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.
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). □
Whitney, Eli (1765-1825)
Eli Whitney (1765-1825)
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 day’s 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 Whitney’s 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 America’s industrial transformation. Whitney died in New Haven in 1825.
Constance M. Green, Eli Whitney and the Birth of American Technology (Boston: Little, Brown, 1956).
Whitney is credited with inventing the cotton gin. This mechanical device efficiently removed seeds from short-staple cotton bolls, resulting in that type of cotton being grown in more areas of the United States. Although the cotton gin was considered a labor-saving tool, it ironically caused the expansion of slavery in America. While the cotton gin relieved laborers from removing seeds from cotton fibers by hand, it created a demand for more raw cotton, thus increasing the need for workers to pluck the bolls from cotton fields.
Born on December 8, 1765, in Westboro, Massachusetts, Whitney was the son of Eli and Elizabeth Whitney. He financed his education at Yale by making nails and teaching. Graduating in 1792, Whitney accepted a position as a tutor on a Southern plantation. While visiting Catherine Greene (1755-1814), the widow of General Nathanael Greene, at her home Mulberry Grove, near Savannah, Georgia, he impressed her with his mechanical abilities and was invited to stay. (Scholars debate whether Whitney independently created the cotton gin or if Greene suggested the design. Other historians stress that slaves on Greene's plantation originally had the idea for the cotton gin, which Whitney patented as his own invention.)
Several of Greene's friends complained that short-staple cotton was unprofitable to grow because of the labor required to remove seeds. Greene suggested that agriculturists consult Whitney because of his technological talents. Whitney devoted several months to building a cotton gin on Greene's plantation. Nearby residents heard rumors about Whitney's work and thieves stole the prototype from his workshop. Agriculturists copied his design and built cotton gins prior to Whitney's receiving a patent in 1794. Whitney's cotton gin consisted of a long box with a revolving cylinder and saws that separated lint from seed. Underneath the saws, a brush (which some scholars say was Greene's idea) removed lint. The cotton gin enabled one person to clean fifty pounds of cotton per day instead of one pound processed by hand per day.
Whitney and Phineas Miller, Greene's plantation manager, established a partnership in 1793 to manufacture and sell the cotton gin, but they were plagued by patent-infringement troubles. Whitney initiated at least 60 lawsuits against imitators and his patent was validated in 1807. He endured Congress's refusal to renew his patent in 1812 in addition to a factory fire and Miller's death. As use of the cotton gin increased, cotton cultivation became profitable and cotton exports increased from 189,500 pounds in 1791 to 60 million pounds in 1805. Southerners relied on even more slaves to plant and harvest more cotton. Approximately 657,000 slaves lived in the southern states in 1790 but, by 1810, the number had increased to 1.3 million. Many planters became wealthy from what was referred to as "white gold" and "King Cotton" came to dominate the Southern agricultural economy. More cotton was sold at lower prices, resulting in the textile industry's thriving in the South. Globally, Southern cotton became the favored material for fabric.
Whitney also applied his ingenuity to mass production. A 1798 government contract to manufacture 10,000 muskets resulted in Whitney's building an armory at Whitneyville, near New Haven, Connecticut. He proved that workers who were not skilled gunsmiths could use machine tools to create interchangeable, standardized parts. Whitney's factory was one of the first to demonstrate mass-production methods and division-of-labor strategies successfully. Unlike his cotton-gin experiences, however, Whitney profited greatly from this venture. Whitney's armory also inspired the construction of similar federal facilities. Dying at New Haven on January 8, 1825, Whitney was survived by his wife and four children. His cotton-gin design has been incorporated into more sophisticated, modern mechanical procedures to process as much as 15 tons of cotton per hour.
ELIZABETH D. SCHAFER
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.]
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