Sunday, September 04, 2011

Do Governments Invent New Technologies?

From Tyler Cowen, of all people.

Despite what conservatives routinely sell, the government is often the source of productive new technology.  In the age of internet and web, that seems obvious, but it happened before as well.  Few ideas are more crucial to the industrial revolution than that of interchangeable parts:

The symbolic kingpin of interchangeable parts production fell in 1960 when Robert S. Woodbury published his essay “The Legend of Eli Whitney and Interchangeable Parts”…Woodbury convincingly argued that the parts of Whitney’s guns were not in fact constructed with interchangeable parts…


With Eli Whitney reinterpreted as a promoter rather than as a pioneer of machine-made interchangeable parts manufacture, it remained for Merritt Roe Smith to identify conclusively the personnel and the circumstances of this fundamental step in the development of mass production. Smith demonstrated that the United States Ordnance Department was the prime mover in bringing about machine-made interchangeable parts production of small arms. The national armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, played a major role in this process, especially in its efforts to coordinate its operations with those of the Harpers Ferry Armory and John Hall’s experimental rifle factory, also at Harpers Ferry.