Eli Whitney life and biography

Eli Whitney picture, image, poster

Eli Whitney biography

Date of birth : 1765-12-08
Date of death : 1825-01-08
Birthplace : Westboro, Massachusetts, United States
Nationality : American
Category : Science and Technology
Last modified : 2010-10-07
Credited as : Inventor, created the cotton gin,

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* 1765: Born.
* 1792: Graduated from Yale.
* 1793: Created the cotton gin.
* 1794: Received patent for the cotton gin.
* 1797: Gained contract with U.S. Government to build muskets.
* 1825: Died.
* 1974: Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Eli Whitney is best remembered as the inventor of the first commercially viable cotton gin. Perhaps more importantly, his new method of making muskets, using an assembly line and interchangeable parts, initiated the American mass-production system. Although Whitney never profited from the invention of the cotton gin, he was financially successful in the manufacturing of firearms.

Personal Life

Eli Whitney was born on December 8, 1765, in Westboro, Massachusetts. He showed an early interest in, and talent for, mechanical work. He worked on his father's farm, but preferred to spend his time in his father's workshop. By the age of 15, he was earning money making and selling nails. He taught school to pay his college tuition, and along with the extra money he earned making and fixing machinery, he was able to attend Yale University. He graduated in 1792.

Career Details

Whitney wanted to become a lawyer. To that end, he moved to Savannah, Georgia, where he intended to teach while studying law. When he arrived in Georgia, he met another Yale graduate, Phineas Miller, who managed the plantation owned by Catherine Littlefield Greene, the widow of the American Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene. With the help of Miller, Whitney obtained a position to tutor the children on the plantation. Soon, Greene had Whitney working on several mechanical problems that hampered the operation of a large plantation.

At the top of the list was the need for a more efficient method of cleaning green-seed cotton. Once cotton was picked, the seeds had to be separated from the fiber. Whitney set himself to the problem and within 10 days had produced a design for a gin. By April 1793, he had perfected his cotton gin. The slaves used a simple comb-like device to manually remove the seeds. Whitney built a gin that mechanized that same process.

In May 1793, Whitney left Savannah and returned to New England. He went into partnership with Phineas Miller to manufacture and sell his cotton gins. He filed an application for a patent on June 20, 1793. Unfortunately, by the time Whitney received a patent on March 14, 1794, word of his design, which was simple and easy to reproduce, had become well known and imitations had already flooded the market. Initially, Whitney and Miller had made plans to operate the gins themselves, thus cornering the huge cotton market. Such an accomplishment would have proved extremely profitable, considering the size and importance of the cotton industry at the time. However, the partners lacked the money to finance such a large endeavor. Also, so many pirated machines had reached the market that Whitney not only failed to dominate the cotton gin industry, he was never even able to make a profit from his invention.

Whitney took manufacturers who infringed on his patented gin to court. His first case came to trial in 1797 and Whitney lost, putting him out of business. It was 10 years before Whitney achieved success in the courtroom, but he suffered another major setback when Congress refused to renew his patent for the cotton gin, which expired in 1807. It then became clear that Whitney would never control the manufacturing and sale of his invention.

Frustrated with the court battles and living in financial uncertainty, Whitney turned his attention to manufacturing firearms. When he began this endeavor, he had no workers, no capital, and knew nothing about making muskets. Even though he had no experience, he was able to earn a contract from the United States government based on his reputation. On June 14, 1798, he signed a contract that obligated him to deliver 4,000 guns just over a year later, by the end of September 1799. The contract also stipulated that Whitney would deliver another 6,000 firearms in 1800. To jumpstart this undertaking, Whitney received a $5,000 advance from the government.

At that time, a contract for 10,000 muskets in two years was unheard of. By comparison, two national armories only manufactured 1,000 muskets over the previous three years. Whitney failed miserably at meeting the terms of the contract. It took him three years to deliver just 500 firearms. He was not able to fulfill his obligation until January 1809, almost nine years behind schedule. By this time, the government had advanced Whitney over $131,000. While his ability to actually manufacture the muskets in a timely manner was not successful, Whitney's manufacturing methods were revolutionary. He pioneered the use of interchangeable parts assembled on a production line.

Because Whitney's ability to produce muskets was severely hampered by epidemics, supply problems, and his own inexperience, he frequently had to request extensions from the government. In an effort to plead his cause and convince officials to give him more time to work through the difficulties, Whitney reportedly took all the parts for 10 muskets to the officials, dumped the parts in front of them, and challenged them to assemble the firearms. The officials successfully built the guns and were instantly convinced that Whitney deserved the time extensions.

Whitney also helped develop the machine tool industry by developing many of the machines he needed to produce his firearms. Upon his death on January 8, 1825, in New Haven, Connecticut, Whitney's firearms business, the Whitney Arms Company, was passed onto his son, Eli Whitney, Jr. The family sold the business in 1888 to Winchester.

Social and Economic Impact

Some historians consider it unfair to give all credit to Whitney for inventing the cotton gin. Varying designs of cotton gins had been designed and were in use in different parts of the world, although none had proved extremely effective. Some models had been imported to the United States and tried in Louisiana as early as 1725. Joseph Eve (1760-1835) developed a gin for use in the West Indies. However, almost all cotton was still being cleaned by hand, and the work was slow and tedious. It took a slave a full day's work to clean one pound of cotton. The Whitney gin could clean an incredible 50 pounds of cotton in one day.

Even though Whitney's cotton gin was not the first, it was the best. Because the design was simple and easy to duplicate, its use spread rapidly. For this same reason, Whitney was unable to control its distribution by the many who chose to pirate the machine design.

Economic implications were apparent for plantation owners. The cotton gin could do the work of 50 slaves. One of the most time consuming, labor intensive jobs of a large plantation was totally revolutionized. Whitney's cotton gin changed the way of life in the South.

Whitney's more financially successful endeavor was arms manufacturing, another industry he has been credited with revolutionizing. At the time that he began building muskets, each musket was made individually by hand by a skilled craftsman. The result was that each gun was unique. When it needed repair, each new part had to be crafted by hand to fit that specific gun. This was a time-consuming and costly project. Using Whitney's uniform parts, a common part could be used in any gun needing repair.

By making interchangeable parts, Whitney set the ground for mass production. It should be noted that Whitney's method of interchangeability was not perfect, and still required hand tooling and filing. Only later, with the invention of a willing machine that provided better uniformity and consistency, would mass production become the way of business. Whitney also often gets credit for introducing the assembly line, a concept that was made possible by interchangeable parts. Previously, each gun was made from start to finish by one craftsman. Whitney separated the labor among several workers, each responsible for a different part of the gun. Though Whitney's ideas were all improved upon after his death, his contributions to business are immeasurable.

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