America began building ships soon after the revolutionary war (or the war of independence). She need ships to be able to trade with
the countries of the far east, accross the pacific. Britain, in control of the seas, had blocked trade with South America, thinking to force
the young nation to buy only British-made goods. But America needed gold and silver more than she needs goods, and the oriental
countries were rich.
In 1787, the merchantman "Empress of China" under the new American flag, set sail for far Eastern ports. Aboard the ship was major
Samuel Shaw, as supercargo, or representative of the owner in charge of the cargo. He had been a soldier in the recent war of
independence. This bright young man was the forerunner of the adventurous Americans who would make the name "Yankee" known
throughout the ports of the world. The chinese, who up to this time had traded largely with Europeans, called the Americans
"The new people". Many stories have been told of the trade between the so-called Yankees looking for bargains and the inscrutable
orientals of China and India. As an example, for years, oriental traders had refused to sell their precious curry to the British. It remained
for an American to bring back this mysterious spice.
Did "the new people" have anything that the Chinese wanted?. The answer is yes. It was known that the Chinese used an herb known
as the ginseng root for medical purposes. This herb grew in China, but the demand for it exceeded the supply. It was dicovered
that this plant grew in great quantities in the eastern states of North-America. So much was gathered and stored and shipped in
the China trade that the plant became almost extinct in North-America. The Empress of China was one of the ship that carried
ginseng. Another ship, the Columbia, which followed the Empress, was the first North-American ship to carry the new stars
and stripes around the world. On its second voyage, the Columbia stopped at the Indian fur-trading posts along the Columbia
river in the northwestern part of the country and loaded up with the fur of the sea-otter, which the chinese coveted.
Major Shaw, as agent or supercargo of the Empress, cleared $30,000 as his share (25%) of the ginseng trade on his first voyage.
As trade increased it became customary for ordinary seamen, who had been farm boys before going to sea, to make extra money
on their voyages. They were allowed to carry aboard and bring back as much as their sea chests would hold. In the Orient they
bargained for sices, jewels, tea, and silks. After a voyage or two, more than one farm boy brought back enough money with
which to buy a farm, marry, or go into business. It would happen sometimes that a boy would even become the captain of a ship
by the time he was twenty years old. No wonder Avericans were spoken of as "sharp traders". Of course, not all boys went to sea.
Those who didn't, dreamed of making money from nventions.
Eli Whitney was born in Massachusetts ten years before the revolutionary war. Since trade with England had stopped, America
suffered from shortages of many common articles. Young Whitney, when barely in his teens, took to his father's workshop and set
to work making nails, then in great demand and short supply. He made good nails and the neighbors from miles around bought them.
The boy was also a good smith, or worker in metals. He repaired knives and hammered out blades. By the time the war ended, young
Whitney had a good business in long pins for ladies, bonnets and handcarved canes for gentlemen.
Whitney would have attended an engineering school, as it was, he completed a classical course at Yale University, with a choice of
entering the ministry, law, or teaching. He chosed teaching. The public school system of America was not systematized until after
1828. Many young college graduates took positions as teachers in private families. Whitney was offered such a position on a
plantation near Savannah. It was there that he used to travel by boat when he met the widow of the famous revolutionary war
general, Nathaniel Green. When Whitney found his Savannah position not to his liking, Mrs. Greene was pleased to have this
young man, tutor her children.
"If a way could be found to get the green seeds off the cotton without damaging the fibre, cotton would become the greates crop
in the south". Young Whitney, lounging near the fireplace of the drawing room in the Green home, was listening to a conversation,
He had heard the remark before, but this time he sat up and listened. He knew that the short-stapled cotton the planters were
talking about grew wild in Georgia. He had seen the seeds that stuck close to the cotton being laboriously picked by hand.
It took a man hours to clean a pound of cotton. Ms. Greene saw the gleam in the eyes of the young tutor and knew that he
was working on an idea. Shortly thereafter, she fixed up a workshop for Whitney in the basement. Here she watched him
work on the gin, which is short for the word engine.
At one point she suggested a combing device, like a hair comb, that would eliminate clogging. It was a simple machine that Whitney
demonstrated to the planters. But it could clean as much cotton as fifty men had previously cleaned by hand. His audience was
amazed. Mr. Miller, Mrs. Greene's foreman, offered to try to procure the money for developing the gin. The two men became
partners and a patent was applied for. While waiting for the patent, the little machine, which any clever blacksmith might have
copied, was stored away. But one night the gin was stolen and others had a chance to examine it before the patent came through.
The next bit of bad luck was the fault of the partners. They wanted a monopoly and proposed not to sell the gin, but to be paid for
its use. They would charge the planter in cotton. Each third pound of all the cotton ginned would be payment for the use of the
gin to the partners. This was consedered exhorbitant and the planters screamed "monopoly". The gin did make the cotton the "king"
of southern crops. But Whitney and Miller profited little. Others, copied the machine and Whitney returned to new Haven where he
went into his next venture. This was the mass production of rifles, and it made him a fortune.
One good thing came out of the cotton gin for Whitney. He had made a friend of Thomas Jefferson. Through Jefferson's influence
Whitney succeeded in getting a government contract for the manufacture of 10,000 guns. At the time, he had little idea of how
he was going to produce the weapons in two years. This would mean 100 guns a week. In the old way of making guns, one
craftsman worked on one gun until it was finished. Since no two men worked exactly alike, each gun part varied from the
corresponding part in another gun. Replacements were impossible to furnish.
Mass production is based on the machine-tool industry, where parts are made by pattern. Whitney set to work making the machine
tools, so that all gun parts would be uniform. While he worked, his men made guns by hand. At the end of the first year, Whitney
delivered 500 muskets and Washington fumed. Whitney had finished his machine tools and by the time Washington notified him
they would wait no longer, the inventor had completee the parts of ten guns with his new tools. He bundled up the parts and took
them to Washington to show how he was going to finish his contract. Without ceremony he dumped his bag of parts on the
conference table and proceeded to explain his delay. All the time he was talking, he was putting guns together and explaining
the interchangeability of the parts.
The men around the table were dumbfounded. President Jefferson was openly pleased with the young man and needless to say the
contract was extended, and Whitney produced the weapons. When the United States entered the war of 1812, she had 10,000
of the most perfect gun that had ever been made. After the war Whitney's factory received another contract for 15,000 weapons.
Manufacturers from Europe came to visit the factory and gaze in wonder at the new precision tools, tools that were to launch America
into a new economic era. Eli Whitney made two great contributions: The first was the cotton gin, which made cotton the most importan
crop of the south. The second was the idea of precision tools, which made mass production possible.