairs were also easier and cheaper. In the case of each function, the system of interchangeable parts typically involved substituting specialized machinery to replace hand tools.

Interchangeability of parts was finally achieved by combining a number of innovations and improvements in machining operations and machine tools, which were developed primarily for making textile machinery. These innovations included the invention of new machine tools and jigs (in both cases, for guiding the cutting tool), fixtures for holding the work in the proper position, and blocks and gauges to check the accuracy of the finished parts.[1]

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  • ✪ The Market Revolution: Crash Course US History #12
  • ✪ Why Chinese Manufacturing Wins
  • ✪ Lowell Teacher Workshop: Dr. Merritt Roe Smith, "Emergence of the American System of Manufacturing"
  • ✪ Bruce Greenwald: The Death of Manufacturing
  • ✪ Why Trains Suck in America


CCUS12 - The Market Revolution Hi, I’m John Green. This is Crash Course U.S. History and today we return to one of my favorite subjects: economics. Mr. Green, Mr. Green, I don’t want to brag, but economics is actually my best subject. Like, I got the bronze medal at the state academic decathlon tournament...among C-students. Yeah, I remember, Me from the Past. By the way, thanks for getting that picture into our show. It just goes to show you: aptitude is not destiny. Anyway, economics is about much more than, like, supply and demand curves. Ultimately, it’s about the decisions people make and how those decisions shape their lives and the world. So today we’re going to turn to one of the least studied but most interesting periods in American history: the Market Revolution. There weren’t any fancy wars, or politically charged debates, but this discussion shaped the way that most Americans actually live their lives and think about work on a daily basis. Like, if you, or someone you know, GOES TO work, well…then, you have the market revolution to thank, or possibly to curse. Intro The Market Revolution, like the Industrial Revolution, was more of a process than an event; it happened in the first half the 19th century, basically the period before the Civil War. This was the so-called “Era of Good Feelings” because between 1812 and 1836 there was really only one political party, making American politics, you know, much less contentious, also more boring. The Market Revolution saw many Americans move away from producing stuff largely for themselves on independent farms—that Jeffersonian ideal—and toward producing goods for sale to others, often others who were very far away, with prices set by competition with other producers. This was closer to Hamilton’s American dream. In the end, buddy, you didn’t get to be president, but you did win. In many ways this was the beginning of the modern commercial/industrial economy, not just in the United States, but in the world. The first thing that enabled this massive economic shift was new technology, specifically in transportation and communication. Like, in the 18th century, it was very difficult to bring goods to markets, and that meant that markets were local and small. Most trade was overland and transporting goods 30 miles overland in the United States literally cost as much as shipping them to England. So to get something from Cincinnati to New York, for instance, the most efficient way was to go down the Mississippi River, through the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida, and then up the Atlantic Coast, which took three months. But that was still less time, and less money, than more direct overland routes. But new transportation changed this. First came better roads, which were largely financed by tolls. Even the federal government got in on the act, building the so called National Road, which reached all the way from the massive city of Cumberland, Maryland across our great nation to the equally metropolitan Wheeling, West Virginia. Mr. Green, Mr. Green, Mr. Green-- I know, Me From The Past, West Virginia did not yet exist. AH shut up! More important than roads were canals, which made transport much cheaper and more efficient, and which wouldn’t have been possible without the steamboat. Robert Fulton’s steamboat Clermont first sailed from New York to Albany in 1807, demonstrating the potential of steam powered commerce. And by 1811 there were steamboats on the Mississippi. The introduction of steamboats set off a mania for canal building. Between 1800 and the depression of 1837, which put a halt to most construction, more than 3000 miles of canals were built. And no state was more instrumental in the canal boom than New York, which in 1825 completed the 363 mile long Erie Canal linking the Great Lakes with the Hudson River, which made New York the nation’s premier port Other cities like Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse grew up along the canal, so much so that Nathaniel Hawthorne once said that canal is like fertilizer, causing cities to spring up alongside it. That’s such a good simile, Nathaniel Hawthorne. It’s almost like the United States didn’t have any good writers until Mark Twain. But, we need to read somebody from the early 19th century, so I guess it’s you. But from a long-term perspective, the most important new transportation: railroads. The first commercial railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio, was begun in 1828 and by 1860 there were more than 30,000 miles of rails in the United States. And on the communication side, we got the telegraph, so no longer would Andrew Jackson fight battles two weeks after the end of a war. Telegraphs allowed merchants to know when to expect their shipments and how much they could expect to sell them for. And then, as now, more information, meant more robust markets. But perhaps the most important innovation of the time was the factory. Now, when you think of factories, you might think of, like, Chinese political prisoners making smartphones, but early factories looked like this. More than just a technological development, the factory was an organizational innovation. Like, factories gathered workers together in one place and split up tasks among them, making production much faster and also more efficient. The first factories relied on water power, which is the reason they were all east of the “fall line,” the geographic reason why there are so many waterfalls and rapids on the east coast. But after 1840, steam power was introduced, so factories could be located in other places, especially near the large cities that were sprouting up in what we now know as the midwest. So the American system of manufacture, which centered on mass production of interchangeable parts, grew up primarily in New England, but then it moved to the Midwest, where it spent its adolescence and its adulthood and now its tottering decline into senility. So all these new economic features, roads, canals, railroads, telegraphs, factories, they all required massive upfront capital investment. Like, you just can’t build a canal in stages as it pays for itself, so without more modern banking systems and people willing to take risks, none of this would have happened. Some of these investments were facilitated by new business organizations, especially the limited liability corporation which enabled investors to finance business ventures without being personally responsible for losses other than their own. In other words, corporations can fail without, like, ruining their stockholders and directors. People don’t always like that, by the way, but it’s been very good for economic growth in the last 180 years or so. So having angered a bunch of people by talking about the important role that big businesses played in growing the American economy in the 19th century, I will now anger the rest of you by talking about the important role that the state played. In the 1830s states began passing general incorporation laws which made it easier to create corporations, and the Supreme Court upheld them and protected them from further interference in cases like Gibbons v. Ogden, which struck down a monopoly that New York had granted to one steamboat company. And the Charles River Bridge case which said that building a second bridge over the Charles River did not infringe upon the charter of the first bridge. In both those cases, the court was using its power to encourage competition. And this brings up something really important about the growth of American capitalism: Government helped. The Federal government built roads and canals and its highest court protected businesses. And states issued bonds to build canals and offered sweetheart deals to companies that built railroads. And despite what we may believe about the heroic, risk taking entrepreneurs building the American economy through solitary efforts, without the government protecting their interests, they wouldn’t have been able to do much. Alright, let’s go to the Thought Bubble. The market revolution changed the landscape of work, which for most of the prior two hundred years happened at home. Small-scale production of clothes and other goods had been done in the home, largely by women, and initially this is how industrial production worked as well. Factory owners would produce some of the products, like patterns for shoes, and then farm the finishing out to people working in their houses. Eventually they realized that it would be more efficient to gather the workers together in one place. Although the older “putting out” system continued in some industries, especially in big cities, after the Market Revolution more and more Americans went to work instead of working from home. The Market Revolution also changed the way we imagined work and leisure time. Like, on farms, the seasons and hours of daylight regulated the time for work, but in factories, work is regulated by the clock, which by the way was one of the first products to be manufactured using the American System of manufacturing. Railroads and shipping timetables further required the standardization of time. Factories also made it possible for more people to do industrial work. At first this meant women. The workers in the early textile mills at Lowell, Massachusetts, for instance, were primarily young New England farm girls who worked for a few years in the mills before returning home to get married. Women were cheaper to employ, because it was assumed that they would not be a family’s sole bread-winner. At least this was the excuse for not paying them more at the time. I can’t remember what excuse we have now, but I’m sure it’s a great one. Anyway, all of this meant that the nature of work had changed. In colonial America, artisans worked for what they called their “price” which was linked to what they produced. In a factory however, workers were paid a “wage” according to the number of hours they worked regardless of how much they produced. This may not sound like a big deal, but working for wages, with one’s livelihood defined by a clock and the whims of an employer was a huge change and it undermined the idea of freedom that was supposedly the basis of America. Thomas Jefferson had worried that men working in factories, dependent upon their employers were inherently unfree and that this would make them unfit to be proper American citizens. And as it happens, many factory workers agreed with him. Thanks, Thought Bubble. So one reaction to the restrictions of the wage-worker was to engage in the great American pastime of lighting out for the territories. With less and less farmland available in New England, young men had been migrating west for decades and after the War of 1812 this flood of migration continued and even grew. Between 1790 and 1840, 4.5 million people crossed over the Appalachian mountains and six new states were created between 1815 and 1821. Ohio’s population grew from 231,000 in 1810 to over 2 million by 1850. People even took up the motto “Malaria Isn’t Going to Catch Itself” and moved to Florida, after we purchased it from Spain in 1819. Moving out west was a key aspect of American freedom and the first half of the 19th century became the age of “manifest destiny” the idea that it was a god given right of Americans to spread out over the North American continent. The term was coined by a New York journalist, John L. O’Sullivan, who wrote that the people living out west, i.e. the Native Americans must succumb to “our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which providence has given us for the development of the great experiment in liberty.” Stan, he actually wrote “overspread”! One thing I love about Providence is it has, like, a one hundred percent rate of givething unto us and takething away from them. One of the results of this migration was that it was really difficult for factory owners to find men who could work in their factories. First they looked to Yankee women to fill the factories, but increasingly those jobs were filled by immigrants. Fortunately, the U.S. had lots of immigrants, like the more than one million Irish people who came here fleeing poverty, especially after the potato famine of 1845-1851. Lastly, let’s turn to the intellectual responses to the market revolution. Oh, it’s time for the mystery document? The rules here are simple. If I fail to guess the author of the mystery document, I get shocked with the shock pen. And yes, this is a real shock pen! Lots of people are commenting saying I am faking the shocks. I am not faking the shocks! I am in the business of teaching you history, not in the business of faking pain. Alright, let’s do this thing. “They do not yet see, and thousands of young men as hopeful now crowding to the barriers of the career, do not yet see, that if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him. Patience – patience; -- with the shades of all the good and great for company; and for solace the perspective of your own infinite life; and for work, the study and the communication of principles, the making those instincts prevalent, the conversion of the world. Is it not the chief disgrace in the world, not to be an unit; -- not to be reckoned one character; -- not to yield that peculiar fruit which each man was created to bear, but to be--” Oh God, Stan, I can’t bear it anymore. It’s Emerson. It’s definitely Emerson, it is unreadably Emerson. Indeed, the most linguistically convoluted of the transcendentalists, which is really saying something. Anyway, I don’t get punished, but I did kind of get half-punished because I had to read that. The transcendentalists, like Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, were trying to redefine freedom in a changing world. Work was increasingly regimented, factory workers were as interchangeable as the parts that they made, but the Transcendentalists argued that freedom resided in an individual’s power to re-make oneself, and maybe even the world. But, there would be a reaction to this in American literature as it became clear that escaping drudgery to reinvent yourself was no easy task for wage workers. So, the early 19th century saw a series of booms and busts sometimes called business cycles, and with those business cycles came a growing disparity in wealth. To protect their interests, workers began forming political organizations called Workingman’s Parties that eventually morphed into unions calling for higher wages and better working conditions. And we’ll have more to say about that in coming weeks, but for now it’s important to remember that as America grew more prosperous, many people –-women and especially slaves, but also free wage working men--recognized that the Market Revolution left them with much less freedom than they might have enjoyed fifty or a hundred years earlier. My favorite commentary on the market revolution actually comes from the author Herman Melville, in his short story Bartleby the Scrivener. Melville worked at the customs house in New York, so he knew all about world markets first hand. In Bartleby, he tells the story of a young clerk who works for a lawyer in New York City. Now, when you’re a farmer, your work has intrinsic meaning – when you work, you have food, and when you don’t work, you don’t. When you’re a copyist like Bartleby, it’s difficult to find meaning in what you do every day; you know that anyone else could do it, and you suspect that if your work doesn’t get done, it won’t actually matter very much. And in light of this, Bartleby just stops working, saying, “I prefer not” when asked, well, pretty much anything. Seeing his boss and society’s reaction to someone who simply doesn’t buy into the market economy is comic and then ultimately tragic, and it tells us a lot about the market revolution beyond the famous people and inventions and heroic individualism. Now, most people read Bartleby as an existentialist narrative, and it definitely is that, but for me the story’s subtitle proves that it’s also about the market economy. The full title of the story is: Bartleby the Scrivener: A story of Wall Street. I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan Muller. The script supervisor is Meredith Danko. Our associate producer is Danica Johnson. The show is written by my high school history teacher, Raoul Meyer, and myself. And our graphics team is Thought Café. If you have questions about today’s video, please ask them in comments where they will be answered by our team of historians. Also, suggest libertage captions. Thanks for watching Crash Course World History. If you enjoy Crash Course, make sure you’re subscribed and as we say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome. Just kidding! Thanks for watching Crash Course U.S. History. DFTBA. CCUS12 - Markets -


Use of machinery

English machine tool manufacturer Joseph Whitworth was appointed as a British commissioner for the New York International Exhibition. Accompanied by another British commissioner, he traveled around several states visiting various manufacturers, and as a result published a highly influential report on American manufacturing, from which he is quoted:

The laboring classes are comparatively few in number, but this is counterbalanced by, and indeed, may be one of the causes of the eagerness by which they call in the use of machinery in almost every department of industry. Wherever it can be applied as a substitute for manual labor, it is universally and willingly resorted to ... It is this condition of the labor market, and this eager resort to machinery wherever it can be applied, to which, under the guidance of superior education and intelligence, the remarkable prosperity of the United States is due.[2]

— Joseph Whitworth, 1854

Other characteristics

The American system contributed to efficiency gains through division of labor. Division of labor helped manufacturing transition from small artisan's shops to early factories. Key pieces of evidence supporting efficiency gains include increase in firm size, evidence of returns to scale, and an increase in non-specialized labor. The need for firms to train uneducated people to perform only one thing in the productivity chain allowed for the use of non-specialized labor. Women and children were employed more frequently within larger firms, especially those producing furniture and clothing.[citation needed].


In the late 18th century, French General Jean Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval suggested that muskets could be manufactured faster and more economically if they were made from interchangeable parts. This system would also make field repairs easier to carry out under battle conditions. He provided patronage to Honoré Blanc, who attempted to implement the Système Gribeauval, but never succeeded.[1] Until then, under the British factory system, skilled machinists were required to produce parts from a design. But however skilled the machinist, parts were never identical, and each part had to be manufactured separately to fit its counterpart—almost always by one person who produced each completed item from start to finish.

Mass production using interchangeable parts was first achieved in 1803 by Marc Isambard Brunel in cooperation with Henry Maudslay, and Simon Goodrich, under the management of (with contributions by) Brigadier-General Sir Samuel Bentham, the Inspector General of Naval Works at Portsmouth Block Mills at Portsmouth Dockyard, for the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic War. By 1808 annual production had reached 130,000 sailing blocks.[3][4][5][6][page needed][7][page needed][8][page needed][9][page needed][10][page needed][11][12] This method of working did not catch on in general manufacturing in Britain for many decades, and when it did it was imported from America, becoming known as the American System of Manufacturing, even though it originated in England.

The Lowell system is also related to the American system during this time. It emphasized procuring, training, and providing housing and other living necessities for the workforce, as well as using semi-automated machines in a centralized factory building or complex.

Gribeauval's idea was conveyed to the US by two routes. First, Blanc's friend Thomas Jefferson championed it, sending copies of Blanc's memoirs and papers describing his work to Secretary of War Henry Knox. Second, artillery officer Louis de Tousard (who had served with Lafayette) was an enthusiast of Gribeauval's ideas. Tousard wrote two influential documents after the American Revolution; one was used as the blueprint for West Point, and the other became the officer's training manual.[1]

The War Department, which included officers trained at West Point on Tousard's manual, established the armories at Springfield and Harper's Ferry and tasked them with solving the problem of interchangeability. The task was finally accomplished in the 1820s. Historian David A. Hounshell believes that this was done by Captain John H. Hall, an inside contractor at Harper's Ferry.[1] In a letter dated 1822 Hall makes the claim he achieved interchangeability in 1822.[13] But historian Diana Muir argues that it is more probable that it was Simeon North, a Connecticut arms contractor manufacturing guns for the US Army. North, not Hall, was the inventor of the crucial milling machine in 1816, and had an advantage over Hall in that he worked closely with the first industry that mass-produced complex machines from mass-produced interchangeable parts, the Connecticut clock-making industry.[14][page needed] By 1815 the idea of interchangeability was well established in the US government system of procurement; Congressional contracts stipulated this quality in muskets, rifles and pistols ordered after that date.[15] Interchangeability of firearms parts at the U.S. armories was found to have been in use for a number of years by the time of the 1853 British Parliamentary Commissions Committee on Small Arms inquiry.[1]

A critical factor in making interchangeable metal parts was the invention of several machine tools, such as the slide rest lathe, screw cutting lathe, turret lathe, milling machine and metal planer. One of the most important and versatile of these machine tools was David Wilkinson's lathe, for which he received a $10,000 award from the government of the United States.[16][page needed]

Eli Whitney is generally credited with the idea and the practical application, but both are incorrect attributions. Based on his reputation as the inventor of the cotton gin, the US government gave him a contract in 1798 for 10,000 muskets to be produced within two years. It actually took eight years to deliver the order, as Whitney perfected and developed new techniques and machines. In a letter to Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott apologizing for the delays, Whitney wrote:

One of my primary objectives it to form tools so the tools themselves shall fashion the work and give to every part its just proportion – which when once accomplished, will give expedition, uniformity, and exactness to the whole... In short, the tools which I contemplate are similar to engraving on a copper plate from which may be taken a great number of impressions, perfectly alike.[13][page needed]

Whitney did use machinery; however, there is no evidence that he produced any new type of metalworking machinery.[13] After completing the initial contract, Whitney went on to produce another 15,000 muskets within the following two years. Whitney never actually expressed any interest in interchangeability until 1800, when Treasury Secretary Wolcott exposed him to the memoirs of Blanc,[1] but he spent far more time and energy promoting the idea than developing it.

In order to spread knowledge of manufacturing techniques, the War Department made contractors open their shops to other manufacturers and competitors. The armories also openly shared manufacturing techniques with private industry.[16] Additionally, the idea migrated from the armories to industry as machinists trained in the armory system were hired by other manufacturers. Skilled engineers and machinists thus influenced American clockmakers and sewing machine manufacturers Wilcox and Gibbs and Wheeler and Wilson, who used interchangeable parts before 1860.[1][17] Late to adopt the interchangeable system were Singer Corporation sewing machine (1870s), reaper manufacturer McCormick Harvesting Machine Company (1870s–80s)[1] and several large steam engine manufacturers such as Corliss (mid-1880s)[18] as well as locomotive makers. Large scale of production of bicycles in the 1880s used the interchangeable system.[1]

The idea would also help lead to the American "Golden Age" of manufacturing when Henry Ford mass-produced the automobile. Mastering true interchangeability on the assembly line, the Ford plant produced standard model cars. These efficient production strategies allowed these automobiles to be affordable for the middle class.

Pre-Industrial Revolution

The idea of interchangeable parts and the separate assembly line was not new, though it was little used. The idea was first developed in East Asia during the Warring States period and later the Qin Dynasty over 2200 years ago – bronze crossbow triggers and locking mechanisms were mass-produced and made to be interchangeable. Venice during the late Middle Ages had ships that were produced using pre-manufactured parts, assembly lines, and mass production. The Venetian Arsenal apparently produced nearly one ship every day, in what was effectively the world's first factory.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Hounshell, David A. (1984), From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States, Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, ISBN 978-0-8018-2975-8, LCCN 83016269
  2. ^ Roe, Joseph Wickham (1916), English and American Tool Builders, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, LCCN 16011753. Reprinted by McGraw-Hill, New York and London, 1926 (LCCN 27-24075); and by Lindsay Publications, Inc., Bradley, Illinois, (ISBN 978-0-917914-73-7).. Report of the British Commissioners to the New York Industrial Exhibition, London, 1854.
  3. ^ Enlightenment & measurement, UK: Making the modern world.
  4. ^ Portsmouth dockyard, UK.
  5. ^ "Block", Collections (exhiblet), UK: Science museum.
  6. ^ Gilbert, KR (1965), The Portsmouth Block-making Machinery, London.
  7. ^ Cooper, CC (1982), "The Production Line at Portsmouth Block Mill", Industrial Archaeology Review, VI: 28–44.
  8. ^ Cooper, CC (1984), "The Portsmouth System of Manufacture", Technology and Culture, 25: 182–225.
  9. ^ Coad, Jonathan (1989), The Royal Dockyards 1690–1850, Aldershot.
  10. ^ Coad, Jonathan (2005), The Portsmouth Block Mills : Bentham, Brunel and the start of the Royal Navy's Industrial Revolution, ISBN 1-873592-87-6.
  11. ^ Wilkin, Susan (1999), The application of emerging new technologies by Portsmouth Dockyard, 1790–1815 (PhD Thesis), The Open University (copies available from the British Thesis service of the British Library).
  12. ^ Cantrell, J; Cookson, G, eds. (2002), Henry Maudslay and the Pioneers of the Machine Age, Stroud.
  13. ^ a b c Cowan, Ruth Schwartz (1997). A Social History of American Technology. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 7–8. ISBN 0-19-504606-4.
  14. ^ Muir, Diana, Reflections in Bullough's Pond, University Press of New England.
  15. ^ Burke, James (1995) [1978], Connections, Little, Brown & Co, p. 151, ISBN 0-316-11672-6.
  16. ^ a b Thompson, Ross (2009). Structures of Change in the Mechanical Age: Technological Invention in the United States 1790–1865. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-9141-0.
  17. ^ Thomson, Ross (1989). The Path to Mechanized Shoe Production in the United States. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-0-80781867-1.
  18. ^ Hunter, Louis C. (1985). A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 1730–1930. 2: Steam Power. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
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