Four American Inventors - Frances Perry

Eli Whitney
The Inventor of the Cotton Gin


If a teacher should ask her pupils to guess where Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin, was born, the bright-eyed girl who always has her hand up first, would probably answer, "In the South where cotton grows." And the other pupils would think she must be right.

But strange as it may seem there were very few cotton fields in the South when Eli Whitney was born. And his childhood home was far away from them on a New England farm, near the inland village of Westboro, Massachusetts.

There cold weather came early in the fall and lingered until late in the spring. The snow-covered hills and meadows were the only "cotton fields" that little Eli knew anything about.



He was born on a bleak December day in 1765, more than ten years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The Whitney home was one of those plain New England farmhouses that are still common in that part of the country. This two-storied frame dwelling was built near the road. A little "stoop" about five feet long and three feet wide served for a front porch.

But if the porch was small, the chimney was large, and the fireplaces were broad and deep. The narrow mantels above were so high that there was no danger of the children's breaking the plates and candlesticks that ornamented them.

The ceilings were low. The rooms were lighted by wide old-fashioned windows with twelve small panes of glass in each sash. The window-sills were so far from the floor that Eli and his sister had to stand on chairs when they wanted to scratch pictures in the frost which, in winter, often covered the panes in spite of the fires in the big fire-places.

In the best room there was fine furniture, which had been bought at the shops. But the other rooms were furnished chiefly with homemade tables and chairs. These were neat and strong, and the rooms were comfortable and homelike.

Mrs. Whitney was an invalid, and died while Eli was still a child. The father was a stern, business-like man, who believed that children should be seen and not heard. Eli's brothers were older than he, and therefore his sister, who was nearest his age, was his favorite playmate.

The children had few playthings, but Eli was seldom at a loss for amusement. Although he asked a great many, questions, he always asked them for information, and not simply because he wished to say something.

Almost every farmer had some sort of a shop where, in bad weather, he tinkered away at various things and mended whatever was out of order. Mr. Whitney's shop was well fitted with tools, and when not busy on the farm he worked there, making chairs for the house, wheels for his wagons, and many other useful articles.

Eli was very fond of watching his father and older brothers while they were at work, and he soon learned to do many little things himself. As he grew older he liked to work in the shop better than on the farm. He examined all the machinery in the place until he understood it. He wanted to know how it was made, and was not content till he found out.

His father's big silver watch was to him an object of wonder. How could it keep up its steady "tick, tick"? What made the hands move, one so slowly, the other more rapidly?

One Sunday, Mr. Whitney went to church and left his watch at home. Eli stole to his room and pried open the back of the watch to see the wheels. That was very interesting for awhile, but the works were partly hidden. One wheel was over another. A little metal plate covered something which he wanted to see.

[Illustration] from Four American Inventors by Frances Perry


The curious boy was not long in finding the tiny screws that held all in place. He soon had them out, and took the works apart.

So deeply interested was he that had his father come home then, Eli would not have heard his step, and the stern man might have walked right into the room before the mischief maker discovered his presence.

But fortunately for the lad, church lasted a long time in those days, and he had plenty of time to satisfy his curiosity before the odors from the kitchen warned him that it would soon be dinner time, and his father would be at home.

Then he felt somewhat worried, but he had noticed so closely the relation of each of the members to the others that he was able to put the delicate works together correctly. It was with a deep breath of relief that he heard the familiar tick, and he trembled whenever he saw his father look at the watch that day: But it was uninjured, and not until years later when Eli told him did Mr. Whitney know that it had been meddled with.

Once after an absence of several days Mr. Whitney, on coming home, asked the housekeeper how each of the boys had spent his time while be was away. He learned that one had weeded the onions, and another had mended the stone wall between two fields.

"But what has Eli, been doing?" asked the father, noticing that no account was given of him.

"Oh, he has been making a fiddle," she answered.

"Ah," said Mr. Whitney, with a sigh, "I fear Eli will have to take his portion in fiddles."

The fiddle proved to be a very fine piece of work for a twelve-year-old boy. It was made like any other violin and gave fairly good music. Every one that saw it was astonished; and after that all the musicians in the neighborhood brought Eli their violins to mend when they were out of order. He was usually successful in discovering and correcting any faults in their mechanism.

His father, however, looked upon this work as foolishness. He would have been much better pleased to see Eli do a good day's work on the farm.


The New England farmers were a very intelligent class of people and understood the value of education. Every settlement had its little school.

Eli Whitney went to the Westboro school, where he studied spelling and learned to read and write. When he began to study arithmetic he made rapid advancement and soon stood at the head of his class. But his pleasantest and most profitable hours were spent in his father's workshop. Every day he grew more fond of working there.

When Eli was thirteen years old his father married a second time. Eli's step-mother took to her new home many choice possessions that she had collected since her girlhood. She liked to look at her treasures and show them to others.

One afternoon she was showing them to Eli and his sister. Among the parcels was a fine set of dinner knives. When she unwrapped them Eli eagerly took one and examined it with a beaming face.

Mrs. Whitney was pleased to see that the boy was interested. "These are very fine knives," she said. "They were made in England. Nothing like them could be made in this country."

At this Eli looked up quickly and said: "I could make them myself if I had the tools; and I could make the tools if I had some common tools to work with."

Mrs. Whitney was displeased and reproved him. She did not think for a moment that this little boy could do such work, or that he even meant what he said. He seemed to her to be bragging and trying to make fun of her for treasuring those knives.

However, in a few weeks Eli had an opportunity to prove the truth of what he had said. By accident one of the precious knives was broken. He took the pieces to the shop for a model, and with his clumsy tools made a knife so like the broken one that Mrs. Whitney could tell it from the others only by the absence of the stamp of the manufacturer on the blade.

It is needless to say that she now regretted her hasty words. From that time she had much greater confidence in the boy's ability to do what he undertook.

Two years later Eli began to use his skill to make money for his father. His occupation was nail-making.

As the Revolutionary War was then in progress, all trade between England and America had stopped. There were then few manufactories of any kind on this side of the Atlantic. The colonies depended upon the mother country even for such little things as nails.

Nails were made by hand and were much more expensive than they are now. Eli Whitney had often made small quantities of nails for family use, and he had done it very quickly and well. Now that they were so scarce it seemed to him that there would be profit in making them to sell. He spoke to his father about it, saying that he felt sure he could make the work pay if he had certain tools.

The idea pleased his father and he bought the necessary outfit at once. From that time till the close of the war the young mechanic spent all the time he could spare from farm labor in making nails. It proved such a profitable employment that he enlarged his shop and took an assistant.

After the war was over, nails were again shipped to this country and sold for less than young Whitney could afford to make them. He saw that it was useless to try to work against the great nail makers of England.

But he would not think of letting his shop lie idle. He turned it into a factory for the making of walking sticks and hat pins. He was as successful in manufacturing these little articles as he had been in making nails: He was careless in nothing, and often said, "Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well."

Mr. Whitney had long ceased to regret Eli's fondness for tinkering about the shop. He now expected him to settle down and become a contented, self-supporting mechanic.

But Eli was not satisfied to do this. As he grew older he took more interest in books. In one way or another he had picked up a great deal of general information, and had acquired a surprising amount of useful knowledge. He saw that those who succeeded in life were educated men; and he was ambitious to by more than a common day laborer.

Accordingly, when he was nineteen years old he decided to go to Yale College and get a thorough education.

His father was surprised and somewhat pleased at the idea of having one of his sons go to college. But when the good man spoke to his wife about it she firmly opposed the project. She said that Eli had neither the money nor the knowledge to go to college, and advised him not to think of it, as it would only make him discontented and restless. She told him that since he was already making a good living he ought to be satisfied.

The neighbors agreed with her, and said it would be too bad to spoil such a good mechanic by sending him to college.

The young man now understood that he would get no help from his family. What his step-mother had said was only too true: he had neither the knowledge required to enter Yale College, nor the money that would be required to support him while studying there. But he was not easily discouraged. When he made up his mind to do anything he usually accomplished it.

He said no more about the matter but worked early and late to secure the two things needful. To prepare himself for the entrance examinations he took his books to the shop and studied while his fingers did the work for which they had been trained. He made friends with educated people wherever he could, and got all the hints and helps possible.

Nor was he less zealous to get money. Farm work, shop work, and school teaching occupied his time. He welcomed any task whereby he could earn something to add to the little store he was saving for his education.

Although he was so industrious he was twenty-three years old before he was ready to start to college. For four years the plucky fellow had made a brave struggle against many difficulties, with no encouragement except from his faithful sister.

And now that he was ready and could say proudly, "Next May I shall enter Yale College," an unexpected misfortune threatened to disappoint his hopes.

He was taken ill and suffered for weeks from a severe fever. For a time his life was in danger. But, the fever having finally been broken, he slowly gained strength and in May he was able to go to college as he had hoped.

At Yale

Every fall hundreds of boys who have just finished high school go from all parts of the country to. New Haven, to enter Yale College.

Some arrive on the big steamboats. Others come in on the great railroads over which well-filled trains fly back and forth, to and from Boston and New York.

These students find New Haven a large city. Many noisy factories are there. The broad avenues are bordered by beautiful homes, large business blocks, and other fine buildings. Noble elms grow along the streets. Electric cars, and wagons, and carriages of all kinds rumble over the pavements.

In the heart of this busy city is a great square called the Green, where three historic churches stand.

Just beyond the Green rises a row of fine buildings of brick and stone. These are some of the university buildings. They are so stately that they make the stores near by look small and common.

Passing through a broad arch or gateway, the student finds himself within the Yale yard, or campus. It is a large pleasant quadrangle where elms wave overhead, while their lacy shadows dance on the sunny grass. Boys and young men hurry up and down the long walks with armloads of books.

This quadrangle is shut in by four rows of lofty college buildings. A line of plain, old-fashioned brick halls extends across it. These buildings are so poor and old that they look out of place beside the handsome new ones around them.

When Eli Whitney looked out of the windows of the stage coach that took him to New Haven he saw only a straggling village. At that time only about four thousand people lived in New Haven. But it seemed a large town to the young man from Westboro. He had never dreamed of such elegant structures as Osborn and Vanderbilt Halls; and the plain brick buildings, which look to us poor and common, were so much better than the neighboring shops that they appeared grand and stately.

When young Whitney went up to take his examinations, he looked with almost a feeling of reverence at the Old Chapel, the Old South, and the Old South Middle, as the buildings are called.

He passed his examinations and entered the first or freshman class.

There are now almost as many teachers at Yale as there were students then. At that time the president and two or three assistants gave all of the instruction. The president had charge of the advanced classes. The lower classes were taught by young tutors. President Stiles was a very scholarly man. The students were expected to treat him with the highest respect, and they really stood in great awe of him. When he entered the chapel all rose and remained standing while he walked down the aisle bowing with gracious dignity to the right and to the left.

If a boy went to the president's house to see him on some school business, no matter how cold it was, he took his hat off at the gate and kept it off until he left the yard again.

Though the tutors were young men who had not been out of school very long themselves, they were treated with almost as high regard as the president.

The seniors had great power over the lower classes. Shortly after school opened each year there was a meeting of the freshman and senior classes. The freshmen formed a line along one side of the long hall and the seniors lined up along the opposite side. Then the gravest and most dignified member of the senior class stepped forward and gave the freshmen a lecture on college rules and manners.

The younger students were expected to obey, all the orders of the seniors, and were punished severely by them for disrespectful behavior.

It would have been very hard for Mr. Whitney, who was then twenty-three years old, to submit to the tyranny of the youths of the upper classes. But he had very little to do with them. He found that he could get board in a private family for much less than it would cost him to live at the college halls, and he took advantage of that chance to save his money.

During the first year he studied Latin, the Greek Testament, and arithmetic. He had the power to put his whole mind on one subject and keep it there as long as he wanted to, and therefore it did not take him long to get his lessons.

He found that he would have some extra time for work. A carpenter was working at the house where he boarded. Mr. Whitney asked if he might use his tools. The man was afraid the college student would injure them, and refused to let him take them. The owner of the house heard the conversation. He had formed so high an opinion of his boarder that he asked the man to lend him his tools, saying that he would pay for whatever was broken.

The carpenter gave his consent, but watched critically while the college man began to work. He was so astonished when he saw how adroitly he handled every tool, that he exclaimed, "There was one good mechanic spoiled when you went to college." After that Mr. Whitney was permitted to use the tools whenever he liked.

Thus by doing occasional odd jobs, and by working during vacations, he was able to continue at college for the entire course.

As he went into higher classes, he had to spend more time in study. In the second year he took geography, grammar, rhetoric, algebra, geometry, and the catechism, in addition to Greek and Latin. The teachers were very exacting; and required the pupils to learn their lessons word for word. Some of the text books were dry and uninteresting.

In the third or junior year young Whitney commenced the study of trigonometry and philosophy. He liked both of those subjects very much. It was with keen pleasure that he went to his recitations in natural philosophy. They were held on the second floor of the Old College, in a corner room where the shutters were usually mysteriously closed. There all of the delicate instruments belonging to the college were kept. A telescope, an air-pump, a magic lantern, and an electrical machine were among its treasures.

One day the teacher of this class said that he was unable to make a certain experiment because his instrument was broken. He added that it would be necessary to send it to Europe to have it put in order, as there were no mechanics in this country skillful enough to mend it.

Eli Whitney looked at it for a moment, and then said, "I see just what is the matter, and I think there is no reason why I cannot mend it."

Although the teacher had great confidence in his student, he was surprised at this offer and scarcely willing to trust such a valuable instrument to him. However, when Mr. Whitney explained to him what would have to be done, and assured him that he could do it, he consented to let him try. The clever workman put it in perfect order, to the surprise and delight of both teacher and classmates.

By that time he had begun to take a more active part in college life. He was known and liked by the students of all classes, and was a prominent member of one of the literary societies.

He made life-long friendships at college with men who were to be the social and political leaders of their time. And he graduated with credit in the spring of 1792.

In Georgia

Having finished college, Mr. Whitney wished to study law and become a lawyer. He had spent all his own money and had even borrowed some from his father to finish his course at Yale. It would therefore be necessary for him to earn more before he could go on with his study.

While he was looking about for something to do, he was offered a position as teacher in a small private school in Georgia. He had had some experience in teaching. Then, too, it would be very pleasant and instructive to spend a winter in the South. So he accepted the position.

It was a hard journey over land from New Haven to Georgia; for in those days there were no railroads, and only very poor wagon roads. For this reason the young traveler embarked on one of the slow boats and went by sea.

He was not alone on his voyage. At New York he met Mrs. Greene and her children who were on their way to their beautiful southern home at Mulberry Grove, a few miles from Savannah. Mrs. Greene was the widow of the great General Nathanael Greene whose victories in the South are remembered by every schoolboy that has read the history of the Revolution.

Mrs. Greene was a brilliant little woman. She was admired and loved by George and Martha Washington, and accustomed to the gayest and most elegant society in the land. Perhaps it was because her famous husband had been so deeply interested in young men who had gone through college and were trying to make something of their lives, that she took such an interest in the young New England school teacher and mechanic.

She was very kind to Mr. Whitney and made him feel quite at home in her party. It pleased her to see her boys and girls fond of him. They had not been together many days before she had made up her mind that Eli Whitney was no ordinary young man.

General Nathanael Greene


When he reached Savannah Mr. Whitney found that the position he had come to fill was not as had been represented to him. The salary was only half as large as he had expected. This was a great disappointment.

On hearing of his trouble, Mrs. Greene said, "Do not think of taking the position. Come to my home and wait till a better opportunity offers. In the meantime you can study law. You will be very welcome. It will be a great pleasure to us to have you with us for a few weeks."

Her children, who were delighted at the idea of having their new friend at their home, added their, affectionate entreaties to their mother's invitation. So he was persuaded to visit Mulberry Grove, although he hesitated to refuse the school, and still thought of taking it if he could get nothing better.

He found Mulberry Grove to be a beautiful estate situated on the Savannah River, about fourteen miles from the city of Savannah.

The house was large and magnificent, and furnished with all possible luxury and elegance; for it had been the home of the Tory governor of Georgia in the days before the Revolution. To Mr. Whitney, one of the most attractive features of the house, was the large, well-stocked library.

Around the house was a beautiful garden where all sorts of flowers and fruits grew in abundance. Peaches, apricots, figs, oranges, and plums were in various stages of perfection. The whistle of the mocking bird in the magnolia trees trilled through the warm air.

In the rear of the mansion was the large kitchen, in a separate building. Beyond that were the smokehouse, the coach house, the stables, and the poultry pens fitted for the accommodation of thousands of fowls.

In the distance extended vast corn and rice fields, where the negroes in gay garments were at work planting, cultivating, or harvesting.

Mr. Whitney was much interested in the great plantation. Such luxury was surprising to one brought up as he had been; Even at that time there was a strong spirit against slavery in some parts of New England. The visitor at Mulberry Grove shared that feeling, and observed the plantation slaves with great interest and sympathy. He learned that they were much afraid of the smallpox, and shortly after his arrival he vaccinated all of them.

Mr. Whitney tried in every way possible to show his appreciation of the kindness of his hostess. If anything was out of order in the house or on the plantation he seemed to know exactly what was needed to make it right.

One day he heard Mrs. Greene complain that her embroidery frame tore the threads of the delicate cloth she was embroidering. He looked at it and pronounced it a clumsy contrivance. He left the room, and soon came back with a very different frame exactly suited to the purpose.

"Where did you get it?" asked Mrs. Greene.

"I made it," he replied, helping her to adjust the work on the new frame.

"But it is such a fine idea," she went on enthusiastically. "Where did you get the idea?"

"Oh, I made that too," he answered, laughing.

The Opportunity

Mrs. Greene was a woman of much importance and had great social influence. She was acquainted with the most prominent families in the country, and was very popular. In the dark days of the war, her husband said that whenever the news reached camp that she was coming to make him a visit, the whole camp was glad. While enjoying one of those happy visits the great soldier wrote to a friend: "Her cheerful countenance and ready tongue quite triumph over my grave face."

Now that the bright little northern lady had come to make her home in the South, old army officers and neighboring planters frequently stopped, on their way to and from Savannah, to have a visit at Mulberry Grove.

One afternoon, when a large party of officers and plantation owners from the neighborhood of Augusta were at the plantation, the conversation was about the discouraging state of affairs in the South, the heavy debt, and the number of people that were going west. One said, "If we could only find a way to separate rapidly the short-staple cotton from the seed it would bring new life to the South." The others agreed that this was so.

"Now," thought Mrs. Greene, "is the time to interest these influential men in my poor young friend, Mr. Whitney." Then she said, "Gentlemen, I have a friend who has just come from the North, a graduate of Yale College. He is a perfect genius at contriving machinery. Indeed, it seems to me he can make anything. Explain to him what is wanted, and I am sure he can help you."

[Illustration] from Four American Inventors by Frances Perry


Then she showed them her embroidery frame, and explained its good points, while a servant went to call the young man.

Mr. Whitney was in his room studying hard in a great law book, not thinking of the beautiful country around him, or of its products, when the polite servant summoned him to go below to meet some gentlemen.

"Perhaps they are lawyers. This may be an opportunity," he thought to himself as he hurried down stairs.

He listened eagerly to what the gentlemen said, and learned a great deal about cotton. He became much interested in the subject, and promised to see what he could do.

[Illustration] from Four American Inventors by Frances Perry


In those days tobacco and indigo were the chief products of the inland plantations. Large quantities of rice and some cotton were raised near the coast.

There are two kinds of cotton that may be compared just as we compare two varieties of peaches. You know that, while all peaches are very much alike, there are two kinds, the free stone peach from which the stone is easily removed, and the clingstone peach whose stone and pulp adhere so closely that it is almost impossible to separate them.

It is so with cotton. There is one black-seed, long-staple variety, that is called sea-island cotton, since it grows well only near salt water. The seeds of this cotton are removed with little difficulty. Then there is the green-seed, short-staple cotton which can be raised on inland plantations. The fiber and seeds cling to each other so closely that it is hard work to get them apart.

For years the planters along the coast had raised enough of the first kind for family use. A rude machine, called a roller gin, was used for separating this cotton wool from the seeds. It consisted of two wooden rollers which turned towards each other and acted on the same principle as the common clothes-wringer. The staple passed between these rollers, and the seeds were either squeezed back or crushed in passing through, just as you have seen buttons treated by a wringer.

Recently large crops of short-staple, green-seed cotton had been raised successfully on the high land. The climate and soil of the upper country, where rice could not be cultivated, were well suited to the growth of this cotton.

Improvements in the method of spinning and weaving had made a great demand for cotton, and the planters of the upper country wished to turn their tobacco fields into cotton fields. But after the cotton was raised there was no machine to separate the seeds from the fiber. The roller gin could not be used with this kind of cotton, and the separating had to be done by hand.

It was a day's work for a woman to pick the seeds from a pound of cotton, and the women servants were needed for other work.

cleaning cotton


It was customary on the plantations where cotton was raised to require the slaves to spend their evenings cleaning it. Men, women, and children sat in circles working by the light of tallow candles. Sometimes they sat quiet and sullen at their work. Sometimes they sang plantation songs, or told stories, or made rude jokes and laughed heartily, showing gleaming rows of white teeth. But, whatever expression the dark faces, bent over the snowy cotton, wore, the fingers worked busily, for there was an overseer close at hand to see that there was no idleness.

Every family of slaves was expected to separate about four and a half pounds in a week in addition to doing the field work. The slaves did not like it, and their masters were little better satisfied. At best, it was slow work, and the planters were anxious to find an improved method for removing the seeds.

Not many days passed before some of Mrs. Greene's friends came back to see what progress the Northerner had made in solving the problem. Eli Whitney had not been idle.

He had never seen cotton in the seed, and as there was none to be had at Mulberry Grove, he had gone to Savannah to get some.

He had experimented a little with it, and had formed a rough plan for a machine. He said that he had thought the matter over carefully and did not doubt that he could make a machine to do the work. But it would be an expensive undertaking, and would so interrupt his law studies that he could not afford to go into it.

His hearers assured him that in case he succeeded he was sure to make a fortune. But he still shook his head. Success was doubtful, he said, even if he made a good model. Others would use his invention before he could get money to make his machines and put them on the market.

They reminded him of the patent laws designed to protect inventors and prevent others from using their ideas without permission. He still hesitated, saying that it would be hard to enforce those laws.

The truth was, he had no money to spend in making the experiment. Gradually the disappointed planters stopped urging and went away. Mr. Miller, the man who had charge of Mrs. Greene's estate, staid. He had talked much with Mr. Whitney and had heard him explain his plan.

When all the others had gone, he said, "Mr. Whitney I believe you can do this, and if you will undertake it I will become your partner. I will furnish all the money necessary until you get the patent, on condition that I receive half the profits when we begin work."

Mr. Whitney gladly accepted this generous offer.

Making the Cotton Gin

The important question of "Who will pay for the venture?" having been settled, Mr. Whitney devoted his attention to the still greater one, "How may cotton be separated from the seed?"

He had formed a rough plan for a machine which he thought would answer the question satisfactorily. The next thing in order was to test his plan by making the machine and trying it.

Mrs. Greene and Mr. Miller had high hopes of his success and were almost as anxious as he to see a cotton gin actually made and at work. Mrs. Greene had a shop fitted up in the basement, where the inventor worked behind locked doors.

Her children were surprised to find themselves refused admission by their accommodating friend. They became very curious to know what was going on in the mysterious room. But the inventor met all their questions and jests with easy good nature, and let no one but his hostess and Mr. Miller into the secret.

He worked under great disadvantages, for he lacked many necessary materials which were not to be bought even at Savannah. And it required almost as much ingenuity to carry out his plan as it had taken to make it.

His idea was to mount a cylinder on a strong frame, so that it could be turned by hand, or by horse or water power. The cylinder was to be provided with rows of teeth, which passed through narrow openings in a curved plate or grating of metal. The rows of teeth, or circular saws, were to be about three fourths of an inch apart. The cotton was to be put into a box, or hopper, so that it rested against the grating through which the saw teeth protruded. When the cylinder was turned, its sharp teeth would, catch the cotton and drag it through the grating, tearing it from the seeds and dropping it on the other side, soft and clean. The seeds, which had been left behind, would fall to the bottom of the hopper and pass out through an opening just large enough to let them pass. They would be uninjured by the process, and ready to be planted for another cotton crop.

Mr. Whitney worked rapidly in spite of many inconveniences. But when all was done except the cylinder, progress stopped for a time. His idea had been to make circular saws and mount them one after the other on the cylinder. To make them, he must have tin or steel plates. As he could not buy or make such plates, he was obliged to contrive some other way of making the teeth on the cylinder.

Cotton Gin


One day as he was sitting in the quiet parlor, trying to think of something to use in place of the saws, one of Mrs. Greene's daughters came in with a coil of strong wire in her hand.

"I have caught you at last! Won't you help me make a bird cage?" she coaxed, holding out the wire with a bright smile.

Mr. Whitney was always glad to use his quick wits and nimble fingers to please his little friends. But never had he performed a task more cheerfully than this; for the little maid had brought him a suggestion with her request.

With a light heart he returned to his shop and was soon busy cutting pieces of wire into required lengths. Soon the clever workman had a wooden cylinder, armed with rings of wire teeth, mounted and ready for use.

What an exciting moment it was when he put the cotton into the hopper and his hand on the crank! How much the result meant to the man! With glowing cheeks and bated breath, he watched the cylinder turn and the wire teeth carry through the openings of the plate a burden of snowy cotton free from seeds.

That was a moment of victory. Past years of toil and patient striving were forgotten. Visions of comfort, luxury, and honor, thoughts of his father's and friends' surprise and pleasure, filled his mind for a moment.

Then he dismissed those dreams and studied the working of the machine more closely. He saw that the cotton lint clogged the teeth of the cylinder. There were many little improvements that must be made before the gin was perfect. But the maid object was accomplished. He had made a machine that would separate cotton from the seed.

In high spirits he called his friends to share his triumph. Both were delighted. "I knew you could do it," said Mrs. Greene, with tears of pleasure in her eyes.

Mr. Miller was no less enthusiastic. "Our fortune is made, man! You've invented a gold mine!" he exclaimed, bending over to examine the wonderful gin.

The inventor tried to check their ardor by saying that the work was by no means finished. "We must find a way to get the cotton off the teeth," he said, turning the crank slowly and plucking at the stubborn lint.

"That is only a trifle," answered Mrs. Greene gayly. Then she picked up the hearth brush and asked with a light laugh, "Why don't you use that?"

"Thank you, I will," he said, taking the offered brush and trying it. "And now I must get to work again."

Again the doors were locked, and when the confidants were next admitted, they saw a second cylinder that turned towards the first one. It had rows of little brushes which met the wire teeth and swept the cotton off of them as the two cylinders revolved.

Mrs. Greene wanted to celebrate her friend's success. She invited leading men from all parts of the state to come to Mulberry Grove to see the gin in operation.

A booth was built in the garden and decorated with flowers and foliage. There the gin was exhibited. The planters stood around it and watched with wonder and admiration, while it did in a few minutes as much as had hitherto been called a day's work.

That was a great day, and Eli Whitney was the hero of it. Every one praised and congratulated him. They called him the benefactor of the South. He was in high spirits and answered without reserve the many questions asked by the planters. He talked of the difficulties he had had to overcome in making the model. Among other things, he told how he had first thought of using metal sheets instead of wire to make the teeth of the cylinder.

A new future seemed in store for the South. In fancy the planters saw endless cotton fields sweeping over hill and plain. All decided to plant their rich acres in cotton the next season.

Their astonishment and satisfaction were so great that they could not restrain their feelings. They talked about the wonderful invention everywhere. As the news spread, crowds of curious people visited Mulberry Grove to see the inventor and his marvelous machine.

But Mr. Whitney had not yet obtained a patent on his machine. That is, he had not gotten from the government the right to control the manufacture and use, or sale, of the cotton gin. It was therefore thought best not to show it to many, lest some one should steal the idea and get a patent before Mr. Whitney did. Hence many visitors went away disappointed.

The excitement about it was so great that the gin was not safe. It was kept constantly under lock and key. One night, in spite of that care, some men broke into the shed where the precious machine was kept and took it away.

With all haste possible, Mr. Whitney made another model and sent it to the patent office at Philadelphia, which was then the seat of the national government.

Great Expectations

Papers were made out, formally organizing the firm of Miller & Whitney. At first the two men thought that they would manufacture cotton gins and sell them to planters, or sell the right to manufacture to those who wanted to make gins.

But they decided that it would be more profitable to do the ginning themselves and take their, pay in cotton. The planters were willing to give them, in payment for their work, one out of every three pounds of cotton they ginned.

To handle the entire cotton crop of the South would be an enormous undertaking. But these two ambitious young men had not the slightest doubt of their ability to do it successfully. They would need a large number of gins, for cotton was being planted in all parts of the South, and the crop promised to be a heavy one.

It was agreed that Mr. Miller should make the terms and the contracts with the planters and look after the company's interests in the South, while Mr. Whitney started a factory and got the gins ready for fall work.

The latter had found by experience that there were no advantages in the South for manufacturing. It would be necessary to make the machines in the North and ship them to Georgia. He felt more at home in his college town, New Haven, than in any other northern city. He knew the shipping advantages there; he knew where he could get supplies; he even knew good workmen whom he could employ. Besides, it was the place he preferred for his future home.

In the spring of 1793 he started north. He went first to the capital to take the proper steps to secure his patent. Thomas Jefferson was then Secretary of State. He was interested in the invention, and said he should like to have one for his own use.

Mr. Whitney staid at Philadelphia no longer than was necessary and then hastened to New Haven. He had many friends there who were glad to see him back; but he was too busy to find much enjoyment in their company. He did not even take time to visit his father's home at Westboro as he had hoped to do.

Every letter he received from his partner urged him to push the work, and warned him that there would be a great demand for cotton gins.

Mr. Whitney worked early and late, getting his shop ready, training his workmen, and providing proper tools.

As soon as the first machine was completed he went south with it, to see it set up and put in operation. The progress of the enterprise depended largely on the satisfaction given by the first gin; for on its success depended his ability to borrow money to pay for making others.

The result was all that could be desired. Everything promised the most glowing success. The only difficulty would be to make gins fast enough.

To enlarge the factory and push the work the company needed a little more money than they had. Many were ready to lend to such a promising firm as Miller & Whitney, and a loan of two thousand dollars was secured without difficulty.

Mr. Whitney went back to New Haven where he managed the building of an addition to his shop, and employed a large force of workmen.

His intention was to go to England just as soon as he got his affairs in working order. It was important that he should go there without delay, to get a patent in that country. But he was true to his old motto, "Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well," and slighted nothing in his hurry.

He took the greatest pains to plan every detail of the factory, so that the work could be most quickly and economically done.

His work was delayed by his own illness and that of his workmen. But in spite of such hindrances he had his shop in the best of order when, at the close of the winter of 1795, he went to New York to attend to a few business affairs before leaving for England.

He had been for two years a very busy, hard-working marl, but a very hopeful one. All was going well, and the future was bright with promise.


After a short stay in New York Mr. Whitney returned to New Haven. It was a chill March day when he stepped off the boat at the New Haven dock. One of his friends came out of the crowd to greet him.

"You have hard luck, Mr. Whitney," said the man, taking his hand.

"Why, what's the matter?" asked Mr. Whitney, startled by the grave face of his friend.

"You have been burned out," answered the other.

With a look almost of despair the unfortunate man cried, "Is everything gone?" and seeing the other nod his head sadly, he added, "This is indeed a misfortune," and strode off with such long steps that his friend could scarcely keep pace with him.

Arriving at the scene of the fire he found, in place of his well-ordered shop, a desolate ruin. Valuable papers, twenty finished gins, machinery, and shop were all gone. The results of two years of untiring work lay in ashes.

In every letter, Mr. Miller wrote, "We must have a hundred gins by fall." Those words came to Mr; Whitney at this moment, and he felt helpless and crushed.

But he soon regained his self-control and inquired how the fire had started. He could find out nothing satisfactory about its cause.

Everything had been done in the usual neat and orderly fashion. The night before, the shop had been swept "as clean as a dwelling house." There was not a "hat crown of fire in both chimneys, and not a pail full of chips or shavings in the entire building." The men left the building to go to breakfast. They had been gone not more than ten or fifteen minutes before the whole building was in flames. When the alarm was given, every workman hurried back, pail in hand, to put out the fire. But they saved only the adjoining building and that with the greatest effort.

As the hearths had just been swept, it was Mr. Whitney's opinion that the fire must have started from one of the brooms used for that purpose. But no one ever knew certainly the cause of the fire.

To repair the loss it was necessary for the firm of Miller & Whitney, to borrow more money. It was not so easy that time, and they had to pay a very high rate of interest for it.

Mr. Whitney received word that two other gins, made after the same plan as his own, but changed slightly, were being used in Georgia. The planters would have gins. They were willing to use Miller & Whitney's; but if they could not have them, they would have others.

The trip to England had to be given up. Mr. Whitney used every effort to get the works started again and make up for lost time.

While he was working with might and main to repair the losses he had suffered, another misfortune befell him which was perhaps the heaviest blow of all. It was hard to be hurried and to have more gins needed than he could supply. But there was something even, harder than that possible. That was to have planters cease to want the gins.

It never occurred to Mr. Whitney that this was possible, yet it was exactly what happened. It came about in this way: A large quantity of poor cotton was ginned in one of the Whitney gins. It was full of knots. The merchants to whom it was sold returned it. Then some ignorant or wicked person said the fault was due to the Whitney gin.

Thus the report that the famous Whitney gin injured cotton and made it knotty was started. It was generally believed, and spread even to London, so that buyers refused to take cotton that had been ginned by the Whitney machine. And those gins which were already set up in the South stood idle.

At first Mr. Whitney could scarcely take the matter seriously. He could not believe that intelligent men would be influenced by a charge so groundless and unreasonable. Some of the cotton that had been returned was sent to him. He examined it and said: "Nature and not our gin put those knots in the cotton. They would have been in it had it been ginned by hand. As for the gin, it is impossible for it to make such knots in good cotton, as any one may see by trying it."

He soon found that, however unreasonable the report was, it had so influenced the merchants, manufacturers, and planters that they would have nothing to do with the Whitney gin.

The company had had thirty gins at work in Georgia. Some were worked by horses or oxen, and some by water power. One after another they stopped work. Ten thousand dollars had been invested in land to be used for ginning. That was idle and unused.

Mr. Whitney now thought that if he could go to England he might do much to overcome the prejudice against his gin among those who bought and sold cotton. For he knew that if these people could be persuaded to have faith in the gin, the planters would be willing to use it. The trip would cost him one thousand dollars. Neither he nor his partner could furnish so much money, and he was obliged to stay at home and trust to time to cure men of their false notion.

He did what he could at home to show the world that the charge against his gin was unjust. He had seed cotton sent to New Haven where he ginned it to the satisfaction of every one. Samples were widely distributed. An agent was sent out through the Carolinas, and even across the mountains to Tennessee, to investigate the cotton industry and introduce the Whitney gin.

The prejudice against the gin gradually died out. But in the meantime a patent had been granted to a Georgia man on what he called an "improved gin." While Whitney's gin had been lying idle his had been gaining in popularity.

The new gin was a saw gin. It was like the Whitney gin, but instead of making the teeth for the cylinder of wire, the "improver" had used sheets of metal, as Mr. Whitney had first thought of doing. The machine was Whitney's and the so-called improvement was his idea.

In the Courts

Mr. Whitney had always, even in childhood, a keen sense of justice. He was not the man to stand back and quietly allow another to take what rightfully belonged to him.

He saw that if steps were not taken at once against this man, innumerable modifications of the Whitney gin would spring up and take the place of the original one.

If he had been an uneducated man he would not have known what to do, and this would probably have been the end of his name in connection with the cotton gin. But both he and his partner were men of intelligence. He knew something of law, and he understood mechanics so thoroughly that he was not to be deceived by apparent resemblances or differences in other machines.

In order to encourage ingenious men to give their time and attention to improving machinery and inventing useful articles, the government issues patent rights to inventors who apply for them.

In Whitney's time a patent gave an inventor the exclusive right to make and use or sell his own invention for a term of fourteen years. It was his property, and he might sell or grant to others all or a portion of that right. But for any one to make and use or sell his machine without having received the right to do so from the inventor, was a legal offense. He who did it was said to infringe on the rights of the inventor, and was liable to be fined or otherwise punished.

Mr. Whitney had decided to make and use his own gins, and he was determined to punish all who infringed upon his right.

His first suit was brought against Holmes, the man who had made the saw teeth of metal plate instead of wire. Though it was proved that the idea was Whitney's there was a defect in the patent law that made it impossible for Miller & Whitney to win the case.

The law said that the accused had to be guilty of making, devising, and using, or selling. The company could only prove that this man had used, not that he had made the gin.

This decision against Whitney encouraged other infringements on his patent. Men with gins which they claimed as their own inventions appeared in all parts of Georgia offering to gin cotton much below the prices asked by Miller & Whitney.

The planters of Georgia were therefore glad to see the true inventor of the cotton gin defeated. There grew up a bitter feeling against him, and it seemed impossible for him to find justice in the courts of Georgia.

He wrote to a friend, "If taking my life would have done away with my claim, I should have had a rifle ball through me long before this time."

Even those who sympathized with him scarcely dared to go into court and tell the truth.

Once, when his attorneys were trying to prove that the cotton gin had been used in Georgia, they had hard work to find any one who would say so, though at the time there were three gins at work so near that the noise of their wheels could be heard from the courthouse steps.

One suit after another was decided against the inventor. Most men would have given up in despair, but Mr. Whitney had a will like iron. He believed two things: that his invention was a good one, and that truth would win in the end.

And at last, after more than sixty trials, which cost him almost as much as he made out of the cotton gin, he came out victorious and proved the claims of his enemies to be false.

The difference in the cylinder teeth had been one of the chief points of dispute. A man claimed to have invented a different gin because he used saws instead of wire teeth. Mr. Whitney was able to show with the help of trustworthy witnesses that the idea of making the teeth in that manner started with him. He further showed that the principle of the gin was the same whether the teeth were made of wire or on steel plates. To make this point so clear that the most ignorant man on the jury would be convinced, he prepared two cylinders, one with saw teeth and the other with wire teeth. In one he buried the saws in the cylinder so that only the long, sharp teeth could be seen. In the other he attached the wire teeth to steel plates. When the witnesses came up to swear which one was the invention of Whitney and which the invention of Holmes, they pointed out the wrong one in each case.

At the end of the long struggle all just men were satisfied that Eli Whitney was the first and only inventor of the cotton gin.

The question was not settled, however, until a year before the close of the fourteen years covered by the patent. So, as far as money was concerned, it was of small benefit to him. Some years before, the company had sold to the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee the right of manufacture within state limits. From these sales Mr. Whitney and his partner received enough to pay for the lawsuits in Georgia, and had a few thousand dollars left.

Towards the close of the struggle Mr. Whitney had realized that he could not depend on lawyers, friends, or assistants of any kind for success. He saw that whatever was gained must be gained through his own efforts. As his business was extended over a wide territory, he had to do a great deal of traveling. In going from New Haven to Savannah he often rode overland in a little two-wheeled cart. The roads were very poor. There were few stopping-places, and those journeys required great exertion and exposure.

He wrote to a friend about these frequent trips saying, "I am perpetually on the wing and, wildgoose-like, spend my summers in the North, and at the approach of winter, shape my course for the regions of the South. But I am an unfortunate goose. Instead of winging through the airy heights with a select company of faithful companions, I must slowly wade through mud and dirt, a solitary traveler."

The cotton gin cost its inventor thirteen of the best years of his life. He gave to it his splendid business ability and his rare genius. In return he received a little more than enough to pay his debts, fame on two continents, and the knowledge that he had multiplied the riches of southern planters, and that he deserved the gratitude of every man, woman and child, who sleeps snugly under a soft cotton-filled comfort on a winter night, or who wears a cool cotton garment on a summer day. An effort was made to lengthen the term of the patent. But men, to whom Mr. Whitney's invention had brought in six months more than he had gained from it in fourteen years, said that if that was done Mr. Whitney would become too rich. And the attempt failed.

Making Arms

Several years before the term of Mr. Whitney's patent was ended he had come to the conclusion that he would never obtain a fortune from his cotton gin. He therefore made up his mind to go into another business.

His patent affairs had taken him often to the national capital. He was well acquainted there. The president and many of the leading statesmen were his friends. They looked upon him as a man who united remarkable originality of thought with unusual aptitude for work.

When he said that the United States ought to manufacture its own firearms, and that he was thinking of starting a factory for that purpose, he met with encouragement from these men. He was promised orders, and money was advanced by the government to help him establish his, factory.



He chose the location of his armory with good judgment. About two miles from New Haven is a rugged mountain, called East Rock. At its foot flows a clear stream whose course is broken by a fall. In this picturesque valley Mr. Whitney built his armory and planned to build a mansion. The spot was as convenient as it was beautiful. The waterfall furnished power to run the machinery, and the mountain furnished stone for the walls of the buildings.

The armory was one of the largest manufacturing establishments in the country. All strangers who visited New Haven went to Whitneyville to see it. An observant visitor might read in every detail of the institution, down to the very door fastenings, the boyhood motto of its founder, "Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well."

The artistically grouped stone buildings with their arches and gables, the great iron millwheels, the stream walled with stone, and the pretty bridge attracted even the careless visitors.

As the manufacture of arms on a large scale was new work in the United States, Mr. Whitney had to make much of his own machinery and train his workmen. It required skilled artisans to make arms as well as they were made in England, but Mr. Whitney adopted a new plan. Instead of having one man make all the barrels, another all the locks, and so on, he had all the barrels made at one time, all the locks made at another time, and so on. Every man had some one simple thing to do: by hand or by machine on each part. This made it very easy for men to learn the trade.

The machinery for the work was so exact that there was no trouble about the parts of the muskets fitting as some had said there would be. Each lock would exactly fit any one of a thousand guns. At first the makers of arms in other countries laughed and said that such a method could never succeed. But they soon stopped laughing, and before long adopted the Whitney method themselves. It is the method used to-day, not only in making arms but in manufacturing almost all complicated articles.

Mr. Whitney's inventions for making arms are said to have shown as much mechanical genius as: the cotton gin. But he had had enough to do with patents, and so he got none of those machines patented.

He was kept busy with large orders from the national and state governments. He found that making instruments of war was much more profitable than his contribution to the arts of peace had been.

The future began to look brighter. The settlement of the cotton-gin struggle relieved him of a great care and much anxiety. The success of his large armory promised independence and comfort for the future.

Last Years

This great inventor, who knew so much about the strong and useful, cared for the gentle and beautiful as well. He had not worked so many years merely that he might be rich in gold and bonds.

He liked beautiful things; he loved refined and educated people; he longed for a happy home. It was to enjoy these blessings that he wished to succeed in business.

He was faithful and tender-hearted. Family and kindred were always dear to him. His sister had been his comrade and confidant. He associated his brother with him in business. Even where he felt no special affection he was always courteous. In his long letters to his father he never forgot to send his best regards to his stepmother.

During the busiest periods of his life he found time to win new friends and enjoy old ones. Men whom he met in business were sure to invite him to their homes, and the ladies he met there always asked him to come again.

He was a tall fine-looking man. The most noticeable features of his strong, kind face were the keen but pleasant eyes and the firm chin. His hair curled slightly over a high forehead.

Though usually dignified and somewhat stately, he could unbend and enjoy a merry frolic with the little folks of his acquaintance, with whom he was a great favorite.

His voice was full and deep, and his conversation was entertaining as well as instructive. Moments snatched from business and spent in pleasant talk were very precious to him.

It is not surprising, then, that as business cares became fewer, he spent much of his time in the society of friends. His carriage was seen frequently in front of Judge Edward's door, and in January, 1817, the distinguished Mr. Whitney's marriage with the judge's youngest daughter was celebrated.

The years that followed were full of happiness. Mr. Whitney was not so wealthy as he deserved to be, but he could completely forget past disappointments and wrongs in the pleasures which he derived from his home and friends.

He enjoyed inventing little things for the house. Once he made Mrs. Whitney a fine bureau. It was fitted with many drawers that were all locked by locking the top one. It was easy to keep mischievous children and prying servants out of that bureau. Mrs. Whitney thought it a wonder and her husband the cleverest man in the world. And the inventor thought his wife's pleased surprise and her bright smiles the best reward in the world.

Surely no other children ever had so many ingenious toys as Mr. Whitney contrived for his happy little ones, and I am sure he got as much pleasure out of them as they did:

We are glad to know that the closing years of his life were happy and peaceful.

He died in 1825, and was buried in the New Haven cemetery. A costly monument marks his grave. A beautiful street in New Haven bears his name. But his invention of the cotton gin is his greatest monument.