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(December 8, 1765–January 8, 1825) was an American inventor. He
was born in Westborough, Massachusetts, on December 8, 1765, the eldest
child of Eli Whitney, a prosperous farmer, and Elizabeth Fay of Westborough.
Very early in life he demonstrated his mechanical genius and entrepreneurial
acumen, operating a profitable nail manufacturing operation in his father's
workshop during the American Revolution. Because his step-mother opposed
his wish to attend college, Whitney worked as a farm laborer and schoolteacher
to save money. He prepared for Yale under the tutelage of Rev. Elizur
Goodrich of Durham, Connecticut and entered the Class of 1792 at the
age of twenty-three.
to study law but, finding himself short of funds on graduation, accepted
an offer to go to South Carolina as a private tutor. Instead of reaching
his destination, he was convinced to visit Georgia. In the closing years
of the eighteenth century, Georgia was a magnet for New Englanders seeking
their fortunes (its Revolutionary era governor had been Lyman Hall,
a migrant from Connecticut). When he initially sailed for South Carolina,
among his shipmates was the widow and family of Revolutionary hero,
General Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island. Mrs. Greene invited Whitney
to visit her Georgia plantation, Mulberry Grove. Her plantation manager
and husband-to-be was Phineas Miller, another Connecticut migrant and
Yale graduate (Class of 1785), who would become Whitney's business partner.
Whitney's two most famous innovations would divide the country in the
The cotton gin,
which revolutionized the way Southern cotton was cropped and reinvigorated
slavery; and his interchangeable parts, that would revolutionize Northern
industry and, in time, be a major factor in the North's victory in the
The cotton gin
is a mechanical device which removes the seeds from cotton, a process
which had, until the time of its invention, been extremely labor-intensive.
The cotton gin was a wooden drum stuck with hooks, which pulled the
cotton fibers through a mesh. The cotton seeds would not fit through
the mesh and fell outside. Whitney occasionally told a story where he
was pondering an improved method of seeding the cotton and he was inspired
by observing a cat attempting to pull a chicken through a fence, and
could only pull through some of the feathers.
The cotton gin could
generate up to fifty 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.
Cotton Gin Patent.
It shows sawtooth gin blades, which were not part of Whitney's original
patent.Like so much about Whitney's career, his claims as inventor of
the cotton gin were disputed both in his own time and in our own. In
addition to contemporary claimants against whom Whitney litigated (with
varying success), modern historians of technology have suggested that
the gin may actually have been invented by others, among whom his patroness
Catherine Greene, John Ogden Nash, and Hogden Holmes have been mentioned.
Whitney received a patent (later numbered as X72) for his cotton gin
on March 14, 1794, however, it was not validated until 1807. Whitney
and his partner Miller did not intend to sell the gins. Rather, like
the proprietors of grist and sawmills, they expected to charge farmers
for cleaning their cotton - two-fifths of the profits, paid in cotton.
Resentment at this scheme, the mechanical simplicity of the device,
and the primitive state of patent law, made infringement inevitable.
Whitney's cotton gin company went out of business in 1797.
While the cotton
gin did not earn Whitney the fortune he had hoped for, it did transform
Southern agriculture and the national economy. Southern cotton found
ready markets in Europe and in the burgeoning textile mills of New England.
Cotton agriculture revived the profitability of slavery and the political
power of supporters of the South's "peculiar institution."
By the 1820s, the dominant issues in American politics were driven by
"King Cotton": maintaining the political balance between slave
and free states and tariff protection for American industry. The cotton
interests led the country into war with Mexico, expecting a vast expansion
of cotton agriculture.
Although Whitney is popularly credited with the invention of a musket
that could be manufactured with interchangeable parts, the idea predates
him and he never succeeded at it. The idea is credited to Jean Baptiste
Vaquette de Gribeauval, a French artillerist, and credit for finally
perfecting the "armory system," or American system of manufacturing,
is given to Captain John H. Hall. In From the American System to Mass
Production, historian David Hounshell describes how de Gribeauval's
idea propagated from France to the colonies via two routes: from Honoré
Blanc via his friend Thomas Jefferson, and via Major Louis de Tousard,
another French artillerist who was instrumental in establishing West
Point, teaching the young officer corps of the Continental Army, and
in establishing the armories at Springfield and Harper's Ferry.
By the late 1790s,
Whitney was on the verge of bankruptcy and 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 England, 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 ten to fifteen
thousand muskets in 1800. He had not mentioned interchangeable parts
at that time. Ten months later, Treasury Secretary Wolcott sent him
a "foreign pamphlet on arms manufacturing techniques," possibly
one of Honoré Blanc's reports, after which Whitney first began
to talk about interchangeability. After spending most of 1799-1801 in
cotton gin litigation, Whitney began promoting the idea of interchangeable
parts, and even arranged a public demonstration of the concept in order
to gain time. He did not deliver on the contract until 1809, but then
spent the rest of his life publicizing the idea of interchangeability.
(Hounshell, pp 30-32)
have claimed that he invented the American system of manufacturing --
the combination of power machinery, interchangeable parts, and division
of labor that would underlie the nation's subsequent industrial revolution.
While there is persuasive evidence that he failed to achieve interchangeability,
his use of power machinery and specialized division of labor are well
documented (Woodbury 1960). When the government complained that Whitney's
price per musket compared unfavorably with those produced in government
armories, Whitney was able to calculate an actual price per musket by
including fixed costs such as insurance and machinery, which the government
had not included. He thus made early contributions to both the concept
of cost accounting, and the concept of the efficiency of private industry.
Later Life and
Despite his humble origins, Whitney was keenly aware of the value of
social and political connections. In building his arms business, he
took full advantage of the access that his status as a Yale alumnus
gave him to other well-placed graduates, like Secretary of War Oliver
Wolcott (Class of 1778) and New Haven developer and political leader
James Hillhouse. His 1817 marriage to Henrietta Edwards, 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, further tied
him to Connecticut's ruling elite. In a business dependent on government
contracts, such connections were essential to success.
Whitney died of
prostate cancer on January 8, 1825, leaving a widow and four children.
His armory was left in the charge of his talented nephews, Eli Whitney
and Philos Blake, notable inventors and manufacturers in their own right
(they invented the mortise lock and the stone-crushing machine).
Eli Whitney, Jr.
(1820-1894) assumed control of the armory in 1841. Working under contract
to inventor Samuel Colt, the younger Whitney manufactured the famous
"Whitneyville Walker Colts" for the Texas Rangers. (The success
of this contract rescued Colt from financial ruin and enabled him to
establish his own famous arms company). Whitney's marriage to Sarah
Dalliba, daughter of the U.S. Army's chief of ordinance, helped to assure
the continuing success of his business.
The younger Whitney
organized the New Haven Water Company, which began operations in 1862.
While this enterprise addressed the city's need for water, it also enabled
the younger Whitney to increase the amount of power available for his
manufacturing operations at the expense of the water company's stockholders.
Originally located in three sites along the Mill River, the new dam
made it possible to consolidate his operations in a single plant.
Eli Whitney III (1847-1924), sold the Whitney Armory to Winchester Repeating
Arms, another notable New Haven gun company, in 1888. He served as president
of the water company until his death and was a major New Haven business
and civic leader. He played an important role in the development of
New Haven's Ronan-Edgehill Neighborhood .
Following the closure
of the armory, the factory site continued to be used for a variety of
industrial purposes, including the water company. Many of the original
armory buildings remained intact until the 1960s. In the 1970s, as part
of the Bicentennial celebration, interested citizens organized the Eli
Whitney Museum, which opened to the public in 1984. The site today includes
the boarding house and barn that served Eli Whitney's original workers
and a stone storage building from the original armory. Museum exhibits
and programs are housed in a factory building constructed c. 1910. A
water company office building constructed in the 1880s now houses educational
programs operated by the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority
(which succeeded the New Haven Water Company).
Eli Whitney and
his descendants are buried in New Haven's historic Grove Street Cemetery