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by Curt Anderson
Why do the British and American approaches to machinery differ? A short history of machine tools explains why. No two countries were more responsible for the Industrial Revolution than America and England. In England, during the 18th and 19th centuries there was no shortage of skilled labor. Rather than replacing English workers, their machines made work more precise. Meanwhile, in sparsely populated America, the needs of a new nation required rapid and simple means of production. Machines augmented the scant work force. In England, machines served to make talented artisans better. In America, machines served to make entrepreneurs more productive.
In 1769, Englishman James Watt sparked the Industrial Revolution. His steam engine's large cylinders posed a vexing problem. They had to be precise in interior size so that steam could not leak between cylinder and piston.
Another Englishman, John Wilkinson invented a precision horizontal-boring machine in 1775. Wilkinson's machine made efficient steam engines possible. The steam engine cylinder could not be manufactured until machine tools had been devised that were capable of producing accurate parts.
A British subject, Henry Maudslay, developed the first engine lathe and developed an improved micrometer. Other creative Englishmen, invented, perfected and produced various machines around the turn of the century.
Joseph Whitworth developed in 1830, a measuring instrument accurate to a millionth of an inch.
Eli Whitney. The term "Yankee ingenuity" could have been coined with Whitney in mind.
Americans solved issues of speed and mass production. In 1798, American Eli Whitney, secured a US government contract (for $134,000) to produce 10,000 army muskets. Whitney refined and successfully applied the "Uniformity-System" of production using inter-changeable parts. However, Whitney met bureaucratic disbelief and delays in implementing his ideas. He overcame these obstacles by convincingly demonstrating to President John Adams the workability of the inter-changeable parts concept. He showed Adams that randomly selected parts would fit together as a whole working musket. Whitney then single-handedly designed and built all the machinery to produce the weapons...all before a solitary worker entered the factory.
Later, in 1818, Whitney invented the first milling machine.
Also in the same year, Thomas Blanchard of Worcester, Mass. invented a copying machine for turning the stocks of rifles, using a model to key the machine.
Americans Elias Howe, Isaac Singer (sewing machines) and Cyrus McCormack (harvesters) and Henry Ford (automobiles) followed with inventions and innovations that used Whitney's examples of mass production and interchangeable parts.
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