Eli Whitney : biography
And the cotton gin transformed Southern agriculture and the national economy. A website for The Eli Whitney Museum in Hamden, CT. Southern cotton found ready markets in Europe and in the burgeoning textile mills of New England. Cotton exports from the U.S. boomed after the cotton gin’s appearance – from less than in 1793 to 93 million pounds by 1810. Cotton was a staple that could be stored for long periods and shipped long distances, unlike most agricultural products. It became the U.S.’s chief export, representing over half the value of U.S. exports from 1820 to 1860.
Paradoxically, the cotton gin, a labor-saving device, helped preserve slavery in the U.S. Before the 1790s, slave labor was primarily employed in growing rice, tobacco, and indigo, none of which were especially profitable any more. Neither was cotton, due to the difficulty of seed removal. But with the gin, growing cotton with slave labor became highly profitable – the chief source of wealth in the American South, and the basis of frontier settlement from Georgia to Texas. "King Cotton" became a dominant economic force, and slavery was sustained as a key institution of Southern society.
Machine tool historian Joseph W. Roe credited Whitney with inventing the first milling machine circa 1818. Subsequent work by other historians (Woodbury; Smith; Muir; Battison [cited by Baida]) suggests that Whitney was among a group of contemporaries all developing milling machines at about the same time (1814 to 1818), and that the others were more important to the innovation than Whitney was. (The machine that excited Roe may not have been built until 1825, after Whitney’s death.) Therefore, no one person can properly be described as the inventor of the milling machine.
Whitney was born in Westborough, Massachusetts, on December 8, 1765, the eldest child of Eli Whitney Sr., a prosperous farmer, and his wife Elizabeth Fay of Westborough.
Although the younger Eli, born in 1765, could technically be called a "Junior", history has never known him as such. He was famous during his lifetime and afterward by the name "Eli Whitney". His son, born in 1820, also named Eli, was well known during his lifetime and afterward by the name "Eli Whitney, Jr."
Whitney’s mother, Elizabeth Fay, died in 1777, when he was 11. At age 14 he operated a profitable nail manufacturing operation in his father’s workshop during the Revolutionary War.. From a website funded and administered by Lemelson-MIT Program. Accessed March 18, 2008.
Because his stepmother opposed his wish to attend college, Whitney worked as a farm laborer and school teacher to save money. He prepared for Yale at Leicester Academy…(now Becker College) and under the tutelage of Rev. Elizur Goodrich of Durham, Connecticut, he entered the Class of 1789, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1792., ’Phi Beta Kappa website’’, accessed Oct 4, 2009 Whitney expected to study law but, finding himself short of funds, 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 18th 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 were the widow and family of Revolutionary hero, Gen. 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 is most 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 their victory in the Civil War. Accessed March 19, 2008.