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As we enter a new century full of technological promise, there is a renewed emphasis on the role of industrial entrepreneurs with new, innovative solutions to the problems and opportunities of twenty-first century America. Yet the reliance on industrial entrepreneurs and their symbiotic relationship with the federal government is not new. Driven by both the exigencies of national defense and the requirements of transportation and communication across the American continent, the federal government has played an instrumental role in fostering the development of new production techniques and technologies from the earliest years of the republic. To do so, government has often turned to individual entrepreneurs with innovative ideas. For example, in 1798 the federal government laid the foundation for the first machine tool industry with a contract to the inventor, Eli Whitney, for interchangeable musket parts.1 A few decades later, in 1842, a hesitant Congress appropriated funds to demonstrate the feasibility of Samuel Morse’s telegraph.2 Both Whitney and Morse fostered significant inno-


Whitney missed his first delivery date and encountered substantial cost overruns. However, his invention of interchangeable parts, and the machine tools to make them, was ultimately successful. The muskets were delivered and the foundation of a new industry was in place. As early as the 1850s, the United States had begun to export specialized machine tools to the Enfield Arsenal in Great Britain. The British described the large-scale production of firearms, made with interchangeable parts, as “the American system of manufacturers.” See David C. Mowery and Nathan Rosenberg, Paths of Innovation: Technological Change in 20th Century America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 6.


For a discussion of Samuel Morse’s 1837 application for a grant and the congressional debate, see Irwin Lebow, Information Highways and Byways. New York: IEEE, 1995, pp. 9-12. For a more detailed account, see Robert Luther Thompson, Wiring a Continent: The History of the Telegraph Industry in the United States 1823-1836. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947.

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