Whitney, Eli

Whitney, Eli
b. 8 December 1765 Westborough, Massachusetts, USA
d. 8 January 1825 New Haven, Connecticut, USA
American inventor of the cotton gin and manufacturer of firearms.
The son of a prosperous farmer, Eli Whitney as a teenager showed more interest in mechanics than school work. At the age of 15 he began an enterprise business manufacturing nails in his father's workshop, even having to hire help to fulfil his orders. He later determined to acquire a university education and, his father having declined to provide funds, he taught at local schools to obtain the means to attend Leicester Academy, Massachusetts, in preparation for his entry to Yale in 1789. He graduated in 1792 and then decided to study law. He accepted a position in Georgia as a tutor that would have given him time for study; this post did not materialize, but on his journey south he met General Nathanael Greene's widow and the manager of her plantations, Phineas Miller (1764–1803). A feature of agriculture in the southern states was that the land was unsuitable for long-staple cotton but could yield large crops of green-seed cotton. Green-seed cotton was difficult to separate from its seed, and when Whitney learned of the problem in 1793 he quickly devised a machine known as the cotton gin, which provided an effective solution. He formed a partnership with Miller to manufacture the gin and in 1794 obtained a patent. This invention made possible the extraordinary growth of the cotton industry in the United States, but the patent was widely infringed and it was not until 1807, after amendment of the patent laws, that Whitney was able to obtain a favourable decision in the courts and some financial return.
In 1798 Whitney was in financial difficulties following the failure of the initial legal action against infringement of the cotton gin patent, but in that year he obtained a government contract to supply 10,000 muskets within two years with generous advance payments. He built a factory at New Haven, Connecticut, and proposed to use a new method of manufacture, perhaps the first application of the system of interchangeable parts. He failed to supply the firearms in the specified time, and in fact the first 500 guns were not delivered until 1801 and the full contract was not completed until 1809.
In 1812 Whitney made application for a renewal of his cotton gin patent, but this was refused. In the same year, however, he obtained a second contract from the Government for 15,000 firearms and a similar one from New York State which ensured the success of his business.
Further Reading
J.Mirsky and A.Nevins, 1952, The World of Eli Whitney, New York (a good biography). P.J.Federico, 1960, "Records of Eli Whitney's cotton gin patent", Technology and Culture 1: 168–76 (for details of the cotton gin patent).
R.S.Woodbury, 1960, The legend of Eli Whitney and interchangeable parts', Technology and Culture 1:235–53 (challenges the traditional view of Eli Whitney as the sole originator of the "American" system of manufacture).
See also Technology and Culture 14(1973):592–8; 18(1977):146–8; 19(1978):609–11.

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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