Whitney, Eli, 1765-1825

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1765-12-08
Death 1825-01-08
English

Biographical notes:

American inventor.

From the description of Autograph letter signed : New Haven, Ct., to J.C. Calhoun, Secretary of War., 1824 May 3. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270872501

Eli Whitney (1765-1825), American inventor and gun manufacturer, received his patent for the first cotton gin in 1794.

From the description of Whitney, Eli, 1765-1825 (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). naId: 10580711

Whitney, American inventor, especially known for the cotton gin.

From the description of [Letter] 1816 Nov. 17, N. York [to] Wm. W. Woolsey / E. Whitney. (Smith College). WorldCat record id: 469106636

Inventor.

From the description of Eli Whitney correspondence, 1805 April 4. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 70981361

Eli Whitney was born in Westborough, Massachusetts, on December 8, 1765. After graduation from Yale College in 1792, Whitney spent a year in Georgia where he designed and tested a model cotton gin and formed a partnership with Phineas Miller to gin and sell cotton. Though his invention revolutionized agriculture in the South, Whitney received practically no financial return for his invention. Whitney returned to New Haven in 1794 and in 1798 began manufacturing firearms under contract to the federal government. In his factory, Whitney developed a manufacturing system based on the production of interchangeable parts. Whitney married Henrietta Frances Edwards in 1817. He died on January 8, 1825.

From the description of Eli Whitney papers, 1716-1959 (inclusive), 1785-1881 (bulk). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 145078906

From the description of Eli Whitney papers, 1716-1959 (inclusive), 1785-1881 (bulk). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 702168109

Inventor of the cotton gin.

From the description of Letter, 1818. (Duke University Library). WorldCat record id: 39522007

Eli Whitney was born in Westborough, Massachusetts on December 8, 1765. After graduation from Yale College in 1792, Whitney spent a year in Georgia where he designed and tested a model cotton gin and formed a partnership with Phineas Miller to gin and sell cotton. Though his invention revolutionized agriculture in the South, Whitney received practically no financial return for his invention. Whitney returned to New Haven in 1794 and in 1798 began manufacturing firearms under contract to the federal government. In his factory, Whitney developed a manufacturing system based on the production of interchangeable parts. Whitney married Henrietta Frances Edwards in 1817. He died on January 8, 1825.

Eli Whitney was born in Westborough, Massachusetts, the son of Eli and Elizabeth (Fay) Whitney. As a boy, Whitney was occupied with all manner of manufacturing schemes, and he persuaded his father to let him continue in mechanical work rather than in preparation for college. He made and repaired violins in the neighborhood, worked in iron, and at the age of fifteen began the manufacture of nails in his father's shop. He continued this enterprise for two winters, even hiring a helper to fill his orders. When the demand for nails declined at the close of the Revolutionary War, he turned to making hatpins and almost monopolized that business in his section of the state. By the time he was eighteen his ideas regarding a college education had changed, but when he broached the subject to his father the latter thought him too old to begin the preparatory studies and, furthermore, was not then in a position to provide the necessary funds.

Whitney's mind was made up, however, and to obtain the funds he taught school in Grafton, Northboro, Westboro, and Paxton, and with the money thus earned attended Leicester Academy, Leicester, Massachusetts, during the summer. He entered Yale College in May 1789, at the age of twenty-three. During his three years there he studied diligently, and to augment the funds sent him by his father repaired apparatus and equipment about the college. After his graduation in the autumn of 1792, having decided to become a lawyer, Whitney went South to accept a position as tutor in a gentleman's family, with the understanding that he could devote a portion of his time to reading law.

On the boat which he took to Savannah he met the widow of General Nathanael Greene, with her family and Phineas Miller, the manager of her plantation. On his arrival at Savannah, Whitney learned that his prospective employer had hired another tutor, and Mrs. Greene invited him to be her guest. He gratefully accepted and began his law studies, grasping every opportunity to show his appreciation for the kindness of his hostess by making and repairing things about the house and plantation.

During the winter a group of gentlemen who had served under General Greene in the Revolution came to visit Mrs. Greene, and one evening were discussing the deplorable state of agriculture in the South. Large areas of land were unsuitable for growing of rice or long-staple cotton, although they yielded large crops of green seed cotton. This was an unprofitable crop, however, because the process of separating the cotton from its seed by hand was so tedious that it took one workman a whole day to obtain a pound of staple. One of the gentlemen remarked that the agricultural troubles of the inland portions of the South would be eliminated if some machine could be devised to facilitate the process of cleaning the green seed cotton. Mrs. Greene, there upon, who had observed Whitney's ingenuity with tools, suggested that he was the person to make such a machine, and forthwith he turned his attention to the problem. Within ten days he had designed a cotton gin and completed an imperfect model in accordance with his plan. He experimented with this model, and by April 1793 had built a larger, improved machine with which one person could produce fifty pounds of cleaned cotton in a day.

Having indicated the means to the end sought by Mrs. Greene's friends, thus fulfilling in part his many obligations to her, Whitney intended to resume his study of the law, but he was persuaded by Phineas Miller to continue work on the cotton gin with a view to patenting the idea and engaging in the manufacture of the new machine. The two men drew up a partnership agreement on May 27, 1793, to engage in the patenting and manufacturing of cotton gins and to conduct a cotton ginning business. Meanwhile the knowledge that Whitney had built a machine to clean cotton spread and multitudes came from all quarters to see the gin. Before Whitney could secure his patent a number of imitations were in successful operation.

Whitney returned to New Haven to perfect, patent, and manufacture his gin as soon as possible. He first made oath to the invention on October 28, 1793, obtained his patent March 14, 1794, and immediately began making cotton gins and shipping them to Miller in Georgia. The partners planned to buy the cotton seed themselves, gin it, and sell the product, because they felt that, protected by a patent, they could maintain a monopoly. This policy proved to be extremely disadvantageous, however, for they could not produce enough machines to gin the rapidly increasing crops and competitors' machines were rapidly being put into operation.

The most formidable rival machine was that of Hodgen Holmes, in which circular saws were used instead of the drum with inserted wires of Whitney's original machine. Whitney later proved that the idea of such teeth had occurred to him, but it was some years before he established his right over the Holmes gin. The partners had difficulty in raising money and had to pay interest rates of from twelve to twenty-five percent. Furthermore, word came from England that manufacturers were condemning the cotton cleaned by Whitney's gins on the ground that the staple was injured. This news brought their business and the thirty gins operating in Georgia to a two year standstill while Miller and Whitney worked to prove this judgement in error.

In 1797 the first infringement suit was tried unsuccessfully, and it was not until 1807 that Whitney obtained a favorable decision. This decision was confirmed by several subsequent decisions, and thenceforth Whitney's patent was not questioned. Meanwhile, however, in 1795 his shops had been destroyed by fire; the legislatures of South Carolina and Tennessee which in 1801 and 1802 respectively had voted to purchase patent rights suddenly annulled the contracts; and in 1803 Miller died, disappointed and broken by the struggle.

Whitney continued alone for nine years more, and in 1812 made application to Congress for the renewal of his patent. In spite of the logical arguments which he advanced in his petition, the request was refused. There is probably no other instance in the history of invention of the letting loose of such tremendous industrial forces so suddenly as occurred with the invention of the cotton gin. In 1792 the United States exported 138,328 pounds of cotton; in 1794, the year Whitney patented his gin, 1,601,000 pounds were exported; the following year, 6,276,000 pounds; and by 1800, the production of cotton in the United States had risen to 35,000,000 pounds of which 17,790,000 were exported. Yet Whitney received practically no return for the invention which was due to him alone.

He was a clear-sighted business man as well as an inventor, however, and was quick to realize the mistake he and Miller had made in attempting to monopolize the ginning business. He was so thoroughly convinced that he would never obtain any money from his invention of the cotton gin that as early as 1798 he made up his mind that he had to turn to something else. He chose the manufacture of firearms, and on January 14, 1798, obtained from the federal government a contract for "ten thousand stand of arms" to be delivered in two years. Whitney was not a gunsmith, but he proposed to manufacture guns by a new method, his aim being "to make the same parts of different guns, as the locks, for example, as much like each other as the successive impressions of a copper-plate engraving." This was perhaps the first, certainly one of the first suggestions of the system of interchangeable parts which has been of tremendous significance in industrial development.

Whitney's mechanical ingenuity and inventive capacity had been so thoroughly demonstrated, and his reputation for character was so high, that he had no difficulty in finding ten individuals in New Haven to go his bond and furnish the initial capital for the new undertaking. Purchasing a mill site just outside of New Haven, now Whitneyville, he built a factory and began the design and construction of the necessary machinery to carry out his schemes. Because of the extremely low state of the mechanic arts, his difficulties were innumerable. There were no similar establishments upon which branches of his own business might lean; there were not experienced workmen to give him any assistance; and he had to make by himself practically every machine and tool required. The expense incurred and time expended in getting the factory into operation greatly exceeded his expectations, but the confidence of his financial backers and the government seems never to have wavered. At the end of the first year after the contract was made, instead of 4,000 muskets, only 500 were delivered, and it was eight years instead of two before the contract was complete. So liberal was the government in making advances to Whitney that the final balance due him amounted to little more than $2,200 out of the original sum of $134,000. Whitney, however, had accomplished that which he had set out to do. Workmen with little or no experience could operate his machinery and with it turn out by the hundreds the various parts of a musket. Whitney had succeeded in reducing an extremely complex process to what amounted to a succession of simple operations. By his tenacity he so perfected the manufacture of arms that with the subsequent adoption of his system in the two federal armories, the government saved $25,000 annually. In 1812 he entered into a second contract with the federal government to manufacture 15,000 firearms, and contracted to make a similar quantity for the state of New York, and thereafter his unique manufactory yielded him a just reward. The business which he started employed some sixty men, and at the time the works were built he erected a row of substantial stone houses for his workmen which are said to have been the first workmen's houses erected by an employer in the United States.

On January 6, 1817, in New Haven, Whitney married Henrietta Frances Edwards, who with three children survived him.

Extracted from: Dictionary of American Biography

From the guide to the Eli Whitney papers, 1716-1959, 1785-1881, (Manuscripts and Archives)

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Subjects:

  • Assembly-line methods
  • Aromatic plants--Folklore
  • Patents
  • Herbs--Folklore
  • Plantations
  • Firearms industry and trade--United States
  • Iron industry and trade
  • Patents--United States
  • Women--Southern States
  • Defense contracts
  • Firearms industry and trade
  • Firearms industry and trade--History
  • Plantations--Georgia
  • Business
  • Cotton gins and ginning
  • Women

Occupations:

  • Inventors
  • Businessmen

Places:

  • United States (as recorded)
  • Georgia (as recorded)
  • New Haven (Conn.) (as recorded)
  • New Haven (Conn.) (as recorded)
  • New Haven (Conn.) (as recorded)
  • Westborough (Mass.) (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Connecticut--Canaan (as recorded)
  • Westborough (Mass.) (as recorded)
  • New Haven (Conn.) (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Southern States (as recorded)
  • Westborough (Mass.) (as recorded)
  • Georgia (as recorded)
  • Southern States (as recorded)
  • Connecticut (as recorded)
  • Southern States (as recorded)
  • Georgia (as recorded)