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Eli Whitney

inventor of the cotton gin

Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney was born in Westborough, Massachusetts, on December 8, 1765. Even as a boy, he showed mechanical aptitude, making a violin by hand when he was 12. During the Revolutionary War, while still in his teens, he had his own business making handwrought nails. After the war, he decided he wanted to go to college, so he taught school for five years, at $7.00 a month, entered Yale College at 23, and graduated in 1792.

After college, Whitney was offered a teaching position in Georgia, but when he got there he found another man had been given the job. Catherine Littlefield Greene, widow of General Nathanael Greene, invited him to be her guest while he studied law. Not wishing to take advantage of Mrs. Greene's hospitality, Whitney fixed things around the house to "earn his keep."

Whitney's mechanical talents must have impressed Mrs. Greene. One night, some guests were talking about green seed cotton, saying that they could not grow it profitably because of the time needed to clean it. Mrs. Greene reportedly said, "Mr. Whitney can make a machine to clean it."

Whether Mrs. Greene actually made that comment or not, Whitney did indeed make a machine to clean the seeds from cotton. By April 1793, he had built the cotton gin, which could clean cotton as fast as 50 persons working by hand. (The word gin was taken from the Old French engin, meaning engine.) Harvested cotton was fed through a row of about 70 saws that were rotated by a hand crank. The teeth on the saws pulled the cotton from the seeds. Ginning ribs between the saws prevented the seeds from passing through, and brushes removed the fiber on the teeth of the saws. Modern cotton gins work much the same way as Whitney's gin, with the exception that modern gins are operated by machinery instead of by hand.

a model of Eli Whitney's cotton gin
a model of Eli Whitney's cotton gin

Whitney applied for a patent on his machine and formed a partnership with Phineas Miller. The plan was for Whitney to manufacture cotton gins in New Haven, Connecticut, while Miller obtained orders for them in cotton country, but the two men ran into trouble almost immediately. First, it took almost a year for Whitney to get his patent. Then, once Miller began taking orders, Whitney had trouble making machines fast enough to meet demand; to make matters worse, the factory burned down. Meanwhile, others were making and using imitations of Whitney's machine. Whitney sued the patent interlopers, but since most of them were in the South he often had to endure very long and expensive court battles before winning a victory. By the time the courts declared that he had the sole right to his patent the patent's life had almost expired. Whitney pleaded for a renewal, but Congress refused to grant it.

Distressed by his troubles with the cotton gin, Whitney decided to try a slightly different career. In 1798, he built another factory near New Haven, where he began making muskets by a new method. Until then, each gun had been handmade by skilled workers, and no two guns were alike. Whitney invented tools and machines so that unskilled workers could turn out absolutely uniform parts. He then secured a contract from the federal government in which he promised to deliver 10,000 muskets, at $13.40 each, in two years. Setting up the machinery took longer than Whitney anticipated, however, and the government became impatient after the two years were up. Just when it looked like he was about to lose his contract, he gathered several government representatives together and amazed them by assembling several guns from pieces chosen at random from piles of parts. He kept his contract, and the last of the 10,000 muskets were finally delivered after a six-year delay. In 1811, he secured a contract for another 15,000 muskets; he delivered all 15,000 of them within two years, just as promised.

Whitney's patent milling machine, designed to cut metal to precise patterns
Whitney's patent milling machine, designed to cut metal to precise patterns

Eli Whitney died on January 8, 1825, having secured his place in both Southern and Northern industrial history.

The Eli Whitney Museum

Revolutionary War
Yale University
Nathanael Greene

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This page was last updated on June 19, 2018.