Eli Whitney


Eli Whitney was an American inventor best known for the creation of the cotton gin, one of the key innovations of the Industrial Revolution. Whitney was born in Massachusetts, and after the death of his mother in 1777, he began working as a nail manufacturer in his father’s workshop. His stepmother opposed his going to college, but Eli earned the funds himself and attended present-day Becker College, graduating in 1792. He next went to Georgia, a common destination for recent graduates looking for opportunity, and there he met Phineas Miller, his future business partner. Whitney’s two greatest innovations would positively affect both regions of the United States: the cotton gin would reinvigorate slavery in the South, while his promotion of interchangeable parts would later help the North win the Civil War

Eli Whitney
The cotton gin—short for “cotton engine”—is a mechanical device that separates seeds from the cotton, a long and difficult process when done by hand. Whitney and Miller created the gin without the intention of mass-producing it—they instead charged farmers to have their cotton cleaned—but the product was so simple to build that rival manufacturers soon began selling the gins and the two inventors were forces to do the same. The invention was patented in 1794, but infringement lawsuits soon consumed any profits, and Whitney’s company went out of business three years later. The cotton gin transformed southern agriculture, increased the national economy, and, many claim, revitalized plantation slavery by making cotton profitable once more.

Whitney was not the inventor of interchangeable parts, an idea that had been circling for decades, but he greatly increased the popularity of such after he championed its use in making muskets. After the downfall of his cotton gin company, Eli, now greatly in debt, accepted a job as a manufacturer of weapons in the aftermath of the French Revolution. In 1798, he was offered a contract to deliver 10,000 muskets to the War Department within a year and given an incentive of $800,000. While Whitney did deliver the guns, he did not do so until eight years later; in 1801, he gave a demonstration of his interchangeable parts in order to gain more time. Finally, however, the guns were delivered.

Eli Whitney died of prostate cancer in 1825 while staying in New Haven, Connecticut. During his illness, he invented several products to help ease his pain, but these items were never made available to the public. The Eli Whitney Students Program, a Yale admissions program for non-traditional students, was founded in his honor.

Key events during the life of Eli Whitney:

Mother died.
Operated a nail manufacturing business in his father's workshop.
Entered Yale College.
Graduated from Yale.
Patented the cotton gin.
Whitney's cotton gin company went out of business.
Accepted a contract to build 10,000 muskets by 1800.
Delivered the muskets to the War Department.
Died of prostate cancer.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Eli Whitney & the Invention of the Cotton Gin  in  Great Inventors and Their Inventions  by  Frank P. Bachman
Eli Whitney  in  America First—100 Stories from Our History  by  Lawton B. Evans
A Wonderful Invention  in  Story of the Great Republic  by  H. A. Guerber
Eli Whitney, and the Cotton-Gin  in  Historical Tales: American II  by  Charles Morris
Eli Whitney  in  Heroes of Progress in America  by  Charles Morris
Eli Whitney  in  Four American Inventors  by  Frances M. Perry
Whitney and Howe  in  Builders of Our Country: Book II  by  Gertrude van Duyn Southworth

Image Links

Birthplace of Eli Whitney
 in Great Inventors and Their Inventions

Whitney and the Watch
 in Great Inventors and Their Inventions

Whitney Repairing the Children's Toys
 in Great Inventors and Their Inventions

Whitney at Work
 in Story of the Great Republic

Eli Whitney
 in Four American Inventors

Eli Whitney
 in Builders of Our Country: Book II

A Section of the Cotton Gin
 in Builders of Our Country: Book II

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