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Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney

The American inventor and manufacturer Eli Whitney (1765-1825) perfected the cotton gin. He was a pioneer in the development of the American system of manufactures.

Eli Whitney was born in Westboro, Mass., on Dec. 8, 1765. He took an early interest in mechanical work. Although he worked on his father's farm, he preferred his father's shop, where, by the age of 15, he was engaged part-time in making nails for sale. He taught school to earn money to continue his education and graduated from Yale College in 1792.

It was Whitney's intention to study law, and he undertook to tutor children on a plantation near Savannah, Ga., to support himself. In Georgia he attracted a great deal of attention by inventing a number of domestic contrivances for his hostess. He was informed of the need for a machine to clean green-seed cotton. Cotton gins of various designs were then in use in different parts of the world, and models had been imported and tried in Louisiana as early as 1725. None had ever worked well, however, and when Whitney arrived in Georgia, cleaning was still a hand job. It took a slave a full day to clean one pound of cotton. Whitney set his hand to the problem and within ten days had produced a design for a gin. By April 1793 he had made one which cleaned 50 pounds a day.

Whitney went into partnership in May 1793 with Phineas Miller and returned to New England to build his gins. He received a patent for his machine in March 1794, by which time word of his design had spread and imitations were already on the market. It was the initial hope of Whitney and Miller to operate the gins themselves, thus cornering the cotton market, but a lack of capital and the large number of pirated machines made this impossible. Whitney took infringers to court, but he lost his first case, in 1797, and it was to be ten years before he won decisively and was able to establish his right to the machine.

During this decade of frustration and financial uncertainty, Whitney turned to the manufacture of small arms as a way of repairing his fortune and saving his reputation. He signed his first contract with the Federal government on June 14, 1798, and promised to deliver 4,000 arms by the end of September 1799 and another 6,000 a year later. Whitney had no factory and no workmen, knew nothing about making guns, and had thus far been unable even to manufacture in quantity the relatively simple cotton gins. The inducement for him was that the government agreed to advance him $5,000.

Judged by the terms of the contract, however, Whitney was a failure. He had no idea of how to go about fulfilling his obligation, and indeed he delivered his first 500 guns in 1801, three years late. The last guns were not delivered to the government until January 1809, almost nine years late. By this time the government had advanced him over $131,000. He died in New Haven, Conn., on Jan 8, 1825.

Whitney's claims of novel methods of production have led many scholars to assume that he had worked out and applied what came to be called the American system of manufactures. By this method, machines were substituted for hand labor, parts were made uniform, and production was speeded up. Thus it became possible to dispense with the skilled but expensive master craftsmen required previously.

This idea was not a new one. The Swedish inventor Christopher Polhem had used such a system in the 1720s, but no one had carried on his work. By 1799 the government armory at Springfield, Mass., had cut the number of man-days needed to make a musket from 21 to 9 through the use of machines.

The question thus becomes: where did Whitney fit into this growing concept of the American system? We know practically nothing of what went on within his armory. The records show that he tried to hire workmen away from the Springfield Armory to build machines for him. We know also that in a recent test of Whitney muskets not all their parts were in fact interchangeable and that some parts were not even approximately the same size. The answer then must be that Whitney was only one of a number of men who, about 1800, began to experiment with a relatively new and potentially revolutionary method of production— mass manufacture, by special-purpose machines, of products made up of uniform and interchangeable parts.

Further Reading

The basic biography is still Denison Olmsted, Memoir of Eli Whitney (1846). Two modern studies which tend perhaps to overemphasize Whitney's contributions to the development of American technology are Jeannette Mirsky and Allan Nevins, The World of Eli Whitney (1952), and Constance (McLaughlin) Green, Eli Whitney and the Birth of American Technology (1956). □

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Whitney, Eli (1765-1825)

Eli Whitney (1765-1825)

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Inventor

Cotton Gin. One of the most influential inventors in American history was born in Westboro, Massachusetts, in 1765. Eli Whitney was raised in poor circumstances but became so adept at making nails that he saved enough money to attend Yale College. After graduating in 1792 he traveled to Georgia to act as a tutor for a wealthy family but declined the position when he learned it did not pay what he had been promised. Fortunately, the widow of Gen. Nathanael Greene invited him to stay at her plantation at Mulberry Grove, near Savannah. While there he became intrigued with the manner in which slaves removed the seeds from picked cotton. All the work was done by hand, and Whitney began experimenting with a machine that could accomplish the same results but in an easier fashion. In 1793 he exhibited his cotton gin (gin was short for engine), a simple device that had profound ramifications. The machine was a hand-cranked cylinder with a series of teeth that pulled cotton from the seed. Beforehand it took one slave ten hours to clean three pounds of cotton by hand; with the cotton gin the full days work of several laborers could be accomplished in one hour.

Impact. The significance of the invention was immediately apparent in the massive increase of cotton production: in 1790 the United States produced four thousand bales of cotton; by 1820 it was 73, 222 bales; and by 1840 the figure had risen to 1, 347, 640. Despite patenting his machine in 1794, Whitney had difficulty protecting it from easily made reproductions, and realized little profit on his famous invention. The cotton gin was less notable for its technology than for its economic and social consequences. Whitney had hoped that by making the task of cleaning cotton so inexpensive he might help eliminate slavery. Instead the resulting boom in the cotton business in the Deep South gave new life to the institution, and southern planters became even more dependent on, and defensive about, slavery.

Mass Production. From a technical point of view Whitneys greatest contribution was his system of manufacturing guns with interchangeable parts. In late 1798, while trying to raise funds for the legal battles over his cotton gin, Whitney made the bold proposal to the War Department that he could manufacture four thousand muskets in less than two years. Rather than craft each musket by hand, as had been the custom, he designed a milling machine which would make parts exactly the same every time. Although this method would become the basis of modern mass production, Whitney at that time had no factory or tools to manufacture the muskets, and he was nine years late delivering the weapons.

Later Life. Whitney eventually built a factory with workers residences around it, which became the town of Whitneyville, Connecticut. The inventor also devised a set of moral guidelines by which his laborers would live. Like other industrial reformers such as Samuel Slater and Francis Cabot Lowell, his goal was to have healthy, happy workers, although the employees themselves might have found the arrangements confining. In any case, at Whitneyville were the milling machines and assembly lines and efficient labor that Whitney had created, a major contribution to Americas industrial transformation. Whitney died in New Haven in 1825.

Source

Constance M. Green, Eli Whitney and the Birth of American Technology (Boston: Little, Brown, 1956).

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Whitney, Eli

Whitney, Eli (1765–1825), inventor and firearms manufacturer.In debt from futile litigation against piracy of his cotton‐gin patent, this Massachusetts‐born Yale alumnus (class of 1792) obtained a federal contract in 1798 to make 10,000 military muskets. Unhampered by gunsmithing experience, Whitney built a water‐powered factory in Hamden, Connecticut, where he devised production methods later adopted into “armory practice.” His initially unskilled workers used specialized jigs and fixtures to shape ostensibly uniform gun parts before fitting them together for shipment to the Springfield Armory.

Declining an offer in 1806 to head the Harpers Ferry Armory, Whitney continued to receive contract extensions despite production delays, for his persuasively expressed plan agreed with the desire of French‐influenced ordnance officers to standardize weapons. Meeting with Whitney in 1815, they established interchangeability of parts as the goal for military musket production. That required coordination of effort among Springfield, Harpers Ferry, and contractors by a system of inspection and production gauges, which did not operate effectively until the late 1840s. Despite Whitney's fame, his muskets, like others of his era, lacked interchangeable parts.
[See also Musket, Rifled.]

Bibliography

Constance McLaughlin Green , Eli Whitney and the Birth of American Technology, 1956.
Merritt Roe Smith , Army Ordnance and the ‘American system’ of Manufacturing, 1815–1861, in Merritt Roe Smith, ed., Military Enterprise and Technological Change, 1985.

Carolyn C. Cooper

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"Whitney, Eli." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Whitney, Eli

Eli Whitney, 1765–1825, American inventor of the cotton gin, b. Westboro, Mass., grad. Yale, 1792. When he was staying as tutor at Mulberry Grove, the plantation of Mrs. Nathanael Greene, Whitney was encouraged by Mrs. Greene and visiting cotton planters to try to find some device by which the fiber of short-staple cotton could be rapidly separated from the seed. Whitney, whose creative mechanical bent had been evident from boyhood, completed his model gin early in 1793, after about 10 days of work, and by April had built an improved one. With Phineas Miller, Mrs. Greene's plantation manager (and later her husband), he formed a partnership to manufacture gins at New Haven. He was unable to make enough gins to meet the demand, and although the partners received a patent in 1794, others copied his model and soon many gins were in use. After much litigation the partners received (1807) a favorable decision to protect their patent, but Congress in 1812 denied Whitney's petition for its renewal. His invention, which had immense economic and social effects, brought great wealth to many others, but little to Whitney himself. In 1798 he built a firearms factory near New Haven. The muskets his workmen made by methods comparable to those of modern mass industrial production were the first to have standardized, interchangeable parts.

See biographies by J. Mirsky and A. Nevins (1962) and D. Olmsted (1846, repr. 1972); C. M. Green, Eli Whitney and the Birth of American Technology (1956).

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Whitney, Eli

Whitney, Eli (1765–1825) US inventor and manufacturer. He invented the cotton gin (1793), which revolutionized cotton picking in the South and turned cotton into a profitable export. After 1798, he manufactured muskets at a factory in New Haven, Connecticut, which was one of the first to use mass-production methods.

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