Eli Whitney


Eli Whitney : biography

8 December 1765 – 8 January 1825

In May 1798, Congress voted for legislation that would use eight hundred thousand dollars in order to pay for small arms and cannons in case war with France erupted. They offered a 5,000 dollar incentive with an additional 5,000 dollars once that money was exhausted for the person that was able to accurately produce arms for the government. Because the cotton gin had not brought Whitney the rewards he believed he would get, he accepted the contract. Although the contract was for one year, Whitney did not deliver the arms until eight years later in 1809 using multiple excuses for the delay of such. 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.

Although Whitney’s demonstration of 1801 appeared to show the ingenuity of interchangeable parts, Merritt Roe Smith concludes that Whitney’s demonstration was "staged" and "duped government authorities" into believing that he had created interchangeable parts. The charade was only useful in order to gain more time and resources into the project but not to create interchangeable parts.

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.

Cotton gin

Cotton Gin Patent. It shows sawtooth gin blades, which were not part of Whitney’s original patent. A cotton gin on display at the [[Eli Whitney Museum.]]

The cotton gin is a mechanical device that removes the seeds from cotton, a process that had previously been extremely labor-intensive. The word gin is short for engine. The cotton gin was a wooden drum stuck with hooks that pulled the cotton fibers through a mesh. 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 chicken through a fence, and could only pull through some of the feathers.

A single cotton gin could generate up to 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; 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 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. One oft-overlooked point is that there were drawbacks to Whitney’s first design. There is significant evidence that the design flaws were solved by plantation owner Catherine Littlefield Greene, wife of American Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene; Whitney gave her no public credit or recognition. A website for The Eli Whitney Project

While the cotton gin did not earn Whitney the fortune he had hoped for, it did give him fame.

It has been argued by some historians that Whitney’s cotton gin was an important if unintended cause of the American Civil War. Before the invention of the cotton gin, slavery had been on the decline; in fact many slaveholders had even given away their slaves. After Whitney’s invention, the plantation slavery industry was rejuvenated, eventually culminating in the Civil War.