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

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.