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Archive for April 13th, 2009

The Invention of Interchangeable Parts Terrified Government 200 Years Ago and today

Monday, April 13th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

Since the beginning of time, until the middle of the 19th century the production of goods was conducted on an artisan, piece by piece basis. Over these many centuries the center of the individual’s universe was the local environ where commerce and enterprise were conducted on a small scale, often bartered basis. The idea of mass production was impossible to fathom. People predominantly lead lives of tremendous struggle and burden simply trying to subsist in an agrarian centric world with few hard goods produced other than tools, rudimentary clothing and dwellings.

In Europe in the Middle Ages the creation of guilds resulted in specialized production of goods. The members of a specific guild would concentrate on producing bricks, tool making, construction, metal work, shipping, etc. These were the precursor organizations to modern unions. They controlled who and how many could become guild members. The guilds fixed wages and prices. They were usually licensed or appointed by host governments in return for acceding to local laws, taxes and regulations.

In the early 18th century in France there began a movement among factory owners seeking to create more streamlined, profitable means of production. The idea of modern mass production was still almost a century away. In order to organize large scale industrial production sources of interchangeable, purpose built parts would be required. This did not yet exist.

In the late 18th century, French gunsmith Honore Blanc proposed to the French army that he mass produce muskets. To prove that he could perform as he claimed, Mr. Blanc arranged a demonstration for the armors of Napoleon’s army. Using batches of interchangeable parts Blanc quickly assembled a number of muskets. Still, at that time, muskets were built one by one, each piece turning out to have its own quirky character. Blanc had unveiled the elemental secret of mass production keyed by his use of interchangeable parts.

While acting as envoy to France during the American Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson visited Honore Blanc’s shop. Jefferson was a man of agriculture not industry. Nevertheless, he sent details of Blanc’s methods back to America and inadvertently helped accelerate the industrialization of his homeland.

The inventor Eli Whitney is credited with taking Honore Blanc’s techniques and applying them to mass production of machinery. Later these methods were the basis for the mass production of clothing, typewriters, stem engines, sewing machines and munitions among hundreds of other products. Whole industries were thus born and industrialization rapidly assumed preeminence as the preferred means of production.

What of Honore Blanc? By 1806 the French government decided that Blanc was a threat to the states control of the means of production and a threat to the old crafts (guilds, unions). The system of production he helped pioneer was shut down and outlawed. The French government made the inane argument that workers not crafting a complete product from start to finish could not produce harmonious products.

To this day governments all over the world fear the mobility of production. Local content laws are still common. Statutes, regulations, bureaucracies and taxes are levied to control, and often hinder, production of goods in the most efficient manner.  Certain classes of workers are protected and assisted to the disadvantage of other laborers. Winners and losers are chosen by bureaucrats who have never produced a single widget.

The ability to interchange parts is the lynchpin of modern mass production and the success of capitalism. This system of production of goods has lifted billions of people out of poverty and misery. Government revenues are almost exclusively derived from the fruits born of mass production. And yet, government invariably cannot recognize the genius of entrepreneurial organization of the means of production, the system that has produced so much, for so many, so inexpensively.

The Evolution of Invention & Discovery Speaks Volumes of Modern Prosperity

Monday, April 13th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

Recently I was ambling around the internet, researching lecture and article topics. I stumbled onto a Wikipedia site that at first seemed quite banal: Timeline of Historic Inventions. This link offered a chronological listing of historic inventions from the Paleolithic period, through the time of Christ, the Dark Ages, Middle- Ages and on to modern times. Perusal of the listing of inventors and their inventions was interesting on several levels.

First was the attribution that could be applied by geography for the specific inventions. Cement in Egypt, rice in India, the Trebuchet in China and hundreds more hugely important inventions could be assigned as having originated in specific ancient lands. Many of these geographic locales are recognizable today, while many others, though identified, have been lost with the passage time and the disappearance of their historical importance.

Second, many of the inventors are identifiable by name, even many of the most ancient ones. Attribution for creation of the encyclopedia is given to Speusippus, the odometer to Archimedes, the kite to Lu Ban, linguistics to Panini, and plastic surgery to Shushruta.

Third, and most interesting, is the sheer volume of inventions, most of great import and use to this day that were created in ancient empires that fell from great heights and lost most remnants of their glory. The mathematics discovered in the Middle East, the medicines and surgeries pioneered on the Indian sub-continent, the vast array of defense and engineering advances created by the Chinese, the foodstuffs, trade routes and tools from Africa are only a small sample of the amazing, wealth generating advances produced by old world societies. And yet, almost inevitably, each of the lands that germinated this amazing creativity evolved into modern times in greatly diminished status.

As you scan the Wikipedia site, “Timeline of Historic Inventions” you begin to see an accelerating scamper of inventiveness from “old world”, eastern centers to the “New World”, western hemisphere. By the Middle Ages creativity has begun to blossom and explode in the west, while the ancient centers of inventiveness for almost 4000 years seem to expire.

The western inventors seem to suddenly breathe a different air. Their technology becomes more commercial, more targeted to mass production and more advanced. The ancients gave us cotton, beer, paper and sails, all useful, important and still in great use. The moderns gave the world machines that revolutionized work and enabled scale and mass production to be levers of new industry and international trade. James Watt, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Johannes Guttenberg and Galileo Galilei are but a small group of inventors who revolutionized how societies produced goods, worked, ate, learned and enjoyed leisure (for the first time).

From the 15th century until the present day almost all of the great inventions were produced in the New World west. The formerly robust creativity of the ancient east has expired. The Indian and Chinese economies have rebounded from centuries of torpor to become modern productivity marvels, however, in almost every instance they reproduce product that is designed and invented in the west.

Why has the Middle East become insular, Africa largely a disastrous economic backwater,  Latin America consumed by corruption and poverty and so many other areas of the world beset by poverty and unending misery? Despite the current economic struggles all countries face, does anyone believe that Canada, the United States and the democracies of the European Union will not lead the world in standards of living, prosperity, longevity and freedom for the foreseeable future?

The ability to invent is crucial. However, after crafting an invention, there must be a system in place to allow for commercialization of the invention and the pursuit of reasonable profit to reward the risks undertaken to penetrate markets. This means that rule of law, property rights; protection of intellectual property (patent/trademarks/copyright law) must be codified and enforced.

Capitalism in its various forms is still the greatest generator of wealth and opportunity ever invented. Czarist and communist Russia were full of inventive citizens who were stifled by a system that did not reward innovation. When these people emigrated to the west they created new industries (movies, cosmetics, apparel, technologies, television, etc.) that made them prosperous and benefitted society by providing employment and improving lifestyles.

All over the world there are innovators seeking to escape bondage or states of despair, make their way to the “New World”, and by utilizing our system create new products and industries. We all prosper from this drive to invent. The ancients were inventors of technologies, things of value and usefulness. Unfortunately, they did not reside in places and times where lasting “rules of law” were applicable. Without these basic protections invention, individuals and societies cannot flourish. Not ever!

Depression Era Lessons for Today’s Entrepreneurs

Monday, April 13th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

The vast majority of an educated modern populace has developed a pretty vivid tapestry of what life was like during the “Great Depression”. The visions of struggling dirt farmers like the Joad’s in Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”, the big city soup lines, the tent cities for thousands of homeless and photographs of men selling apples on street corners have burnished in many of us a searing image of hopelessness and despair.

Today, the United States is sharing the most serious economic malady since the “Great Depression” with countries all over the world. While not approaching the absolute calamity of the 1930’s, the damage done to our wallets and psyches is nevertheless daunting and bruising. Businesses, organizations and individuals are understandably fearful and have curtailed spending in lieu of conserving capital. Risk taking, the key to maximizing gain, has been virtually shut down. Small business growth and development has been strangled. Entrepreneurs have hunkered down, fearful of the vagaries of a marketplace that seems to have no stomach for new products and ideas.

In times like these it pays to study the lessons of history. The Great Depression was bleak for so many, of course. Nevertheless, it was actually a fertile era for creativity and entrepreneurial activity.

People were desperate to make every purchase count, to leverage every dollar spent and obtain maximum value. The result was that an exciting array of creative breakthroughs came to market to satisfy the greater demand for economy.

The importance of consumer advertising was magnified and became a much more critical tool utilized by packaged goods manufacturers to woo value conscious consumers. Heinz ketchup, Palmolive soap, Campbell soup, Westinghouse appliances, Revlon and Max Factor cosmetics and Hormel Spam enjoyed an explosion of growth created by new sales promotion concepts. Billboards, mass advertising, coupons and sampling became ubiquitous. Local, regional and national agencies evolved to assist manufacturers in promoting their products in new, exciting ways. Barn advertising for tobacco products and Burma Shave road signs added needed revenue to beleaguered farmers and roadside landowners.

The Studebaker Motor Company had evolved from a 19th century maker of hand carts and wheelbarrows to a struggling auto carriage manufacturer. The Company enjoyed modest success until the Great Depression. Recognizing opportunity, Studebaker went back to its roots as a maker of work conveyances and began to produce the Studebaker paneled work truck. At a price of around $600, this workhorse vehicle enabled thousands of laborers, handymen and small contractors to eke out a living hauling, building and scratch farming.

The ball point pen, nylon, the radio, radar, the Land camera, the photocopier, sticky tape, the television, FM radio band, the helicopter, the jet engine and the electric razor are only a few of the inventions that were perfected and came to market during the 1930’s. Inventors did not stop their pursuit of fresh, valuable innovations. They seized the reality they were confronted with and targeted practical solutions to problems that needed to be addressed at that time.

The same opportunity is available today. The opportunity to create products or services that offer great utility and excellent value is appreciated by the consumer more than at any time in recent memory. There is a rush to basics, store brands, no frills products that perform and are sturdy. The inventor that can address these contemporary needs will find a willing acceptance from investors, consumers and retailers.

There is never a better time than NOW to launch a product, start a business or license a product. This is true when markets are booming, or when the economy is in a trough. There are always excuses made for not making a sale, not closing a deal or not taking that chance, that chance that can change one’s life. Every economic age offers the opportunity for success for those willing to address real needs with inventiveness. History offers us plenty of proof.