Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Eli Whitney,
America's First Great Inventor

Americans are famous the world over for inventions, for the marvellous products of their genius are to be seen in all lands. The Revolution was barely at an end before their inventive skill began to show itself, and as early as 1787 the first steamboat, that of John Fitch, was seen on American waters, and the pioneer of the locomotive was seen on American soil. But the first successful and famous inventor of this country was Eli Whitney, to whose hand the South owes its agricultural prosperity.

In 1792 a young Yankee of this name was living in Savannah, Georgia, in the home of Mrs. Greene, the widow of the celebrated General Greene of the Revolutionary War. He was teaching her children and studying law. He had come south from New England, after graduating at Yale College, to teach in a Georgia family, but before he got there some one else had filled the place, and the poor fellow was in some trouble until Mrs. Greene took a fancy to him and invited him to make her house his home.

Young Whitney was a born mechanic. While working on his father's farm he had mended all the broken violins in the neighborhood, made canes, hatpins, and nails, and learned all he could about machinery. In Mrs. Greene's house he was as handy. He rigged up an embroidery frame for her, made other things, and mended everything that got out of order. She grew to look upon him as a genius in mechanics. Such a genius was then badly wanted in the South. The farmers and planters of Georgia had tried several plants in their fields and had settled on cotton as the most profitable one for them to grow. But the cotton plant was giving them serious trouble. When ripe, as most people know, it has a white, fluffy head, made up of the cotton fibres, which are fast to the seeds of the plant. To use the cotton, these seeds had to be got rid of, and this was slow work. They had to be taken out by hand, and it was a day's work for a negro to pull the seeds out of a pound of cotton. This made the fibre very dear, and it was hard to sell it. In 1784 eight bags of cotton were sent to Liverpool, and the custom-house people there seized it for duties. They said it must have been smuggled from some other country, for the United States could never have produced such a "prodigious quantity."

Mrs. Greene had often heard her planter friends talking about this difficulty and wishing that some way could be found to take out the cotton seeds by machinery. She told them that there was a young Yankee in her house who "could make anything," and showed them some of the things he had done for her. They were much interested and asked him if he could help them. Whitney was quite as much interested, for he loved machinery far more than he did his law books, and he told them he would try.

He knew nothing about cotton. It is doubtful if he had ever seen it growing. He got some of the ripe cotton pods from the planters, and pulled them to pieces to see how the seeds were fixed in them. Then he went to a cotton house and watched the dusky pickers at work taking out the seeds. It was not long before the bright fellow saw just how the work could be done, and he set eagerly to work to make a machine. He had to do everything himself, to make his own tools, and even to draw his own wires, for there was no one in that region who could help him. But he did it all, and did it well.

The plan of the machine he made was very simple. It consisted of a network of wires, at such a distance apart that the cotton could go through them but the seeds could not. A set of circular saws, with sharp teeth, was arranged so that the teeth projected between the wires. When in operation the cotton was fed in so that it ran down the wire grid or network, and the circular saws were made to revolve. Their teeth caught the cotton and pulled it between the wires, tearing it loose from the seeds, which could not go through but slid down out of the way. There was also a revolving brush which swept the cotton from the saw-teeth and kept them clean, so that they could catch more.

Such is the principle of the famous cotton gin, which has been worth so many millions of dollars to the South. Since the days of Eli Whitney many improvements have been made in it, so that it does its work far better than at first, but otherwise it is the same as it was when it was made by Eli Whitney in 1793.

When it became known that the young Yankee inventor was at work on this machine and felt sure that he could make one that would do the work, there was much excitement among the Southern planters. It would be worth so much to them. The news of it rapidly spread, and many wanted to see it, but he f would not let them. He was only working on a model, he said, and did not want to show it before it was perfected. Besides, he wished to have his invention patented before it was made public.

Whitney was too honest himself to suspect others of dishonesty. He trusted his precious model in a simple frame workshop, with no guard but a locked door. One night some thieves broke open this door and carried away the model. When he arose the / next morning and went to his shop, what was his dismay to find the door wide open and the precious model gone!

It was a bad business for poor Whitney. The principle of the machine was made known and anybody could make one like it. Copies of it appeared on all sides. As Horace Greeley says, "The South fairly swarmed with pirates of the invention, of all kinds and degrees." Before he could make a new model and procure a patent the cotton-gin was widely in use. He prosecuted those who were making his machine, but the juries of Georgia decided that they had the right to do so. The only justice he could ever obtain was from South Carolina, which in later years voted him fifty thousand dollars as a reward.

Whitney's patent was got out in 1794, and a Mr. Miller, who afterwards married Mrs. Greene, went into partnership with him in its manufacture. But the demand for the machines was so great that he could not begin to supply them, so there was a good market for the pirated machines, though they were much inferior to his. Then his shop burned down with all its contents, and he was a bankrupt. In 1812 the patent ran out, and Congress refused to renew it, so that the poor inventor made nothing from his machine but the fifty thousand dollars which South Carolina gave him.

If of little value to the inventor, the cotton-gin proved of the greatest value to the South. In the year when it was made this country produced only 500,000 pounds of cotton. In 1801 it produced 20,000,000 pounds. To-day it produces much more than 10,000,000 bales, of nearly 500 pounds each.

Eli Whitney was too ingenious a mechanic to be content with one invention. After trying for five years %, to obtain justice, he went north to New Haven, Connecticut, and began to make fire-arms for the government. He so greatly improved the machinery and methods used in this business that he fairly revolutionized it. He was the first to divide factory labor so that each part of a machine is made separately and will fit in any machine. If one of his fire-arms was broken, a new part, which would be sure to fit, could be had from the factory, and this is the case with many other things now.

If Whitney was unfortunate in his first invention, his fire-arms proved very successful, and he made a fortune out of them. Thus he did not die in poverty, as many other inventors have done,

Whitney was born at Westborough, Massachusetts, December 8, 1765, and lived till his sixtieth year of age, dying in New Haven in January, 1825.