American System of Manufactures

views updated


The American System of Manufactures was an innovative method for producing finished goods. In essence, the American System of Manufactures relied on precision machining of parts so that the total product was standardized and featured interchangeable parts. The earliest practitioners of the American System were small arms manufacturers.

It was earlier thought that Eli Whitney, who designed the cotton gin, was responsible for the innovation regarding the interchangeability of parts in small arms manufacturer. This claim was erroneous, however. Most scholars now believe that another inventor by the name of Simeon North deserves credit for that advance. In 1798 the U.S. federal government awarded an order of five hundred "horse pistols" to North, who organized production so that one individual did only one operation.

This innovation of using the division of labor in manufacture was important, but it was only one element of the American System. In 1808 North received another order from the federal governmentthis one for twenty thousand pistols. The contract stipulated that the parts were to be interchangeable: "the component parts of pistols, are to correspond so exactly that any limb or part of one pistol may be fitted to any other pistol of the twenty thousand." (Hounshell, 28) The system had far-reaching effects on American industry. It spelled the end of the handicraft methods of cottage industry and accelerated the move of American laborers from their home enterprises to factories. It made for more reliable repair of the finished product. It also allowed industrial managers to hire unskilled labor to produce a great number of goods at once, rather than one at a time. By the mid-1800s the system had revolutionized manufacturing. New technologies combined with the nation's plentiful raw materials and an ever-growing number of laborers to transform the United States into a leading manufacturing society.

See also: Mass Production


Hounshell, David A. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

About this article

American System of Manufactures

Updated About content Print Article


American System of Manufactures