Eli Whitney and Interchangeable Parts: Definition & History

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  • 0:01 Who Was Eli Whitney?
  • 0:49 Definition of…
  • 1:45 History of…
  • 2:41 Whitney Armory…
  • 3:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will look at the role Eli Whitney played in promoting the use of interchangeable parts. We will explore the concept of interchangeable parts, and see how Eli Whitney implemented this technology at his rifle factory.

Who Was Eli Whitney?

Eli Whitney was an American inventor who was born in Westborough, Massachusetts in 1765. His father was a farmer. At an early age Whitney developed an interest in machinery. During the Revolutionary War, while still a boy, he helped produce nails and gained a reputation for being a skilled craftsman. Whitney attended Yale College (now Yale University), graduating in 1792.

A year later he invented the famous cotton gin, a machine used to separate cotton seeds from cotton fiber. In 1798, Whitney began manufacturing musket rifles for the new American government. At his armory he pioneered the use of interchangeable parts and the milling machine. Whitney died in 1825 at the age of 58.

Definition of Interchangeable Parts

The concept behind interchangeable parts lies in creating nearly identical parts that can be easily mass produced and replaced. These parts are then fitted together to create various products like firearms, furniture, clocks, and a host of other complex objects. With precision equipment, large numbers of identical parts can be produced at low cost and with a small workforce.

Interchangeable parts can best be understood by looking at a rifle. Before this technology rifles were produced by skilled craftsmen. The rifle was constructed as one unique piece. If a part broke, there was often not always a replacement piece available. Interchangeable parts made rifle repair simple and inexpensive because the damaged piece could be easily replaced. Interchangeable parts also allowed production on a massive scale at a relatively low cost.

History of Interchangeable Parts

It is next to impossible to pin-point the exact origin of interchangeable parts. Certainly ancient civilizations built structures and other devices capable of having replacement parts. True interchangeable parts, however, were a product of the Industrial Revolution.

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