of the cotton gin
Eli Whitney was born in
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
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.
Eli Whitney died on January 8,
1825, having secured his place in both Southern
and Northern industrial history.
The Eli Whitney Museum www.eliwhitney.org
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