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Eli Whitney was one of the most influential industrialists and one of the greatest pioneers of the Industrial Revolution in early American history. He lived in the south for only a few years, yet, during this time, he created an invention that would revolutionize the agricultural industry. The creation of the cotton gin, an machine that could pick the seeds out of cotton, breathed new life into the dying southern economy. Whitney was driven to bankruptcy after his invention s patent was stolen. This did not deter him though. He moved back to the north where, under the patronage of the United States government, he altered the very face of manufacturing with his factory that mass-produced guns. This new manufacturing methodology introduced the revolutionary concept of interchangeable parts.
Whitney’s was born in Westborough, Massachusetts on December 8, 1765. He was brought up by his parents, Eli, Sr. and Elizabeth. Disaster struck when his mother became terribly ill after the birth of her fourth child. She died in 1777. Whitney, Jr., only twelve years old at the time, was the eldest of the children and felt bound to care for his younger siblings. Even after his father remarried a woman named Judith Hazledon, Whitney still carried his burden for his sister and two brothers.
The economy in the colonies was in poor shape when the Revolutionary War broke out. During these troubled times, young Eli started his first successful business. He made nails in his father s workshop. Nails were a rare commodity in the states. Using his tools, he also became one of the only hatpin makers in the colonies. Whitney began to learn the finer points of mechanics during the time he spent in his father s workshop. As he grew older, he set his sights on going to college, where an education would allow him to further develop his skills. Due to lack of money, his father was unable to support his dream. Eli was forced to seek his own fortune.
Whitney moved to Grafton, Massachusetts where he found a job teaching. He spent his free time furthering his education while attending Leicester Academy. He studied for the college entrance exams during this time. His efforts were rewarded when he was accepted at Yale University in 1797. At the age of 24 he began his higher education and graduated with a college degree three years later. Whitney could not find a position that fit his aspirations, nor mechanical experience, upon his graduation. He reluctantly accepted a position as a private tutor for a southern family in South Carolina. On the way to South Carolina he met Mrs. Catherine Greene, the widow of a Revolutionary War hero and plantation owner. Phineas Miller, the plantation’s manager, accompanied Green.
The three established a good friendship upon arriving in South Carolina. When Whitney’s tutoring job did not work out, he willingly accepted Greene’s offer to remain on her estate. His plan was to study law, but his attentions became directed elsewhere. He quickly learned that most planters could no longer afford to keep slaves because they had no crop that made enough money. Tobacco had been the major cash crop, but most of the land’s fertility was depleted within a few harvests. Corn and indigo crops were worth too little, and cotton crops were too labor intensive. Green seed cotton demanded constant maintenance, taking days to remove the seeds from the fibers by hand.
Whitney used his mechanical background to construct a simple machine that would turn cotton growing into a lucrative business. A trained slave could harvest fifty boils of cotton a day, but it would take that same slave twenty-five days to de-seed the same amount. Whitney s invention, the cotton gin, could dramatically increase the speed of the de-seeding process. The gin had wire combs that would remove the cotton fibers from the seed. The seed would drop, and a brush would remove the fibers. When Whitney did a demonstration of the gin for Greene’s friends and acquaintances, he was able to do one half day’s work within an hour.
Whitney did not grasp how important his creation would become to the planters, though he did know that his invention had the potential to revolutionize the agriculture industry in the South. He and Miller joined together in hopes of making a profit off of the machine. Whitney moved to New Haven, Connecticut where he applied for a patent and continued to make cotton gins. He then sent the simple machines to Miller in South Carolina where, instead of selling the gins, the manager planned to de-seed the planters’ cotton for them, for the price of one-third of their profits. Under these business conditions, this plan had the potential to make the men millionaires.
Whitney and Miller were not so fortunate though. They experienced many difficulties that kept them in the red. The first sign of trouble came when Whitney’s patent application was delayed. A yellow fever epidemic in Washington, D.C. crippled communications and delayed the patent for months. To make things worse, Southern planters expectations ran high as they heard of the new machine s capabilities. In preparation for cotton profits, farmers planted row upon row of the new money making crop of cotton. As harvest time drew closer, the problems became compounded. Farmer s refused to pay Miller’s exorbitant price, and a few stole the plans for the gin and constructed the machines themselves. These planters made a fortune by pirating the concept of the gin. To add to the duo s bad luck, unwarranted rumors concerning the Whitney gins had begun to convince many farmers that their cotton would be ruined by his machines. The “straw that broke the camel s back” happened in 1795 when a fire at the New Haven workshop destroyed all twenty-five of Whitney’s gins and the tools needed to make more of the machines.
The two business partners refused to sit idly by while others stole their patent. They brought their case before several southern courts. Their court battles were long and arduous and often frustrating. After a few years of combat in the courts, they only received $90,000, a mere portion of what they could have made if the plans had never been stolen. Neither man was able to enjoy the money at all as it went to lawyers bills and court fees. In 1803 some of the states actually reneged on their judgements and asked for the money back.
Whitney was at his wit’s end. The court conflicts had made him jaded. He abandoned the business and moved north to get away from the frustration, returning to the South only briefly when trials in South Carolina seemed to be going well. In the mean time, though utterly defeated and without any money at the age of forty, he was ready to tap into his entrepreneurial spirit and mechanical abilities. He heard that the U. S. government was looking for a private contractor to help them build up their supply of weapons. At the turn of the century, renewed conflict in Europe made America nervous. Whitney presented the government with a risky, but promising idea. He believed he could build a factory that would produce gun parts that were so identical to one another that they would fit any gun. With this proposal, Whitney had come up with the revolutionary concept for interchangeable parts.
Whitney had been diligent in proving that he was the inventor of the cotton gin. The US government trusted in Whitney’s reputation as an inventor, and signed a military defense contract with Whitney in 1800. Whitney promised the government that he would provide 10,000 of his rifles within two years. In exchange, the government would provide funding for the factory and pay him $134,000. Upon signing, he immediately set to work by building his factory, securing waterpower and hiring employees. However, Whitney again experienced numerous setbacks. A yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia slowed shipping of supplies, and a fierce winter made it nearly impossible to find iron. All told, it took Whitney eight years to provide the number of rifles he promised. Whitney did learn many things during those tumultuous eight years. He had begun to perfect the manufacturing process. When the US asked him to make 15,000 more rifles in 1811, he was able to provide the results in only two years.
Whitney had spent the better of his life inventing and defending his inventions. He finally settled down and married on January 6, 1817. He and his wife, Henrietta Edwards, had four children. He was able to spend a few healthy years with his new family. He became ill when his prostate gland became enlarged in 1822. He was able to invent a catheter-like instrument that reduced his pain, but his illness finally led to his death in 1825.
Whitney was a remarkable inventor who had the ability to understand the needs of a given situation and the mechanical knowledge to solve the problem. Using this innate ability, he was able to create machines that could increase productivity. The cotton gin was one of those inventions. It revived the southern economy making cotton farming a profitable investment. The cost effectiveness of the gin allowed farmers to keep slaves and stabilize the southern economy. Whitney endured years of hardship as he battled the courts to recognize the gin as his invention. After his battles, he moved to the north where he was able to secure a military contract with the US government. His concept of interchangeable parts would be the foundation of mass production possible and lay the groundwork for the prosperity of future industrialists.
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