Eli Whitney is known to American schoolchildren as the man who invented the cotton gin but that simple description falls far short of fully capturing what the “father of American technology” gave to the world.
Whitney was born into a farming family in 1765 in Westboro, Massachusetts. The oldest of five children, he spent much of his young life puttering around his father’s workshop. By age 14, he was running his own profitable nail manufacturing operation, filling demand caused by British embargoes during the Revolutionary War. When demand waned with the end of the war, Whitney branched out into canes and hatpins. Neighbors also relied on him to repair their broken things, something he had a natural knack for. But Whitney was not satisfied with being a “clever mechanic,” as he called it, and decided he would need a college degree.
Whitney’s family thought he’d waited too long into adulthood to choose this path, however, and questioned his decision to pursue college, which they could not afford to pay for anyway. At around age 20, Whitney started working as a farm laborer and school teacher to raise the money he needed for his education. In 1789, he was accepted to Yale where he immersed himself in learning new technologies and concepts of the day. He was not a terribly gifted student but the president of Yale, Reverend Ezra Stiles, saw something in the young man and recommended him for a tutoring job in South Carolina after graduation. Whitney never made it to South Carolina, however, after making a side trip to Georgia in 1793 at the behest of a new friend he made during the journey south, Mrs. Catherine Littlefield Greene.
Greene was the widow of Revolutionary hero General Nathaniel Greene. After befriending Whitney during the ship ride south, Greene invited him to visit her Georgia plantation, Mulberry Grove. She was actually engaged to the plantation manager, Phineas Miller, a northern migrant like Whitney and a fellow Yale graduate as well. The two young men would eventually become close friends and business partners. Mrs. Greene is said to have been impressed with Whitney’s ingenious mind and had a high degree of faith in his abilities. According to the stories, one night during a gathering of neighbors, the complaints turned to the dreadful state of agriculture. “Gentlemen,” said Mrs. Greene, “tell your troubles to Mr. Whitney, he can make anything.”
The main issue was the amount of time it took to separate short-staple cotton from the seeds. At a time when English mills were hungry for cotton, the South exported a small amount of the black-seed, long-staple variety. Though it could easily be cleaned of its seed by passing it through a pair of rollers, its cultivation was limited to the coast. On the other hand, a green-seed, short-staple variety that grew in the interior resisted cleaning as its fiber stuck to the seed. As such, it took around 10 hours to manually sort just 3 pounds of cotton, making it a money-losing enterprise for most southern cotton growers.
Whitney understood that the answer was a machine that could do the sorting and within two weeks had produced the first cotton gin prototype. By the process he devised, the cotton was dragged through a wire screen by means of toothed cylinders revolving towards each other. A revolving brush cleaned the cylinders, and the seed fell into another compartment. A later model, run by water power, could produce 300 to 1,000 pounds a day. Convinced the contraption was the key to untold riches, Whitney and Miller had launched a business to manufacture and service the machines.
The end of the business began before Whitney had even patented the machine, however. He made the mistake of demonstrating the first model to a few friends where he turned out what would have been the full day’s work of several workers in just an hour. With Whitney promising to patent the machine and make a few more, the men in attendance immediately ordered full fields of green cotton seed to be planted. Word of the game changing contraption spread like wildfire and before the patent was filed, Whitney’s workshop was broken into and his machine design uncovered. The cotton gin (short for engine) was brilliant but simple, consisting of only four main parts and easy enough for cotton producers to duplicate and maintain themselves.
Whitney’s machine was also too good to not be copied. Within a few weeks, more cotton was planted than Whitney could possibly have ginned in a year of making new machines. A slew of other manufacturers cropped up to meet demand, which was a bit of a legal gray area. Whitney had applied for the patent for his cotton gin on October 28, 1793, and received the patent (later numbered as X72) on March 14, 1794, but it was not validated until 1807. Whitney and Miller were out of business by 1797, unable to prevent the gin from being pirated. Later, Whitney concluded that “an invention can be so valuable as to be worthless to the inventor.” He never patented his later inventions, one of which was a milling machine.
Whitney was an inventor at heart, though, with an inability to walk away from a problem if he thought it was worth fixing. In 1797, with the U.S. was at threat of war with France, the government solicited 40,000 muskets from private contractors because the two national armories had produced only 1,000 muskets in three years. Twenty-six contractors bid for a total of 30,200. Whitney put in a bid to manufacture “ten or fifteen thousand” alone.
Like the government armories, the other manufacturers used conventional methods involving skilled workmen to fashion a complete muskets, forming and fitting each part individually. Thus, each weapon was unique; if a part broke, its replacement had to be specially made. Whitney, by contrast, proposed a system of interchangeable parts that any unskilled workman could fashion and assemble. It took longer than expected but in 1801, he presented the fruits of his labor to President-elect Thomas Jefferson – a pile of disassembled muskets that they picked parts from at random to build a complete model. Many historians argue that this is the moment that the American system of mass production was born.
Eli Whitney died in 1825, never knowing how far his system would reach. The new technique which had been adopted as a defense measure for the manufacture of firearms was soon adopted by other industries. The Connecticut clockmakers began making brass clocks instead of wooden clocks. Elias Howe and Isaac Singer followed with the sewing machine, and before the outbreak of the Civil War, Cyrus McCormick and his rivals were producing the harvesters and reapers that helped tame the Western frontier and revolutionized farming the world over.
In Europe, where there was no shortage of skilled labor, the idea of mass production made slow progress. It caught on only in the gun-making industry where the advantages were too obvious to be ignored. By the middle of the century, nearly every government in Europe was supplied with American gun-making machinery and companies across the globe made plans to adopt what was known everywhere as the “American System.” (Sources: PBS, American Heritage, Britannica)