When we hear the name of Eli Whitney most of us probably think of only one thing: The Cotton Gin. Yet Whitney was a man of extraordinary ingenuity and diverse talents and can rightly be remembered as the man who sparked America's very own Industrial Revolution.
He was born the son of a farmer on 8th December 1765 in Westborough, Massachusetts. In his childhood he displayed considerable technical talents and when the Revolutionary War broke out he set up a forge in his father's workshop in order to produce nails. This venture proved very successful but the young Eli yearned to go to college and so he worked both as a laborer and teacher in order to finance the studies needed to prepare for his college entry exam. He entered Yale in 1789 and graduated three years later.
On graduation he planned to study law but he was penniless and so accepted a post as a family tutor in South Carolina. On sailing south to the job he met a wealthy widow, Catherine Greene, who was traveling to her plantation in Georgia with her manager (and future husband) Phineas Miller. She invited Whitney to stay at her plantation and he accepted after learning that the tutoring position in South Carolina would not pay nearly as much as he had first thought. It was while staying at Mrs Greene's plantation that Whitney first became acquainted with cotton and the problems involved in 'cleaning' it. His solution to that problem would be the invention that would make him famous.
The short-fiber cotton which grew throughout the South was very difficult to separate from its seed. The separation was a slow, labor-intensive business and what was needed was a way to speed up the process. Whitney examined the problem and within days had come up with a solution: The Cotton Gin (from 'en gin e'). His first example was just a rude prototype but within months he had perfected it and began to make plans to exploit his invention.
The Cotton Gin was a simple yet ingenious machine. In its simplest form it consisted of a hand-cranked drum studded with hooks which drew the cotton fibers through a mesh. The seeds, not able to fit through that mesh, were thus separated from the fiber. Almost overnight the Gin transformed the Cotton Industry in the South. In the five years from 1792 to 1797 cotton production quadrupled.
Delighted with his machine, Whitney applied for a patent and went into business with Phineas Miller in order to produce Gins and use them throughout the South. Their plan was not to market the Gins directly but rather to produce the machines and then charge cotton producers for having their crops cleaned. But the plan proved problematic. Despite being granted a patent in 1794, Whitney found that the farmers in the South, fearing a monopoly on cotton cleaning, were simply building their own gins. And because the Patent Laws were primitive and difficult to enforce there was little Whitney and Miller could do about it. Their business was not a success and folded after five years.
Despite being in debt and continuing to fight in the courts over the Gin-Patent infringements, Whitney was hungry for a new challenge and the turmoil in Europe indirectly provided it. The US Government, fearing war with revolutionary France, was intent on building up the Federal Arsenal. The problem lay in the pitifully slow rate of musket production. At that time muskets were made by hand, and to produce the 10,000 muskets needed by the Government would take an inordinate amount of time. A quick solution was needed and Eli Whitney was the man who came up with it.
Whitney's idea was to use machines to produce identical and replaceable component parts rather than make each musket individually. This would both speed up musket production and allow muskets in the field to be repaired with 'stock' parts. And because each weapon was constructed using identical components, its reliability was significantly improved. The Federal Government was impressed with the plan and despite some delays and inevitable teething problems it proved a success. Whitney's system lay the foundations for modern arms manufacture and, indeed, Mass Production in general. His ideas were certainly not original but he was the first to put them into practice and make them work.
Whitney was in his fifties before he turned his attention to marriage and family. He married Henrietta Edwards, a well connected New England aristocrat, in 1817, but despite fathering four children in as many years his health soon began to deteriorate and he died of cancer in 1825.
It's ironic that the two technological innovations that made Whitney famous were both the indirect cause and solution to America's most cataclysmic event: The Civil War. The Cotton Gin made the South rich AND hungry for slave labor and when that southern culture eventually faced off against its northern Nemesis it was the fledgling Military Industrial Complex of the North that prevailed.
In general terms the name of Eli Whitney will forever be synonymous with the Cotton Gin, but he was a man of boundless energy and precocious innovation and it is right that we remember him as a great technical pioneer and a singular American.