Eli Whitney (1765-1825) was originally from Massachusetts, but after graduating from college took a teaching position in South Carolina and became aware of a problem with the attempts to start growing cotton in the area -- long-staple cotton, which had fibers that could be separated from the plant's seeds by hand, would not grow on the U.S. mainland, but short-staple cotton would. He came up with a solution and patented his cotton gin to remove the seeds from picked short-staple cotton in 1794, but imitations appeared quickly and it was 1807 before he was able to enforce his patent and get any profit from his invention.

The invention decreased the amount of labor needed to get the from a bag full of picked cotton to the fibers that could be made into thread, so that cotton was a profitable crop in the U.S. South for the first time. (Before that, tobacco and rice had been the area's main crops.) However, if more cotton was to be put through the machine, more had to be grown and picked, which required more labor. It was only after the cotton-growing system was firmly in place that Southerners started feeling that slavery was truly necessary for their economic prosperity.

Whitney later developed a system using machines for making interchangable parts for guns. He became one of the U.S.'s foremost arms manufacturers and paved the way for other items to be made with replaceable parts, revitalizing the economy of the northern U.S. with industry as he had done the South with agriculture.

Eli Whitney
Born December 8, 1765 - Died January 8, 1825

Inducted to the U.S. National Inventor's Hall of Fame in 1974 for the Cotton Gin, Patented March 14, 1794

American inventor, pioneer, echanical engineer, and manufacturer Eli Whitney is best remembered as the inventor of the cotton gin. He also affected the industrial development of the United States when, in manufacturing muskets for the government, he translated the concept of interchangeable parts into a manufacturing system, giving birth to the American mass-production concept. Born in Westboro, Massachusetts, Whitney decided in 1783 to get a college education. His own efforts were supplemented by his father's financial help, and after six years preparation he was admitted to Yale College, graduating in 1792. Whitney saw that a machine to clean the seed from cotton could make the South prosperous and make its inventor rich. He set to work at once and within days had drawn a sketch to explain his idea; 10 days later he constructed a crude model that separated fiber from seed. After perfecting his machine he filed an application for a patent on June 20, 1793; in February 1794 he deposited a model at the Patent Office, and on March 14 he received his patent. Whitney's gin brought the South prosperity, but the unwillingness of the planters to pay for its use and the ease with which the gin could be pirated put Whitney's company out of business by 1797. When Congress refused to renew the patent, which expired in 1807, Whitney concluded that 'an invention can be so valuable as to be worthless to the inventor.' He never patented his later inventions, one of which was a milling machine. His genius as expressed in tools, machines, and technological ideas made the southern United States dominant in cotton production and the northern states a bastion of industry.

During his illustrious career Whitney also worked as a blacksmith, developed and operated a machine which made nails, and for a time was the country's sole maker of ladies' hatpins. After receiving a degree at Yale at the age of twenty-seven, Whitney accepted a position as a tutor in South Carolina that promised a salary of one hundred guineas a year. On the journey, he became acquainted with the widow of Nathanael Greene, a Revolutionary general. When Whitney arrived, he was informed that the promised salary was going to be halved.

Mrs. Greene intended to marry one Phineas Miller, and Whitney ended up living on his farm and working for him, doing odd jobs. During the term of his employment there, he was persuaded to inspect the job of creating a machine which would remove the seeds from Green Seed Cotton, the only type which would grow in the region. For his troubles, he was repaid by the planters pirating his invention. He ended up being paid about $90,000 by various states, most of which was owed for legal costs and other expenses. The states then repudiated their agreements, and sued him for the money they had paid out to him. In 1804 Whitney applied to the federal Congress for relief, which was granted by one vote.

While best-known for the cotton gin, Whitney was involved in many other enterprises which changed the way the world operates today. He invented a system of machining in which an unskilled worker could produce parts for complicated devices, using templates.


National Inventor's Hall of Fame, list of inductees

Sources cited second-hand through the Eli Whitney Museum:

American Science and Invention: A Pictoral History
Mitchell Wilson
Simon and Schuster, New York
pp. 78-83

Eli Whitney And The Machine Age
Wilma Pitchford Hays
Franklin Watts

Eli Whitney And The Whitney Armory
Carolyn Cooper and Merrill Lindsay
Lennox F. Beach and James B. Smith

Eli Whitney, Boy Mechanic
Dorothea Snow
The Bobbs-Merrill Company

Eli Whitney's Gun Factory
Davis Cochran Miller Noyes Architects

Essays In Arts And Sciences; Nineteenth Century American Industry And Culture: Eli Whitney Issue
The University Of New Haven
Volume X, No. 2
March 1982

Technology And Culture; The International Quarterly Of The Society For The History Of Technology
The University Of Chicago Press
Volume XIV, No. 4
October 1973

Technology And Society
Denison Olmsted
Arno Press

Windows On The Works; Industry On
The Eli Whitney Site 1798-1979

Karyl Lee Kibler Hall And Carolyn Cooper

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