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Eli Whitney and His Fake Interchangeable Gun Parts Demo

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
March 28, 2023 3:01 am

Eli Whitney and His Fake Interchangeable Gun Parts Demo

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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March 28, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, when Apple founder Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone to the public in 2007, he used multiple iPhones. If one crashed or had another issue, he secretly swapped it for another one. He had to show off a specific set of functions in a certain order, called the “golden path.” But way back in 1801, another young inventor named Eli Whitney–already known for his invention of the cotton gin in 1794–seized an opportunity to try to make his fortune.  Here to tell the story is Ashley Hlebinsky. Ashley is the former co-host of Discovery Channel’s “Master of Arms,” the former curator in charge of the Cody Firearms Museum, and president of The Gun Code, LLC.

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They're some of our favorites. When Apple founder Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone to the public in 2007, he used multiple iPhones. If one crashed or had another issue, he secretly swapped it for another one.

He had to show off a specific set of functions in a certain order, what he called the golden path. But way back in 1801, another young inventor named Eli Whitney, already known for his invention of the cotton gin in 1794, seized an opportunity to try to make his fortune. Whitney claimed to have invented interchangeable parts for muskets.

He unveiled this invention with a jobs like presentation before a group of men, which included the outgoing President John Adams and the recently elected Thomas Jefferson. Here to tell the story is our regular contributor, Ashley Lebinski. Ashley is the former co-host of Discovery Channel's Master of Arms, the former curator in charge of the Cody Firearms Museum and president of the Gun Code LLC.

Here's Ashley. When you're in school, you learn about a lot of different historic figures throughout American culture. You learn about people like Henry Ford and his assembly line, and you hear about Eli Whitney and his cotton gin. And these histories are really wrapped up in a nice little bow.

But when you get older and possibly study history, you learn that things aren't always as simple as you learned in school and aren't always as true as you learned in school. And one part of those narratives that's often left out is the fact that these people were inspired by firearms. For example, Henry Ford visited Winchester right before he built his Highland Park factory in Detroit. And it was the processes used in Winchester factories and as well as Colt factories that inspired him to build his assembly line, which we now associate 100% with him and not with anybody else. And then the other person that has kind of this neat compact history is Eli Whitney and his cotton gin.

A lot of those histories are rooted in truth. So Eli Whitney did invent the cotton gin in 1794. The part they don't tell you about is that he received a patent and that cotton gin patent was questionable because he was sued a lot for patent infringement when he was initially trying to produce that piece of technology. So he didn't make a lot of money. He didn't make any money actually on it because he was spent so much time trying to defend his patent that he needed a new source of income. And in 1797, the US was gearing up for war.

And like a lot of 18th century, 19th century designers, inventors, they decide, you know what? I can make firearms and I'll get into the firearms business because certainly in a time of war, that is an area where you'd think that you could make profit. So in 1798, the US government looked at Eli Whitney and they were like, if you can make a cotton gin, I guess you can make guns. And they gave him a contract to make 10,000 muskets. And Whitney really had never made guns before, didn't have any type of production capacity for that, but he said yes because he needed the money. 10,000 muskets to be delivered over two years. 1801 rolls by and he hasn't produced a single one, which I'm not quite sure how that works, although I did read that there is a theory that he, obsessed with his cotton gin, went south while he was supposed to be making the guns and tried to make profit on his cotton gin off of the money that the US government had given him.

Although I just read that, so I'm not 100% sure if that's true, but it would make sense because I don't know what else you'd be doing with that money over two years. So basically the US government is pretty irritated, rightfully so, because they are waiting on muskets that are needed for the military. And so when they contact him, they're like, what's going on? And he ultimately is called to do a demonstration to basically answer for why he's taken money but not actually produced anything. And so when he is called to prove himself or justify himself, he shows off that his muskets have this really revolutionary concept of interchangeable parts, but interchangeable parts really predated him.

And one of the people that he did the demonstration for was President-elect Thomas Jefferson. And Thomas Jefferson saw the concept for interchangeability overseas in Europe, actually in France, where a French artillerist was working on this idea of standardizing artillery pieces. And that man inspired other people to work towards this idea of interchangeability. But what's fascinating is that Whitney, who is iconically associated with the practical application of interchangeable parts, didn't talk about them until he was in trouble. In fact, he didn't mention interchangeable parts when he got his contract.

But 10 months into the contract, Treasury Secretary Oliver Walcott Jr. sent him a quote foreign pamphlet on arms manufacturing techniques. And after that, he started talking about interchangeability. So he goes to do this demonstration, and he brings parts of his musket and shows that you can assemble different lock plates, different barrels, and they'll fit all within the same gun. So instead of having to make something totally from scratch, and then you can't take that lock plate and put it onto a different stock or attach it to a separate barrel, he's able to show that everything there can be interchangeable, meaning that you can take a bunch of barrels, they can be attached to a bunch of stocks, which can be attached to a bunch of lock plates, and all kinds of internal working parts. And so when you do that, I mean, that's revolutionary.

It really hadn't been done successfully. So to President-elect Thomas Jefferson, he's like, oh my gosh, I finally can see the product of this concept that I saw overseas. And it really is, I mean, it's impressive because they hadn't really seen it done before. But what we learn later is that he had actually numbered the parts so that it was a trick, essentially. He had numbered the parts so he knew which parts attached to, you know, of this gun attached to this other part of the gun so that it looked like it was interchangeable, but it was labeled for him to see, but for others to just be wowed by his brilliance. And everyone's absolutely wowed by this. You know, he takes his gun and he assembles it in front of everybody and everyone's, you know, their minds are blown.

They're like, well, of course, this is what you've been working on, spending all your money on. And we think it's pretty revolutionary. And I will say he does ultimately fulfill his contract. The Whitney name does get associated pretty largely in firearms history. The Whitney armory's around for 90 years, but we can credit that more to his son than anything else.

And his son worked on several contract guns and he struggled with it as well. But, I mean, he made iconic Colt guns and created parts for iconic Colt guns like the Walker by the time of the 1840s. And so you look at the turn of the 19th century and Whitney's working on it, but he's struggling and telling some lies. But by the middle of the 19th century, you know, the Whitney name is much more readily associated with firearms and in a much more positive light. But if you look at the original story of Eli Whitney and his cotton gin and the development of interchangeable parts, I feel like you almost don't even realize that he, well, one, faked it, but two, the fact that it was really about firearms and not his cotton gin. And I mean, you can make a lot of speculation why that part of the story might not be told in school, but I just sometimes always wonder why we can't tell the real history and why we have to focus on some, you know, tight little bow to teach people just so when they grow up, they either perpetuate a fake history or they learn that they were totally lied to in high school. And what a waste of everybody's time because the story of Eli Whitney and his failures and his ability to fool Thomas Jefferson is far more interesting than his perfect little cotton gin and his development of interchangeable parts. And a great job on the storytelling and production and editing by Greg Hengler and a special thanks to Ashley Lebinski.

She's the former cohost of Discovery Channel's Master of Arms, the former curator in charge of the Cody Firearms Museum and president of the Gun Code, LLC. And what a story she told. And we appreciate that history is not tied up in a neat bow. That's why it's not interesting when it's taught the way it's taught. And this is why we have the storytellers we have because human history is complicated and it's nuanced as our human beings. And that this inventor was somewhat of a hustler.

Well, welcome to the world. They all are. And they're all pushing boundaries and pushing themselves and pushing the truth. And one day the truth becomes the reality. And that's what's so interesting about so many inventors and entrepreneurs, people like Eli Whitney, who changed the world.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-04-01 23:52:10 / 2023-04-01 23:57:40 / 6

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