How American musket manufacturing paved the way for low-code software development

The early days of computing relied on mechanical devices. From the abacus through to Charles Babbage’s engines, these devices — much like the modern computer — were developed to increase the speed with which individuals could perform calculations in support of commercial (accounting, insurance), scientific (especially astronomy), and military applications.

The purpose of these machines was not to perform mathematical operations that were impossible by human beings, but to really democratize access to mathematics in much the same way as the printing press democratized access to the rest of human knowledge.

The history of computing is concerned with automating mathematical calculation in support of some practical end.

As a result of the mechanical nature of these devices, it should come as no surprise that there is a strong relationship between computation, mass production, and the military.

Manufacturing muskets in the 18th century

Up until the mid-18th century, armaments needed to be built by skilled craftsmen using custom fitting parts. The move toward standardization and the ability to measure with exacting precision made it possible by 1765 to produce interchangeable gun carriages.

By 1785, Honoré Blanc’s experiments with interchangeable musket parts came to the attention of Thomas Jefferson, who saw Blanc’s vision for interchangeability as a solution to a chronic shortage of skilled craftsmen in the US, which made the US dependent upon Europe for most of it weapons manufacture.

In 1798, based on his vision for a water-powered machine tool, Eli Whitney won a contract to deliver 10,000 muskets to the US War Department despite having no factory, no workers, and no experience in gun manufacturing.

Whitney struggled to deliver, so in the same ‘fake it till you make it’ spirit that characterizes modern Silicon Valley, Whitney bought some time through a demonstration of what he called the Uniformity System in 1801 the demonstration was likely faked. He was only ever able to deliver 500 muskets, none of which had any interchangeable parts.

Despite early failures of the Uniformity System, the vision remained, was eventually perfected by John Hall in 1827, and became known as the American System of Manufacturing.

Low-code, craftsmanship, and competitive advantage

What does this have to do with low-code software development?

Just as in the early days of American weapons manufacturing, today specialized craftsmen are in short supply. by the end of 2021, there were nearly 1 million unfilled IT jobs. And by 2030, the number of software job vacancies is expected to rise by almost 22%.

And just as in the early days of American manufacturing, a heavy reliance on professional developers (craftsmen) means that reuse is limited, patching is difficult, and quality is inconsistent.

Looking back at the history of manufacturing, the ‘app factory’ metaphor is a powerful way of describing the value of low-code approaches to software development. It would be silly to hold on to old notions of craftsmanship (which are slow, inconsistent, and non-interchangeable) when there are wars to be won. And it is just as silly to hold on to romantic notions of craftsmen approaches to software development when the global landscape across every industry is as competitive as ever.