Eli Whitney is one of the best known American inventors. He was an inventor, engineer, and manufacturer all rolled into one. His name holds place among other American inventors of the likes of Thomas Alva Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.
Eli Whitney's Portrait

Eli Whitney transformed the economy of the USA and arguably transformed the nature of global industry itself. His cotton gin (cotton engine) invention brought about an unprecedented surge in the production of cotton and US became the world’s largest producer of cotton. As a result, in that period the Southern states of the US relied mainly on cotton produce for revenue. Since then Whitney made other achievements which qualify him to be the father of mass production system as he is often called.

Whitney was born on December 8 in Westboro, Massachusetts in 1765. From his childhood he was interested in machinery and he wanted to learn more about them. He worked as a blacksmith, and invented a nail-making machine. He however, always dreamed of pursuing formal higher education in engineering and gained admission in Yale in his mid 20s. After he graduated, however, he was disappointed to find that jobs were not aplenty for engineers. For a while, he instead took a teaching position.

Eli Whitney’s Invention – Cotton Gin

In 1793, Whitney came into acquaintance of Katherine Greene, who was the widow of a Revolutionary War general and was running her own plantation, Mulberry Grove. After his teaching assignment was over, Whitney was invited by Greene to stay and help at her cotton plantation. Whitney quickly learnt about cotton production watching the work at that plantation. Cotton would be grown on plantations – the seeds would be separated by hand and it would then be sold to be woven into cloth.

Cotton grown in these parts of the country had a green seed which would stick to the cotton. Removing this was very difficult. It seems that to sift out one “point” of cotton lint, it took 10 hours of removal by hand. Due to this reason, the finances of cotton plantation in these parts were not good and most plantations were nearing bankruptcy.

Whitney considered the situation and in no time designed a machine that separated seeds. Using this machine would cut down the time required for culling by many folds. This would lead to making the cotton plantations profitable.

Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin
His first model of the machine had cotton being pressed against a wire screen, and wooden teeth jutting out from a rotating drum nearby removing the cotton fibers out. However this model wasn’t very successful as the machine would jam frequently. The successive model, which was hugely successful had thin wire hooks to pull out the cotton and a moving brush to clean the cotton from the hooks. This cotton gin was credited with turning cotton production into a prosperous business.

Whitney demonstrated this machine to farmers in order to obtain work from them on culling seeds using his machine at a fee. Farmers convinced with the method, increased production of cotton at their plantations. However, copies of the cotton gin were everywhere in no time claiming to be ‘new inventions’. It is said that the design was stolen from Whitney’s workshop.

Whitney went into a legal battle, which due to a wording in the patent act did not enable him to win. After ten years of legal battles, he reached bankruptcy. Whitney then sold the patent rights.

The most significant negative consequence of the invention of cotton gin was the growth of slavery. Since cotton gin reduced the labor of removing seeds, it made cotton growing profitable. This increased production of cotton as more farmers took to growing it. This in turn spurred demand for laborers and slaves. As a result, slavery increased, import of slaves and slave states increased. By mid 1800s approximately one third of the Southerners were slaves.

Eli Whitney’s idea – mass production system

In 1804, Whitney left the South, disgruntled with his experience of cotton gin. He said, “An invention can be so valuable as to be worthless to the inventor.” He then settled in New Haven, Connecticut where he introduced the system of mass production. He enabled mechanization of manufacturing and enabled employment of many unskilled laborers in the industry even to make products requiring high skill and precision. He pioneered his concept in the rifle industry with muskets. To enable this, he created products with interchangeable parts. These were cut and shaped by machines. Later these parts would be assembled into the product. This concept was further adopted by other industries later – particularly the automobile industry. Mass production caused a huge boom in the American industry, and provided employment for thousands of unskilled workers.

Other inventions of Eli Whitney

Whitney is also attributed to inventing the first milling machine.

Nearing his final days when he was afflicted with prostate cancer leading to his death, he invented several devices to mechanically lessen his pain. These devices were effective but were never manufactured for use of others as these were not disclosed by the family.

Personal

Whitney married Henrietta Edwards in 1817, who was the daughter of Pierpont Edwards, head of the Democratic Party in Connecticut and granddaughter of evangelist Jonathan Edwards. She was also the first cousin of Yale’s president, Timothy Dwight, the state’s leading Federalist. So the marriage included him in the circle of Connecticut’s ruling elite. This is said to have helped him in his business.

There is also controversy surrounding his cotton gin invention as it is claimed that Katherine Greene gave valuable inputs to solve the flaws to the first model and to make it viable. However, Whitney has never publicly recognized her contribution.

Death

Whitney died at age 59 on January 8, 1825, in New Haven, Connecticut, leaving behind his wife and four children. The government issued a postage stamp in his honor.
Eli Whitney Postage Stamp