Eli Whitney was born in 1765 – almost 100 years before the American Civil War, and yet his most famous invention, the cotton gin, had great political implications in the expansion of slavery and the admission of new slave states and free states prior to the Civil War.
Eli Whitney was born in 1765 and was very interested in education since a young age. After completing high school, Eli wanted to attend college, but his stepmother opposed the idea. He worked as a farm laborer and as a school teacher. It took six years of financial and intellectual preparation, but Eli Whitney went to college and graduated at the “advanced" age of 27.
Eli Whitney and Cotton Grin
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, Whitney sailed for South Carolina, but en route he met the widow of General Nathanael Greene, who had been a Revolutionary War hero. Mrs. Greene invited Whitney to her plantation in Georgia. Her plantation manager was a man named Phineas Miller. Miller was to become Whitney’s business partner.
Legend has it that within days after arriving in Georgia, Whitney had seen how seeds were removed from cotton and had made a prototype machine to do the job faster. In his first machine, cotton was pressed against a screen. The seeds were too big to go through the mesh, and teeth from a cylindrical drum teased the cotton fibers through the screen.
As there were problems with this machine jamming, in the next version, he used thin wire hooks instead of wooden pegs to pull the cotton through and added a brush that cleaned away the cotton as it was collected. There were rumors that it was Mrs. Greene’s idea to use wire hooks instead of wooden pegs, but evidence either way is sketchy.
The Business and Problems
Eli Whitney had novel ideas about business as well as about machines. He and Phineas Miller became business partners and manufactured as many gins as they could. But their method of making money with them was new and rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. They installed them all over the south and insisted on ginning the cotton for the farmers and being paid in cotton: two-fifths of the farmer’s profits.
Farmers didn’t like this. They thought of Whitney and Miller’s profit scheme as an unfair and unusual “tax." Since the design of the cotton gin was so simple, farmers made their own versions so they could process their own cotton. Phineas Miller sued many of these farmers, but a loophole in the patent law prevented them from prevailing until 1800 – six years after the patent was granted. By this time, Whitney and Miller’s cotton gin company had been out of business for three years, the patent lawsuits having consumed all their profits.
While he is sometimes credited with inventing American manufacturing by instituting interchangeable parts, this is far from certain. However, he did champion and advance the use of power machinery and division of labor that were big concepts driving the industrial revolution. And in a move that would be copied by government contractors for more than 200 years, when he sold his muskets to the U.S. government, he factored the costs of insurance and machinery into the cost per musket – a bit of forward thinking accounting to go with his other forward thinking ideas.
No one will know what other ideas he would have put into practice, because Eli Whitney died when he was only 59, of prostate cancer. By this time, he had moved back to Connecticut, near where he was born, leaving behind a wife and four children. But he had secured himself a place in history alongside Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell as one of the young American nation’s greatest inventors.