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Eastman and Mass Production


Although it is not often noted, George Eastman's dream of a camera that could be manufactured for the masses relied on the existence of interchangeable parts. In the late nineteenth century, this was still a largely untested principle, with a rocky history dating back almost to the beginning of the Republic.

The first figure of note to attempt the goal of interchangeable parts was Eli Whitney. Having seen his attempt to market his cotton gin end in disaster, Whitney turned in 1797 to the idea of gun manufacture. At the time, Congress anticipated an attack from Napoleon. Playing on this fear, Whitney was able to initiate the practice of government contracts for arms dealers -- a custom that continues to this day.

The contract was astoundingly generous. Going into effect on June 21, 1798, it called for Whitney to produce 10,000 muskets, the first 4,000 of which would be delivered in a year and a half. For each musket delivered, he would receive $13.40, for a grand total of $134,000, with advances along the way if necessary. What made this handsome sum all the more astonishing was the fact that Whitney had almost no knowledge of gunmaking in a time when the best armories were unable to produce more than 5,000 guns a year.

Whitney set up a factory in East Haven, Connecticut and drove his workers hard, but come his first deadline on September 30, 1799, he had no muskets to show for himself. Indeed, he hadn't even equipped his armory. Thinking quickly, he wrote a letter to Secretary of State Oliver Wolcott, announcing a "new principle" in manufacturing. This principle, he claimed, would revolutionize that arms industry even as it improved the quality of the goods.

"One of my primary objects," he wrote, "is to form tools so the tools themselves shall fashion the work and give to every part its just proportion -- which when once accomplished, will give expedition, uniformity, and exactness to the whole." Intrigued, Wolcott granted an extension, on the condition that Whitney demonstrate his results.

In January of 1801, before an audience that included President John Adams and Whitney's old friend, President-elect Thomas Jefferson, Whitney personally showed how he could fit 10 different locks into the same musket using nothing but an ordinary screwdriver. He then did one better and took 100 different locks apart, scrambled their pieces and put them back together "by taking the first pieces which come to hand." His audience was amazed.

Unfortunately, Whitney's locks were not even remotely interchangeable. As was later discovered, his individual lock components all bore the marks of individually fashioned pieces. Historian Merritt Roe Smith is categorical on the matter: "Whitney must have staged his 1801 demonstration with specimens specially prepared for the occasion."

Many American industrialists blithely claimed interchangeability after Whitney without the slightest proof to back up their claims. Samuel Colt, the inventor of the six-shooter, even teamed up with Eli Whitney, Jr., to enhance the illusion of success. But in fact, the real advances were taking place in England while the Americans fiddled.

Henry Maudslay grew up around the dockyards of Woolwich, where he made himself useful at an early age by making and filling cartridges for the local arsenal. At the green age of 13, he caught the eye of the famous locksmith and plumbing genius Joseph Bramah. But Maudslay was too bright to abide another genius very long. When Bramah refused to give him a raise, he struck out on his own.

By 1797, Maudslay had set up his own shop and developed a slide rest lathe, which improved on earlier lathes both in the speed and the precision with which it could cut metal. In effect, Maudslay's lathe, which incorporated a blade of crucible steel mounted on accurately-planed triangular beams, allowed him to do work on a large scale while retaining the locksmith's or the clockmaker's precision.

The year 1808 found Maudslay in Portsmouth, turning out wooden rigging blocks, which were used largely aboard naval ships to move guns into firing position quickly. At that time, a vessel of the third class required 1,400 blocks, all of which were made by hand. This was no problem for Maudslay, who could produce 130,000 blocks a year.

Maudslay's work opened the way for the making of interchangeable parts, and he soon became highly sought after by aspiring engineers. Among his many apprentices was Joseph Whitworth, who developed measuring instruments accurate to a millionth of an inch. This was a vital step, because interchangeability relied on precisely tooled parts, which naturally had to be measurable in order to be made.

Whitworth went on to describe a method for standardizing screw threads in an 1841 paper titled "A uniform system of screw-threads." The first standardized screws soon followed, and with them mass production was finally within reach.

In an era when handmade machinery was still the norm, attempts to apply precision tooling to particular products necessarily came on a case-by-case basis. The most famous example, of course, is Henry Ford's Model T car, which first rolled off his assembly lines in 1909. But in fact, George Eastman got there before Ford.

While Eastman recognized early that his profits lay in film sales, he also knew that he would sell no film at all if his cameras did not work. The Eastman-Walker Roll Holder, introduced in the 1885, showed how well he had considered this problem. Though it contained 17 separate parts, his company was able to handle a high volume of orders from the very beginning. This became even more obvious in 1888, when the roll holder was incorporated in to the Kodak "roll holder breast camera" and sales jumped to 5,000 units in six months. Though this product did break down at times, the parts were in fact interchangeable and therefore relatively easy to repair, even as Eastman kept up with sales.

After a century of bogus claims, the slogan of at least one American -- Kodak's "You press the button, we do the rest" -- represented more than an empty boast.


written by David Lindsay

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