Eli Whitney

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Eli Whitney bigraphy, stories - American inventor

Eli Whitney : biography

8 December 1765 – 8 January 1825

Eli Whitney (December 8, 1765 – January 8, 1825) was an American inventor best known for inventing the cotton gin. This was 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. Thereafter, he turned his attention into securing contracts with the government in the manufacture of muskets for the newly formed United States Army. He continued making arms and inventing until his death in 1825.

Later life and legacy

South side of Eli Whitney monument in the [[Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut]]

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, such as Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Jr. (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, in New Haven, Connecticut, just a month after his 59th birthday. He left a widow and his four children behind. During the course of his illness, he invented and constructed several devices to mechanically ease his pain. These devices, drawings of which are in his collected papers, were effective but were never manufactured for use of others due to his heirs’ reluctance to trade in "indelicate" items.

The Eli Whitney Students Program, Yale University’s admissions program for non-traditional students, is named after Whitney who matriculated into Yale when he was 23.

Career inventions

Interchangeable parts

Eli Whitney has often been incorrectly credited with inventing the idea of interchangeable parts, which he championed for years as a maker of muskets; however, the idea predated Whitney, and Whitney’s role in it was one of promotion and popularizing, not invention. Successful implementation of the idea eluded Whitney 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. An early leader was Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval, an 18th-century French artillerist, who created a fair amount of standardization of artillery pieces, although not true interchangeability of parts. He inspired others, including Honoré Blanc and Louis de Tousard, to work further on the idea, and on shoulder weapons as well as artillery. In the 19th century these efforts produced the "armory system," or American system of manufacturing. Certain other New Englanders, including Captain John H. Hall and Simeon North, arrived at successful interchangeability before Whitney’s armory did. The Whitney armory finally succeeded not long after his death in 1825.

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, 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.