Chapter 3: The Culture of Yankee Ingenuity

The Genesis

Yankee: In the beginning, a native or inhabitant of New England; later a native or inhabitant of a Northern U.S. state; and finally and currently, a native or an inhabitant of The United States- an American.

In 1776, in Rhode Island, Jeremiah Wilkinson devised a new way to produce nails utilizing jigs and fixtures, the forerunners of special machine tools. In doing so, he was among the first to break one of numerous British monopolies. That monopoly by itself utilized upwards of 50,000 young, indentured servants making nails “the way nails are supposed to be made.”

Paul Revere of Boston, Massachusetts and Midnight Ride fame, was not only a well-known coppersmith and silversmith, but also a manufacturer of ship’s gear. He was also among the first Americans to succeed against the monopolistic metal working industries of England. He is less well- known for the saving of the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” an unseaworthy vessel, by his ingenuity in rolling a copper sheathing for its bottom.

In 1793, Eli Whitney of New Haven, Connecticut, responded to a challenge from cotton growers in Savannah, Georgia. The task was to devise an effective way to clean Upland Cotton of its seed. The invention of the cotton gin followed. In Whitney’s words, “It makes the labour fifty times less, without throwing any class of people out of business.”[9] It revolutionized the textile industry and started the South and the United States on a path of great domestic and international commercial success.

Whitney’s real contribution however, was to manufacturing and mass production. Today, his 1798 success in advancing from jigs and fixtures to a machine

This was the ancestor of the special machine tool. It was a machine designed for a specific manufacturing step on one component part only.

Previously, all mechanical devices were assembled by “fitters,” craftsmen who custom-shaped each piece to fit into its position in the device. No two of the pieces or of the devices themselves would be exactly alike. The way had been found to manufacture precision interchangeable parts, a concept previously thought not to be practical. You can imagine the complications imposed by the lack of interchangeability when thinking about the frequent repairs required by devices like firearms. It took a scarce fitter to make a new part to replace the worn part. It was said that at any given time, there were as many muskets waiting for repair as there were in service.

Whitney designed and built a “manufactory” and all the special purpose machine tools himself to make the interchangeable musket components. His machines would first produce 10,000 army muskets on a U.S. government contract. Whitney’s revolutionary concept was the key to and the foundation of mass production.

Author Christy Borth describes that “major achievement as one from which virtually every item in our ‘more abundant life’ directly descends.”[10 ]

In 1818, Whitney invented the milling machine. Some believe his work to be the basis for the term Yankee ingenuity.

It is difficult for us to project ourselves back in time and into Whitney’s position, but it is apparent that the courage he displayed in this undertaking was monumental. He had negotiated the musket contract with the U.S. government strictly on good faith, with no tangible proof that his concepts would work and with no previous experience in arms manufacture. The concept of interchangeable parts to most at that time would have been inconceivable.

The risk of failure in such an undertaking, with all the obstacles and all that was at stake, had to be extraordinary.

The risk taken by the procuring officials was also very significant, but Whitney’s vision of the benefits of interchangeability was compelling and made the risk of failure worthwhile. The vision (imagination) and courage of those officials was fundamental to the success of those early Americans and we still benefit from it today. Those same characteristics are fundamental to progress in the twenty-first century.

Whitney demonstrated his concept to President John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and other officials by assembling ten muskets from parts randomly selected by the officials from piles of the components that made up the assembly. The demonstration was required by the contract to satisfy the officials that the contract would be fulfilled.

The water-powered factory and the special purpose machine tools among the first ever to be used, had to first be conceived, then built and put into production. Whitney’s personal fortune, his personal reputation, his workers’ well-being, and of course the customer, a U.S. government preparing for war, were all at serious risk. He had the courage, energy, and passion to support his extraordinary imagination.


While some controversy exists between various sources regarding the very first attempts at interchangeability, there is no disagreement that Whitney was the noteworthy American pioneer.

Still today, the courage to accept challenge and to risk failure is an essential ingredient for progress in any field. The risks must be borne by all involved, just as in Whitney’s era.

Ingenuity: Inventive skill, imaginative and clever design and construction, having a clever and cunning mind.

These early Americans, “Yankees,” and many others like them, were faced with monumental challenges in the new world. They were also blessed by having no guidelines, rules, traditional ways, standard methods, or “that’s the way we do things” paradigms to suppress free thought.

There were no precedents for the things that needed to be done and that they would do. They were free to exercise their imagination and ingenuity. They would find imaginative ways to provide Americans and others the products that they needed and that would make their lives more comfortable. They would also give serious competition to the old world monopolies. They were passionate about their independence from the dictates of the old world and its monopolies. They were serious competitors.

A unique culture was born by virtue of the vast needs of a pioneering population, the competitive spirit, passion, and courage of those Yankees and “the no rules environment.” This culture was no doubt grounded in the same characteristics that caused the early Americans to face the risks and challenges and to endure the hardships to make the hazardous voyage to America. The exploration and pioneering of the great American West and the journey to the moon were other examples of this same trait.

There will be more discussion on the “no rules environment” expression which purposely overstates the need for an atmosphere of freedom of thought and for acceptance. Any enterprise, of course, does require certain disciplines, common sense, and principled, ethical behavior.

Today, Yankee ingenuity applies to all fields of endeavor: manufacturing, medicine, agriculture, chemistry, the modern high tech fields of computers, information, and telecommunication and any others that can be imagined.

Yankee ingenuity (author’s definition): The passionate, imaginative, and courageous search to find a way, “the solution,” and then a better way and to beat the competition, whomever and where ever they may be, in the process. (“The best way” is never achievable as there will always be a better way.)

Formula: Satisfy apparent needs and wants, evolutionary or revolutionary, for apparent rewards - defined as the yield from the solutions themselves and “W3” – Re. chapter IV page 41.

While the term Yankee ingenuity signifies an American trait, it and the competing corresponding traits of other nationalities are “the cause of progress.”

If necessity is the mother of invention, competition is its father.

The Yankee ingenuity culture grew along with the nation, expanding with each generation, and became a national characteristic. It caused the emerging United States’ economy to accelerate and ultimately surpass the great powers of the old world.

American companies hold more than 90 percent of all global software patents, 90 percent of all global medical patents, and more than 80 percent of all global automobile patents. Many give the “find a way” Yankee ingenuity culture credit for winning the Second World War. It is largely responsible for creating the greatest economy that the world has ever known. The prosperity and comforts that Americans and many other nations enjoy entering the twenty-first century are the result.

Culture: Behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human thought and work; Intellectual and artistic activity and the works produced by it.

[9]Constance Mcl. Green, edited by Oscar Handlin, Eli Whitney and the Birth of American Technology, (Library of American Biography, 1956), 46. that repeated the same motion over and over again is not common knowledge.

[10 ]Christy Borth, Masters of Mass Production, (The Bobbs – Merrill Company, 1945) 27.

Sweet and Sour Grapes
Sweet & Sour Grapes: The Story of the Machine Tool Industry
ISBN: 1587620316
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 77
Authors: James Egbert © 2008-2017.
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