No Solyndra, No Sam Colt

Republicans in Congress were outraged when one of the companies that received a government guaranteed loan under Obama’s stimulus failed. The company in question was called Solyndra, and it made a special tubular solar “panel” that was designed to work in conjunction with white roofs, which are replacing dark roofs on commercial buildings across the nation. White roofs are highly reflective, and the Solyndra “panel” was supposed to be able to absorb both direct and reflected light. Solyndra received a $535 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy, as part of a program under the Obama stimulus (called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) designed to promote “green technology.”

The failure of Solyndra outraged Conservatives on two levels: first because government money was used to support “green” technology, and second because it was part of the hated Obama stimulus. Republicans tried to use it as an example of the failure of both of these programs. In response they proposed a bill to prevent government funding of similar programs, which they called the “No More Solyndras Act.”

Conservatives act as if government funding of new technology is some liberal scheme, that Obama is somehow an outlier, and that these are somehow new programs. But the reality is that the government has long funded business, particularly in cutting edge technology that could not get financing elsewhere. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was fascinated by the idea of interchangeable parts, particularly for weapons. He was certainly not alone. Interchangeable parts for a musket or cannon would mean that the weapon could be quickly and easily repaired on the battlefield. At the time all weapons were hand made, and if a part broke a replacement part needed to be hand made by a gun smith. It was an expensive and time consuming process, and militaries around the world were trying to develop weapons with interchangeable parts. If the triggers and firing mechanisms were interchangeable the weapon could be quickly, and cheaply, repaired.

In 1799 the inventor Eli Whitney gave a presentation of his precisely crafted gun components to Vice President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was impressed. He believed that Whitney had perfected the interchangeable part and pushed a bill through Congress to purchase guns from Whitney. But Whitney never succeeded in producing a large quantity of guns with truly interchangeable parts. Despite this failure, the government continued to fund weapons manufacturers who were trying to produce weapons with interchangeable parts. By the 1820’s a gun maker named John H. Hall was producing weapons at the government owned Harpers Ferry Armory that were passably interchangeable. But the real success came with Sam Colt, who mass produced a repeating revolver with precise and fully interchangeable parts. Colt struggled for years to sell his weapon. He sold a few to the Texas Rangers in the 1840’s but was unable to convince the U.S. Army to buy his weapons. In a fortuitous stroke of luck, as tensions with Mexico increased, a Texas Ranger was in Washington talking about problems with Mexico, when he happened to mention that the best weapon the Rangers had when fighting Indians was a Colt Revolver. Based on this praise the army placed an order for one thousand Colt pistols. The era of machine made weapons with fully interchangeable parts began.

I suspect that if the current crop of conservative Republicans had been in Congress in the early 1800’s they would have cut off government funding after the Whitney’s failure, and would have attempted to prevent such funding in the future. Would they have proposed a bill titled “No More Eli Whitneys?” I suspect so. But without Whitney there may have been no Hall, and no Sam Colt.

Author: Mike

I am a patent attorney in Lexington, Kentucky. My law firm web site is I ran for State Representative in 2010 and lost in the primary. Many of these posts are based on writing that I did for that election. Rather than delete it all, I decided to dump it onto the internet.

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