December 8, 2012
Eli Whitney was born on a Massachusetts farm on Dec. 8, 1765. Though he was not interested in farming he was fascinated by the implements and tools necessary for the family endeavor. He became a tenacious tinkerer and adept at repairing tools.
During the Revolutionary War, Whitney persuaded his father to let him use the workshop to draw nails, which were scarce, as England supplied most of the nails used in the colonies. His nail drawing business prospered until the end of the war, when cheaper imported nails were available again.
Whitney switched to making other small items for sale, but with the war over, became more interested in expanding his education. In 1784, he decided he wanted to go to Yale College; his stepmother (his mother had died when he was 11) disparaged the notion, saying Whitney was not prepared academically or financially to attend. He responded to her challenge, working to earn the funds and knowledge to gain admission to Yale, in 1789.
He could not afford to study law, and took a job as a private tutor in South Carolina when he graduated in 1792 (with honors). On his trip to Charleston, he met the widow of Gen. Nathaniel Greene, who invited him to her Georgia plantation, Mulberry Grove. While staying at the plantation, Whitney became friends with fellow Yale alumnus, Phineas Miller, the plantation manager, and became interested in plantation farming challenges.
While cotton was relatively easy to grow, it was extremely difficult to remove the seeds and make the cotton usable; farmers had been essentially using the same techniques for separating the fiber from the seeds for 2,000 years. Whitney’s tinkerer’s perspective led him to create a mechanical cotton gin. He applied for a patent on Oct. 28, 1793, and received a preliminary patent on Mar. 14, 1794. His patent was not validated until 1807, preventing Whitney from enforcing the patent and protecting his idea. His machine revolutionized the economics of plantation farming, making cotton “king,” changing the fortunes of many plantation owners, and, unfortunately, had the effect of making slave ownership even more profitable for the plantations.
Miller married Catherine Littlefield Green in 1796, and became Whitney’s business partner and financier (with his wife’s money) in manufacturing cotton gins. Whitney and Miller did not prosper. Their cotton gins were not exceptionally well made, the design was not hard to copy, and they spent considerable funds trying to enforce Whitney’s patent.
With cotton gin profits elusive, Whitney used his Yale connections to gain a contract from the U.S. War Department in 1798 to supply 10,000 muskets. He convinced the secretary of the treasury, Oliver Wolcott Jr., to pay $5,000 in advance, and another $5,000 when he demonstrated his rifles. The first contract advance paid by the federal government. The advance saved Whitney’s company.
Whitney had sold the government on his ability to make muskets with interchangeable parts, and some historians credit him with “inventing” modern American manufacturing. But Whitney did not create a modern manufacturing plant to build guns. He borrowed the interchangeable parts concept from Honore Blanc of France, though never implemented it. In 1801, he staged a rigged demonstration before government officials including President John Adams and President-elect Thomas Jefferson, to satisfy the requirement for the second $5,000 payment.
As industrial historian David Hounshell wrote, “Whitney was a publicist of mechanized, interchangeable parts manufacture, not a creator.”
Despite these problems, Whitney persevered. He finally fulfilled the musket contract in 1809, and the War of 1812 created demand for more arms. Cotton plantings also grew creating demand for Whitney’s gin. With increased orders, he invested in his manufactory, developing a modern milling machine that solidified his position as an inventor and innovator of American manufacturing.
He died of cancer on Jan. 8, 1825, in New Haven, Conn.