As an American Inventory of the late 1700's and early 1800's Eli Whitney's place is history is at times rather obscure given the revolutionary value of his contributions. Eli is credited with among other things, inventing a musket that made used of interchangeable parts, a forerunner of sort to the assembly line that Henry Ford would use so successfully in the production of automobiles later on.
Though perhaps not the first name to come to someone's tongue when discussing modern day inventors, Whitney's place in American history is firmly secured through another one of his inventions, the cotton gin. The cotton gin is a simple mechanical device that pulls cotton seeds out of a ball of cotton. Before Whitney came along the process of extracting the seeds from the cotton was a labor intensive one. With Eli's successful invention the South was able to make cotton a centerpiece of its economy.
Though no great story is seldom without a legend attached to it. It is said that Whitney's idea for the cotton gin came about when he saw a cat that was attempting to pull a chicken through the mesh of a fence. When the cat could only pull the feathers through, Eli had a vision for his famous gin. Though there is some speculation that in part a known acquaintance Catherine Littlefield Greene should also share in the credit of coming up with the conception of the cotton gin.
The make the gin the ingenious mechanical inventor put a wooden drum with hooks inside a wooden box. A handle was used to turn the drum, and as the drum turned the hooks, the hooks would pull the cotton fibers through a mesh on one end leaving the seeds behind. The wooden box also contained a rotating brush (moved by a belt and pulley system) that served to remove the fibers from the wooden hooks. The cotton gin could easily clean 55 pounds of cotton a day.
The simplicity of his machine however served to unhinge Whitney's attempt to cash in on his invention. Though he received a patent for it in 1794, Whitney's vision for a cotton cleaning service never caught on. Perhaps driven by greed, Eli demanded too large a share of the profits for his service, and farmers who balked at paying it were soon developing their own simple gins despite Whitney's patent.
Unfortunately Whitney's invention made the keeping of slaves in the South an even more profitable endeavor. While the South profited from his cotton gin, the North enjoyed success with his Whitney's idea for interchangeable parts, making Eli an unlikely contributor to both sides of the American Civil War