Great Inventors and Their Inventions - Frank Bachman

Eli Whitney and the Invention of the Cotton Gin

With the inventions of Hargreaves, Arkwright, and Crompton, any amount of cheap cotton yarn could be spun. Soon, too, the power loom was invented, which lowered the cost of weaving. The age of cheap clothing seemed at hand, when the poor as well as the rich could afford clothes enough to be well dressed, clean, and warm. One difficulty stood in the way, the lack of cheap cotton.

The chief sources of cotton at that time were Asia and the West Indies. Very little cotton was raised in the United States, because of the great cost of separating the seeds from the fiber or lint. Ten to fifteen days' work would produce on one acre from five to eight hundred pounds of green seed cotton. But it was a long and tedious day's work to pick the seeds out of four pounds of seed cotton, so as to prepare a single pound for the market. The seeds were picked out by hand. This was usually done in the evening, after the regular work of the day. Then the slaves, father, mother, and children, would sit in a circle about a torch and pick.

An American, Eli Whitney, invented a machine to do this work. By reason of his invention, the United States is to-day the greatest cotton-producing country in the world. The cotton crop of 1916 amounted to more than sixteen million bales and was worth several hundred million dollars.

picking cotton by hand


Whitney's cotton gin easily ranks in importance with the jenny of Hargreaves, the water frame of Arkwright, and the mule of Crompton. These four inventions are the foundation of the cotton industry of to-day. To spin and weave cotton, hamlets have grown into cities, such as Manchester in England, and Lowell in Massachusetts. Great territories, such as our Southern States, have been given over to the cultivation of cotton. Steamship and railroad lines have been built to carry cotton from the fields to the mills; and millions of people earn their daily bread from raising, or spinning, or weaving cotton, or from selling the finished goods. To have had a part in the growth of such a great industry is no slight honor.

Boyish Traits of Whitney

Eli Whitney was born at Westboro, Massachusetts, in 1765. His parents lived on a farm, and belonged to that sturdy class who provide well for their children, and train them to be industrious, saving, honest, and honorable,—virtues which boys and girls must have, if they are to lead clean lives, be useful, and be truly successful.

Home of Eli Whitney


As a mere boy, Eli had a passion for pulling things to pieces, to see how they were made and how they worked. His sister tells this story: "His father's watch was the greatest piece of mechanism Eli had as yet seen. He was very anxious to look inside of it and to examine the works, but was not permitted to do so. One Sunday morning, observing that his father was going to meeting, and was leaving at home the wonderful little machine, he . . . made believe that he was sick, as an apology for not going to church. As soon as the family were out of sight, he flew to the room where the watch hung, and taking it down, he was so delighted with . . . the movements of the wheels, that he took it to pieces before he thought what he was doing. His father was a stern parent, and he . . . would have been punished for his idle curiosity, had the mischief been found out. He put the works all so neatly together, however, that his father never discovered . . . what he had done, until Eli told him many years afterwards."

Eligh Whitney


Eli was equally fond of making things. "Our father," writes the sister, "had a workshop . . . and a variety of tools, also a lathe. This gave my brother an opportunity . . . to learn the use of tools when very young. . . . He was always making something in the shop, and seemed not to like working on the farm. On a time, after the death of our mother, when our father had been absent from home two or three days, on his return he inquired of the housekeeper what the boys had been doing. She told him what B. and J. had been about. 'But what has Eli been doing?' said he. She replied, 'He has been making fiddles.' 'Ah! I fear Eli will have to take his portion in fiddles!' "

Eli was not more than fifteen or sixteen years of age when he began to put his gift for making things to practical use. It was the time of the Revolutionary War. Nails, made then by hand, were scarce and brought a good price. Eli proposed to his father that he give him the needed tools to make nails. This the father did, and it was not long before Eli was supplying all the neighbors for miles around. Besides, he put new blades in broken knives, and did different kinds of curious jobs in a way which exceeded the skill of the country smiths. When the war closed, it was no longer profitable to make nails, but fashion came to young Whitney's rescue. The ladies of the time used long pins to fasten on their bonnets. Whitney made these pins with such skill and finish that he had a monopoly of the trade. He also built up a good business in walking canes.

When about nineteen, Whitney began to wish for a better education than could be obtained in the district school. By working in his shop, and by teaching school for two winters, he saved enough money to make a start. He entered Yale University in the fall of 1789. When a boy like Whitney enters college, now, he is almost certain to take a course in mechanical engineering. But when Whitney went to Yale, there was no such course. There was only one course, the classical, made up for the most part of Greek, Latin, and mathematics, with a little science. Though Whitney had no opportunity at Yale to prepare himself to become an engineer, he never lost his interest in making things.

One day a teacher found a piece of apparatus out of order, and said in Whitney's presence, "I am sorry, but it must go abroad for repair, to the shop it came from."

Whitney replied, "I think I might mend it."

Within a week the machine was as good as new.

Visit to the South

About the only opening for a college graduate in 1792, when Whitney finished his studies at Yale, was to become a minister, a lawyer, or a teacher. Few college graduates thought then of going into business, and there was little or no engineering work. Whitney decided, at least for a time, to take up teaching, so he secured a place to tutor the children of a wealthy gentleman at Savannah, Georgia. On the same boat for Savannah, was Mrs. Nathanael Greene, widow of the famous General Greene. Mrs. Greene saw that Whitney was a young man of character, and the two became well acquainted before they reached Georgia.

When Whitney arrived at Savannah, he found that his employer, instead of being willing to pay one hundred dollars a year and board, for the teaching of his children, as he had promised to do, was now unwilling to pay more than fifty dollars a year. Whitney refused to take the position. This left him in a strange city, without friends and almost without money. Mrs. Greene, on hearing of his troubles, invited him to her plantation, some twelve miles from Savannah.

Whitney was not long in winning the hearts of Mrs. Greene's children. His skillful fingers made for them many wonderful toys, and he repaired others that were broken. Nor did Mrs. Greene's respect for Whitney grow less as she came to know him better. She soon learned also that she was entertaining an inventor of the first rank. One evening, while making a piece of embroidery on a frame called a tambour, she complained that the frame tore the delicate silk threads of her work. An evening or two later, Whitney presented her with a frame to do the same work, but made in a different way. The new frame was much better than the old one, and Mrs. Greene wanted to know where he had obtained it. To her surprise, he replied, "Oh! I just got it out of my head."

Eligh Whitney


Early in January, 1793, three former comrades of General Greene's visited Mrs. Greene. Being planters, they talked of farming and about what could and what could not be raised at a profit. They all agreed that much of their upland would raise good cotton, but that there was no profit in growing cotton, because it cost so much to separate the seeds from the lint. They deplored greatly the lack of a machine to do away with this tedious and costly work, whereupon Mrs. Greene said, "Gentlemen, why don't you apply to my young friend Mr. Whitney; he can make anything."

Whitney was called in, but when he learned what the planters wanted, he assured them that he did not know how to make such a machine. Still, to have the need pointed out to him, and to be asked to make a machine, aroused all of the inventive genius there was in him.

Inventing the Cotton Gin

The very next day saw him on his way to Savannah to get some cotton in the seed. Returning, he told Mr. Miller, who was at that time manager of Mrs. Greene's plantation, and afterwards her husband, what he intended to do. Mrs. Greene also became a party to the secret. They were scarcely less enthusiastic than Whitney himself. A room in the basement of the house served for a shop. Here they set up a workbench and assembled a few common tools. This done, Whitney set to work.

In Asia, the West Indies, and along the coast in the South, a crude kind of roller gin was in use, made of two rollers, which revolved very close together. The seed cotton put in on one side was drawn between the revolving rollers, as clothes are drawn through a clothes wringer. The seeds too large to go between the rollers were broken off, and dropped down on the opposite side from the cotton. This roller gin answered fairly well for the black seed cotton of Asia and the West Indies, and what little was raised along the coast in the South, as it has a long fiber, and large seeds loosely attached. With a roller gin one man could clean from fifty to sixty pounds of black seed cotton in a day.

But the roller gin would not clean the green seed cotton raised on the uplands of Georgia, which has a short fiber and small seeds firmly attached. Whitney however, obtained a valuable suggestion from the roller gin. He thought it would be a good idea to make a machine which would shove or thrust the cotton through slits so narrow that when the cotton was thrust through, the seeds would be torn off, just as they were broken off when the cotton was drawn between the rollers of the roller gin. How could such a machine be made?

Whitney's first successful gin had a hopper to hold the cotton. Iron bars placed close together in pairs formed one side of the hopper, and heavy boards the other. Reaching well up into the hopper was a wooden cylinder, armed with rows of wire teeth curved slightly back from the direction in which the cylinder moved. When the cylinder turned, the short wire teeth grabbed small bunches of cotton, and thrust these through the slits between the iron bars. The pressure of the cotton on the sides of the slits pulled off the seeds, which dropped into a trough, while the cotton fiber was drawn on through the slits. Most of the fiber fell from the wire teeth. What still held on was pushed off by big brushes on the left of the machine, which revolved in an opposite direction and four times as fast as the cylinder.

Whitney did not make a machine like this at first. The hopper of iron gratings and boards was clear in his mind from the start. The part giving the most trouble was the teeth of the cylinder. His first idea was to use teeth like the teeth of a circular saw. But he had at hand no iron plates thin and strong enough to make such teeth. Fortunately, there arrived at this time, at Mrs. Greene's, a coil of heavy iron wire, brought to make a bird cage for the daughter. The sight of this wire suggested to Whitney making wire teeth. The wire was too large and had to be drawn smaller. This was slow work with Whitney's crude tools. But he was an expert. Had he not drawn thousands of bonnet pins? Trial after trial was made with wire teeth of different lengths and shapes. He finally learned that teeth about an inch long, and curved slightly back from the direction in which the cylinder turned, were the best, and would take out all the seeds and not greatly injure the fiber. But every little while the teeth would become clogged, and it was hard work to get the cotton off. Mrs. Greene one day saw Whitney working away, cleaning the clogged teeth.

"Why don't you clean the cotton off this way?" and she began to brush away with a hearth brush.

"Just the thing!" exclaimed Whitney. Forthwith, a revolving brush was set up just back of the toothed cylinder.

Towards the end of the winter of 1793, Whitney completed his first machine. It was hardly finished before Mrs. Greene invited a number of friends in to see it work. With Whitney's little gin, scarcely harder to turn by hand than a grindstone, one man could clean as much cotton as fifty men cleaned in the old way.

The planters looked on in amazement, and were quick to see that, with this machine to take out the seeds, they could raise cotton at a good profit. They congratulated Whitney on his ingenuity. They urged him to get a patent at once, telling him that his invention was sure to bring him wealth and honor. Whitney was too much of a Yankee to be averse either to wealth or to honor. He and Mr. Miller entered into a partnership to take out a patent, and to make and sell gins. Mr. Miller was to supply the money.

So enthusiastic were the planters over the outlook for raising cotton, that it was hard for them to keep such a secret to themselves. Before long the news was all over Georgia. Crowds gathered from all parts of the state. The machine had not yet been patented, and Mr. Miller would not let them see it. One night, the shed in which it was kept was broken open and the machine carried away. It thus came about that gins were made after Whitney's ideas before he secured his patent.

Seeking the Reward

Miller and Whitney, as the firm was called, made a mistake often made by young men. They wanted to make a lot of money, and they wanted to make it quickly. Instead of asking a modest sum for the use of a gin and letting anyone make one who wanted to, they proposed to build and own all the gins that were to be used. For ginning the cotton, they proposed to take from the planters each third pound of cotton cleaned. This was an exorbitant charge. The very best cotton planters resented such a price and were angry at what they called a monopoly.

Cotton Gin


The gins built for use at this time had a rule eighty rows of teeth, and were worked by two horses or oxen, or by water power. With such a gin, one man could clean five thousand pounds of seed cotton, or prepare from a thousand to twelve hundred pounds of clean cotton for the market in a day, which is as much as a thousand men could clean by hand. Is it any wonder that these two young men had visions of great and immediate wealth?

From the first, Miller and Whitney found it difficult to obtain the money they needed to build a factory and to procure tools and materials. To build gins in large numbers also proved a bigger undertaking than either of the partners had supposed, for in the days when the cotton gin was young, there were few skilled mechanics, and there were no self-acting lathes, or planes, or drills. Everything was done by hand.

Then, too, the young men had bad luck. The factory which they built at New Haven, Connecticut, was hardly in good working order before it caught fire, and building, machinery, and finished gins were destroyed. Though steps were taken at once to build a new factory, this accident lessened the number of gins they were able to make. As late as 1796, they had only thirty gins of their own at work in the whole state of Georgia.

In the meantime, the production of cotton in the South increased by leaps and bounds. In 1792, the year before the invention of the cotton gin, there were raised and sent out of the United States 138,000 pounds of cotton. In 1793, about 487,000 pounds were exported; in 1794, about 1,000,000; and in 1800, about 17,000,000 pounds.

The planters put in cotton, expecting to take the seeds out of it with one of Whitney's gins. Even if the planters had been willing to pay one pound out of each three for ginning,—and there were many who were not,—Miller and Whitney had not and could not possibly have built gins enough to clean the entire cotton crop. What were the planters to do? Were they to let their cotton stand in the field and spoil, because there was no gin owned and made by Miller and Whitney at hand to clean it? Were they to stop raising cotton, because two young men had a patent on a great invention, and had a foolish idea about how to make a fortune out of it? The planters did what it was natural to expect them to do. They had some near-by carpenter and blacksmith make them a gin, and with it they cleaned their cotton.

Seeing what the planters were doing, Miller and Whitney gave up the idea of making and owning all the gins used. They now tried to collect a royalty of two hundred dollars a year on each gin in operation. A tax of two hundred dollars a year on a machine which a local carpenter and blacksmith can make at a cost of from fifty to one hundred dollars, and which had cost the inventor but three months of effort, was excessive. A few planters paid the fee, but most of them refused. An agent sent out through Georgia to collect these royalties was not able to get money enough even to pay his expenses.

Miller and Whitney had other troubles quite as serious as trying to collect royalties from planters. Hodgen Homes, of Georgia, patented a gin, called the "saw gin." It was made like Whitney's, except that dull teeth like the teeth of a circular saw were used instead of wire teeth. Homes's "saw gin" took out the seeds better than Whitney's, and did less injury to the cotton. Naturally, people preferred it to Whitney's, and it was on the point of driving his machine from the field.

Whitney's first idea, you will remember, was to use saw teeth. But iron plates thin and strong enough to make saw teeth were not to be had, so he fell back on wire teeth. Whitney therefore felt that Homes was using his idea, and he brought suit in court to prevent the making of "saw gins." Unfortunately for Whitney, in his application for a patent nothing was said either in words or in drawings about saw teeth. For this reason, it was hard for Whitney to prove that the idea of using saw teeth belonged to him and not to Homes. He finally succeeded and Homes's patent was taken away.

Finding it difficult to keep others from making and selling gins after their model, and being unable to collect a royalty from the planters, Miller and Whitney now thought it would be best to sell the right to use their gin to the states themselves. In this way they received altogether ninety thousand dollars. Much of this sum was spent for lawyers' fees and other expenses. What little remained made up in large part Whitney's reward for his invention, and for years of worry and disappointment.

If the cotton gin failed to bring to Whitney the wealth of which he dreamed, it did bring great wealth to the South. The invention came at a time when the old products of the South, such as tobacco and rice, were cheap, and when it was hard to find profitable use for her lands and for her slaves. The cotton gin created for her a new crop, "King Cotton," in which there were enormous profits. These profits made the South rich, adding millions of dollars to the value of her plantations.

Making Muskets

However, Whitney was destined to become rich. He was too gifted a man to be crushed by disappointment over his first invention. As soon as he saw that there was small chance of getting much of anything out of the cotton gin, he looked about for a field where he could use the genius he had for mechanics and invention, and where by industry and economy he might perhaps make the fortune which he once thought was all but in his hands. He began to make muskets for the government, and in 1798 he built a factory at New Haven, Connecticut.

Whitney's genius for invention showed itself no less in manufacturing muskets than in making the first cotton gin. Before his day, one man made the lock of a gun, another carved the stock, another drilled out the barrel, and so on. Each workman had considerable skill, did everything by hand, and made one entire piece. But no two locks, or stocks, or barrels were exactly alike. If the lock of a musket broke, no other lock would fit; a new lock had to be made for that particular gun.

Flintlock gun


Whitney changed all this. He invented power machines to cut, to file, to drill, and to bore, which did away with hand machines. He divided the making of a musket into about a hundred different parts, and divided the making of each part into a number of single steps, so that little skill was needed by a workman to do any one of them. Each part was made after a pattern, so that all locks, all stocks, and all barrels were exactly alike. If part of a musket broke, it could be replaced at slight cost, by a new piece from the factory, which was sure to fit.

Whitney was the first to manufacture anything in this new way. His ideas were followed by others, and similar methods are now used in making all kinds of things. For this reason, Whitney is often called the "father of modern factory methods." He will always be honored, of course, as the inventor of the cotton gin, but his right to fame rests no less on what he taught the world about the use of machines in the making of common things.