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American System of Manufactures

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(19th century)

The American System of Manufactures came to international attention at the Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, London, of 1851, and reflected the rapid strides in technology and industrialization that had been taking place for several decades in the United States. The USA won more awards in proportion to the number of its exhibits at the exhibition than any other participating nation. These included the McCormick reaper, sewing machines, clocks, and the Colt revolver. So striking and innovative were the American exhibits that the British government subsequently sent a team of experts to report back on American industrial progress, recognizing that the United States was emerging as a leading industrial force and competitor. One of the key features of the American System was its use of interchangeable parts as a means of reducing manufacturing costs. The origins of the American System of Manufactures lay in the early recognition that national affluence was only likely to come about if manufacturing output could be dramatically enhanced and competitively priced products made available to the consumer. Fields that showed significant early developments in this mission were clock manufacture (with innovations pioneered by such figures as Eli Terry in the early 19th century), the axe handle industry of the 1830s and 1840s (particularly the work of engineer Elisha K. Root and entrepreneur Samuel Collins), and firearms, the Colt revolver factory producing 1,000 guns a day using a 300‐horsepower steam engine. Similar ideas were also explored in the burgeoning typewriter and watch manufacturing industries in the second half of the 19th century. So significant was the impact of the American System on the transformation of an agricultural nation to a leading industrial force that one writer has likened its impact on American manufacturing techniques to the dramatic Japanese ‘Economic Miracle’ in the decades following the end of the Second World War.

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