Eli Whitney

The American inventor and manufacturer Eli Whitney (1765-1825) perfected the cotton gin. He was a pioneer in the development of the American system of manufactures.

Eli Whitney was born in Westboro, Mass., on Dec. 8, 1765. He took an early interest in mechanical work. Although he worked on his father's farm, he preferred his father's shop, where, by the age of 15, he was engaged part-time in making nails for sale. He taught school to earn money to continue his education and graduated from Yale College in 1792.

It was Whitney's intention to study law, and he undertook to tutor children on a plantation near Savannah, Ga., to support himself. In Georgia he attracted a great deal of attention by inventing a number of domestic contrivances for his hostess. He was informed of the need for a machine to clean green-seed cotton. Cotton gins of various designs were then in use in different parts of the world, and models had been imported and tried in Louisiana as early as 1725. None had ever worked well, however, and when Whitney arrived in Georgia, cleaning was still a hand job. It took a slave a full day to clean one pound of cotton. Whitney set his hand to the problem and within ten days had produced a design for a gin. By April 1793 he had made one which cleaned 50 pounds a day.

Whitney went into partnership in May 1793 with Phineas Miller and returned to New England to build his gins. He received a patent for his machine in March 1794, by which time word of his design had spread and imitations were already on the market. It was the initial hope of Whitney and Miller to operate the gins themselves, thus cornering the cotton market, but a lack of capital and the large number of pirated machines made this impossible. Whitney took infringers to court, but he lost his first case, in 1797, and it was to be ten years before he won decisively and was able to establish his right to the machine.

During this decade of frustration and financial uncertainty, Whitney turned to the manufacture of small arms as a way of repairing his fortune and saving his reputation. He signed his first contract with the Federal government on June 14, 1798, and promised to deliver 4,000 arms by the end of September 1799 and another 6,000 a year later. Whitney had no factory and no workmen, knew nothing about making guns, and had thus far been unable even to manufacture in quantity the relatively simple cotton gins. The inducement for him was that the government agreed to advance him $5,000.

Judged by the terms of the contract, however, Whitney was a failure. He had no idea of how to go about fulfilling his obligation, and indeed he delivered his first 500 guns in 1801, three years late. The last guns were not delivered to the government until January 1809, almost nine years late. By this time the government had advanced him over $131,000. He died in New Haven, Conn., on Jan 8, 1825.

Whitney's claims of novel methods of production have led many scholars to assume that he had worked out and applied what came to be called the American system of manufactures. By this method, machines were substituted for hand labor, parts were made uniform, and production was speeded up. Thus it became possible to dispense with the skilled but expensive master craftsmen required previously.

This idea was not a new one. The Swedish inventor Christopher Polhem had used such a system in the 1720s, but no one had carried on his work. By 1799 the government armory at Springfield, Mass., had cut the number of man-days needed to make a musket from 21 to 9 through the use of machines.

The question thus becomes: where did Whitney fit into this growing concept of the American system? We know practically nothing of what went on within his armory. The records show that he tried to hire workmen away from the Springfield Armory to build machines for him. We know also that in a recent test of Whitney muskets not all their parts were in fact interchangeable and that some parts were not even approximately the same size. The answer then must be that Whitney was only one of a number of men who, about 1800, began to experiment with a relatively new and potentially revolutionary method of production— mass manufacture, by special-purpose machines, of products made up of uniform and interchangeable parts.


Further Reading on Eli Whitney

The basic biography is still Denison Olmsted, Memoir of Eli Whitney (1846). Two modern studies which tend perhaps to overemphasize Whitney's contributions to the development of American technology are Jeannette Mirsky and Allan Nevins, The World of Eli Whitney (1952), and Constance (McLaughlin) Green, Eli Whitney and the Birth of American Technology (1956).