Sunday, December 02, 2012

An impact of Civil War Industrial Scale Up of Production.

I watched a talk by Merritt Roe Smith on the technology of the Civil War. The United States had pioneered the American System of Manufacturing and was selling guns and clocks into England before the Civil War. The war, however, saw a huge expansion of manufacturing in the Union. While the increase included uniforms, boots, canned foods, wagons and other materials, in his talk Smith concentrated on rifles and pistols, and the machine tools used in their manufacture.

The American System of Manufacturing, featuring machine production of devices with interchangeable parts was pioneered at the Springfield and Harper's Ferry Armories. Army officers led the development, and introduced processes to assure that parts were indeed interchangeable. Military armories and private firms were able to utilize the approach, but were able to scale up production by more than an order of magnitude during the war.

Most of the long gun production during the war was muskets. This decision was described by Smith as based on the need for rugged reliability of weapons to be used on the battlefield.

I find myself wondering how important the military model was it in terms of regimenting the production process under the direction of top leaders with production managers, like military non-commissioned officers, to assure that things were lined up on the factory floor and that tolerances were met in the production,?

Smith points out that not only did armories scale up production, as did firms like Colt and Remington , but some textile firms switched over to weapons production. (In World War II, many firms switched from production for civilian markets to military production.)

Why were textile manufacturers successful in switching over to military manufacture? Some possibilities:
  • They were already engaged in mechanical production following the industrial revolution model, and could shift to produce weapons using some of the same skills and equipment.
  • Work force discipline from textile production could be utilized for weapons manufacture.
  • People in the textile industry had an entrepreneurial spirit of management and willing to compete for new markets.
  • The mill owners and managers were experienced in the purchase and installation of production machinery.
  • The mills already had water power that could be utilized for new production,
Smith suggested that the lessons learned in the Civil War in expanding manufacturing volume were important in the post war period and were in fact an early example of mass production of the kind we tend to associate with Henry Ford. Indeed, the experience may have led rather directly to mass production.

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