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Eli Whitney was only getting started when he invented the cotton gin in 1793 (see Chapter 10). He went on to be one of the pioneers of interchangeable-parts manufacturing (1800) by making musket guns with identical parts for the Army. Until then, guns were handmade, with each part machined to fit only its own rifle. After Whitney popularized the manufacture of interchangeable parts, factories could become assembly lines rather than disparate workshops for individual craftsmen. This practical idea led to a surge of inventions that led to the rapid growth in manufacturing by the "American System" that would become prevalent during the 1840s and 1850s.

Whitney's cotton gin allowed the South to become a rich slave empire and spurred him on to greater inventions. His interchangeable parts supported mass production, which Northern factories perfected by the 1850s. As a result, the North became an even richer manufacturing empire, complete with the rifle power the North would need to defeat the Southern slavers in the Civil War. You could say that Whitney's rifle solved the problem his cotton gin created in the first place.

The advent of mass production

The North wasn't just making guns. The Singer sewing machine (1846) revolutionized clothes-making; it was the first practical way to sew clothes without making everything by hand. You pumped the first sewing machine with your foot; electrical power hadn't been invented. Even though it was made with interchangeable parts, however, the sewing machine was still expensive, which led to another big change, this time in the way products were sold.

Before the mid-1800s, most purchases had to be made with cash up front. Singer revolutionized this system by allowing families to buy the new sewing machine on time payments. Consumers could justify the purchase with what they would save in clothing. This system linked the first must-have home technology with the first must-pay credit debt.

Mass production also sped the introduction of the grain reaper (1834), manufactured by Cyrus McCormick. This reaper enabled one man riding on a horse-drawn machine to cut as much wheat as five men swinging the hand scythes, previously the only way to harvest grain since the days of the Romans. This invention allowed the extensive large-scale agriculture that made the Midwest rich. Even an invention as humble as John Deere's steel plow (1837) greatly improved food-growing by reliably turning the soil for better crops.

The telegraph

Samuel Morse was the first person to put electricity to work with the invention of the telegraph (1844). For the first time, news could travel across the nation in seconds, not weeks. The "talking wire" drew opinions closer together in the decade before the Civil War. Getting instant feedback may actually have heightened the disagreements between North and South. Morse's telegraph got an international boost with the laying of the Atlantic cable to Britain. The cable broke before the Civil War but was restored permanently right afterward. The telegraph reached the West Coast in 1861.

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