Eli Whitney was born on December 8, 1765, in Westborough, Massachusetts. He was the eldest child of Elizabeth Fay and Eli Whitney, Sr., a prosperous farmer. Eli (1765) was never known as “Junior” even though he was one technically and was famous with the name “Eli Whitney.” Eli (1765) had a son whom he named Eli in 1820; his son was known during his life and after his death as “Eli Whitney, Jr.”)
Eli Whitney (1765) was 11 years old when his mother passed away in 1777. By the time he was 14 he was operating “a profitable nail manufacturing operation in his father’s workshop during the Revolutionary War. By the name he was old enough to attend college, his father had remarried, and his stepmother opposed his desire to attend college. He therefore worked as a farm laborer and school teacher to earn and save enough money. He attended Leicester Academy (now Becker College) and studied with Rev. Elizur Goodrich of Durham, Connecticut to prepare for college. He entered Yale with the class of 1789 and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1792 with the desire to study law; however, he did not have the funding and “accepted an offer to go to South Carolina as a private tutor.”
While on the ship bound for South Carolina, Whitney met the widow and family of General Nathanael Green, a hero of the Revolutionary War from Rhode Island. Mrs. Greene invited him to visit her plantation, Mulberry Grove, in Georgia. There he met the manager of her plantation – and her husband-to-be – Phineas Miller, and the two men became business partners.
Whitney became “famous for two innovations which later divided the United States in the mid-19th century: the cotton gin (1793) and his advocacy of interchangeable parts. In the South, the cotton gin revolutionized the way cotton was harvested and reinvigorated slavery. In the North the adoption of interchangeable parts revolutionized the manufacturing industry, and contributed greatly to the U.S. victory in the Civil War.”
Eli Whitney is best known for inventing the cotton gin, “one of the key inventions of the Industrial Revolution and shaped the economy of the Antebellum South. Whitney’s invention made upland short cotton into a profitable crop, which strengthened the economic foundation of slavery in the United States (regardless of whether Whitney intended that or not). Despite the social and economic impact of his invention, Whitney lost many profits in legal battles over patent infringement for the cotton gin….”
The cotton gin is described as “a mechanical device that removes the seeds from cotton, a process that had previously been extremely labor-intensive. The word ginis [is] short for engine. The cotton seeds would not fit through the mesh and fell outside. Whitney occasionally told a story wherein he was pondering an improved method of seeding the cotton when he was inspired by observing a cat attempting to pull a chick through a fence, and could only pull through some of the feathers.
“A single cotton gin could generate up to 55 pounds … of cleaned cotton daily. This contributed to the economic development of the Southern states of the United States, a prime cotton growing area; some historians believe that this invention allowed for the African slavery system in the Southern United States to become more sustainable at a critical point in its development.
“Whitney received a patent (later numbered as X72) for his cotton gin on March 14, 1794, but it was not validated until 1807. Whitney and his partner, Miller, did not intend to sell the gins. Rather … they expected to charge farmers for cleaning their cotton – two-fifths of the value, paid in cotton. Resentment at this scheme the mechanical simplicity of the device and the primitive state of patent law, made infringement inevitable. Whitney and Miller could not build enough gins to meet demand, so gins from other makers found ready sale. Ultimately, patent infringement lawsuits consumed the profits and their cotton gin company went out of business in 1797…."
Whitney was “credited with inventing the idea of interchangeable parts,” but “the idea predated [him].” He had for years “championed” interchangeable parts for muskets, but his actual “role in it was one of promotion and popularizing, not invention. Successful implementation of the idea eluded him until near the end of his life, occurring first in others’ armories.
“Attempts at interchangeability of parts can be traced back as far as the Punic Wars through both archaeological remains of boats now in Museo Archeologico Baglio Anselmi and contemporary written accounts. In modern times the idea developed over decades among many people….
“The motives behind Whitney’s acceptance of a contract to manufacture muskets in 1798 were mostly monetary. By the late 1790s, Whitney was on the verge of bankruptcy and the cotton gin litigation had left him deeply in debt. His New haven cotton gin factory had burned to the ground, and litigation sapped his remaining resources. The French Revolution had ignited new conflicts between Great Britain, France and the United States. The new American government, realizing the need to prepare for war, began to rearm. The War Department issued contracts for the manufacture of 10,000 muskets. Whitney, who had never made a gun in his life, obtained a contract in January 1798 to deliver 10,000 to 15,000 muskets in 1800. He had not mentioned interchangeable parts at that time. Ten months later, the Treasury Secretary, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., sent him a `foreign pamphlet on arms manufacturing techniques,’ … after which Whitney first began to talk about interchangeability.”
Short on funds because of problems with the cotton gin, Whitney accepted a contract to produce weapons for the government. The one-year contract actually took eight years. “Recently, historians have found that during 1801-1806, Whitney took the money and headed into South Carolina in order to profit from the cotton gin.”
Some historians give Whitney credit for inventing the first milling machine while others suggest he was part of a group of inventors with the inventions of the other inventers being “more important to the innovation” than that of Whitney.
Even though Whitney came from “humble origins,” he “was keenly aware of the value of social and political connections.” He used his “status as a Yale alumnus” gave him additional status. He also made “contacts” through his marriage to Henrietta Edwards in 1817 in that Henrietta was the “granddaughter of the famed evangelist Jonathan Edwards, daughter of Pierpont Edwards, head of the Democratic Party in Connecticut, and first cousin of Yale’s president, Timothy Dwight, the state’s leading Federalist. This type of connections was “essential” to business success with government contracts.
One month before he turned 59 years old, Eli Whitney died of prostate cancer on January 8 1825, in New Haven, Connecticut. He was survived by his widow and four children. Whitney’s likeness was put on a postage stamp in 1940.
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