Why is the US in the mess that it seems to find itself?
That is the nagging question that caused me to start digging into how we got here. I am a product of an earlier time, an engineer from the second half of the 20th Century when anything was possible. The view at the time was that the impossible just took a little longer. We were forward thinking and optimistic, we had to be if we were to go to the moon. I was working at Cape Kennedy on the Apollo Program and never doubted we could achieve our goal.
Then something took hold of the country and we lost confidence and started turning inward. Instead of making a bigger pie we chose to try to carve the existing pie with the rent seekers grabbing more and more. Government became the enemy. Politics became very polarized and conflict the norm. The science and technology that had created great wealth and prosperity was attacked. While everyone seemed to want the ‘free lunch’ that technology provided there were many that opposed the ‘reason based thinking’ that it required.
I had a nagging question from 50 years of being in the front lines of aerospace technology. If the government was the enemy why was it that my personal experience was that the government was the technology facilitator? That government had been there to nurture the technology before it was strong enough to stand on its own two feet. The more I listened to the anti-government platitudes the more confused I became. When I retired I started looking at the issue through the eyes of a working engineer. The more I dug into reality the more the pontificating around me seemed nonsense.
As I followed what I remembered and researched the various technologies I kept going back farther and farther trying to determine when the government had started to facilitate technology. It turned out that the government was a leader, a sponsor or a critical supporter of most of the key technologies of the last 200 years.
Back in 1830’s the government funded several companies to develop the techniques for replaceable parts. At the time precision devices, in this case rifles, were made by hand. A set of parts were given to a person known as a ‘filer’. He filed and fit the rough parts until they fit together into the final product. This process meant that if any part needed to be replaced it had to be hand fitted. The government armories could not have armies in the field dependent on skilled workmen far away to maintain their weapons. The solution was make each part so precisely that any part could replace any similar part. This of course was considered unnecessary by the standards of the day and there was little interest. At the time the precision needed was very difficult, new tools, precision measuring devices and new work methods were needed. Government funding over a period of years lead to the final process. This key process for modern mass production became known in the 19th Century as ‘the American Method’. Some of the machines from the original government contracts can still be seen at the American Precision Museum in Winsor, Vermont.
The first use was in the manufacture of government weapons but the government insisted that the information on the process and how it was done should be distributed openly. The result was a large number of new industries making consumer products like typewriters, bicycles and alarm clocks. These new industries made a major positive impact on the wealth of the New England states and changed the face of America.
The replacement parts concept was critical for the development of the auto industry. Bill Knudsen, auto pioneer for Ford and GM was said to have taken every file and hammer from the auto production lines in the early 1900’s to enforce the standardization of parts. Today ‘the American method’ of production is the global standard process.
So even back in the early days of the country the government was funding the critical technologies that we depend on. Through the years much of the invisible infrastructure that we depend on was developed by the government. One of the problems with infrastructure is that it is ‘invisible’ and so it’s ‘out of sight out of mind’. Those attacking government can ignore almost invisible government efforts knowing that most people will not even realize they are there. Take air travel for instance. When the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane the second thing they did was to go to Washington to try to interest the government in their airplane. But that is another story of government support and innovation.