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Eli Whitney Started Spiral Toward Sprawl with Fast Gun

If children ask why the sky is blue and where babies come from because blue skies and babies are backdrops to their world, it must be a matter of time before they start asking where sprawl comes from. When they do, tell them: Eli Whitney. When they grow up a little and ask why the landscape is a prisonhouse of franchises, tell them: Eli Whitney.

And when they're old enough to ask why there's really no essential difference between Democrats and Republicans, why the White House has been, with a few Mackinac Fudge exceptions, a halfway house to irrelevance for cookie-cutter presidents, tell them: Eli Whitney. The cotton gin has nothing to do with it, although the French do.

The French, it was rumored in 1798, were threatening war against the United States. John Adams was president. The Alien and Sedition Acts (legal forebear to our own USA Patriot Act) weren't, in his view, enough to keep Americans safe from imaginary threats. He wanted guns, fast. He got Eli Whitney.

For $134,000, the equivalent of $1.4 million today, Whitney promised to deliver 10,000 muskets within 28 months. No one believed he could do it. Muskets were made one by one by craftsmen. Nobody thought the process could be rushed. But Whitney had a good name. He'd secured a patent for his cotton gin five years earlier. And ambition then did the job of a dozen lobbyists now. He got the contract.

Whitney then patented that other great specialty of military contracts: Lowballs and missed deadlines. He hadn't produced a single musket by 1801. But he'd built a factory in Connecticut and made parts of muskets for his "interchangeable system," an unheard-of concept until then. To secure more money and buy more time, he piled up his musket parts on a table before Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and dared them to assemble a weapon from the right parts chosen at random. Jefferson was floored.

"He has invented moulds and machines for making all the pieces of his lock so exactly equal," Jefferson wrote James Monroe, "that take 100 locks to pieces and mingle their parts and the hundred locks may be put together as well by taking the first pieces which come to hand."

Whitney got another $15,000 advance and $5,000 on delivery of each 500 muskets. It took him 10 years to make good on his initial promise. But mass production had arrived, and would prove as revolutionary to American society and business as the Constitution had to law and politics.

Whitney's interchangeable system for muskets is the same that Henry Ford applied to the automobile assembly line, that William Levitt applied to suburban housing, that Ray Kroc applied to fast food restaurants, that Al Neuharth applied to newspapers (think of the Gannettoids who brought us USA Today), and so on down a landscape of sameness.

"From the maternity ward at a Columbia/HCA Hospital," Eric Schlosser wrote in "Fast Food Nation" a couple of years ago, "to an embalming room owned by Service Corporation International -- 'the world's largest provider of death care services' -- a person can now go from the cradle to the grave without spending a nickel at an independently owned business."

We may complain about sprawl, but it is only the end result of the interchangeable parts we demand to oil the locks of our lives. Hence the prisonhouse of franchises around us.

The efficiency, the convenience, the cheapness of life by interchangeable parts is undeniable. But it isn't only materially cheap. For a nation that prides itself on individualism, we are the most efficiently conformist nation on the planet, give or take a Singapore. Individuality is suspect. Whether it's the color scheme on a sit-com or the intelligence quotient of a president, diversity is itself a mold that fits preconceived notions of what is acceptably different and what is inappropriately so.

"Thinking outside the box" has itself become a sloganeering convention of corporate seminars, the verbal bone to those who still imagine that difference will be rewarded, when, in fact, it subverts the very efficiency shareholders and consumers demand. It isn't a coincidence that the most visible symbols of sprawl are boxlike shopping hangars that make it next to impossible to shop outside the box. Or that television, the mother of all boxes, dictates the size of thoughts of an entire culture -- political and otherwise -- and renders invisible whoever dares outsize it.

It would be silly to indict Whitney for having made one of the greatest leaps of imagination in the history of technological innovations for the way it was eventually applied. But an invention doesn't fetch unintended consequences entirely by chance. The fixation on speed and pragmatism demanded by the nation's captivity to business fostered Whitney's leap. The same fixation molded it into its present application.

But Whitney wasn't quite an interchangeable part that played its part particularly well. He hadn't "thought outside the box" to succeed. He'd destroyed the box and built his own from scratch. That's what's being lost now to boxes and bigness: The impulse to creatively destroy, and the admiration for the destroyers. "The uniqueness of America," historian Daniel Boorstin warned a generation ago, "would prove to be its ability to erase uniqueness." So it has.