Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin

Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin

The First Cotton Gin

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Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin

Eli Whitney was born on December 8, 1765 in Westborough, Massachusetts. He grew up on a farm. As a young man Eli helped his father operate a shop that manufactured nails for the American Revolution. The shop utilized an invention that Eli created himself. Before long, he was making hat pins and canes. Eli graduated from Yale in 1793, and then head south to South Carolina to work as a tutor. While he was in route he met the widow of a Revolutionary War general named Catherine Greene. Greene told Eli Whitney that if his job did not work out that he could come to her Mulberry Plantation and read law. Eli soon learned that the tutor job was only going to pay him half the money that had been agreed upon, so he turned down the job and took up Mrs. Greene on her offer.

At the Mulberry Plantation he met Catherine's finance manager Phineas Miller, who was also a Yale graduate. While there, Eli Whitney soon learned that tobacco was no longer a lucrative business and that the South lacked a key cash crop. Cotton had been cultivated by Native Americans for centuries. It was easily grown and could be stored for long periods of time. Eli soon learned that profitable long stubble Sea Island cotton could be grown along the east coast from Delaware to Georgia but not inland. Inland farmers could only plant short stubble which was not profitable because it was so labor intensive. However there was plenty of labor intensive green-seed or short stubble cotton. Unfortunately, the farmers lacked a method to extract the seeds from the cotton cheaply enough for it to be profitable. It took a slave an entire day to separate 1 pound of short stubble cotton from its seeds.

At the time the textile industry was becoming more and more mechanized in both Great Britain and New England, and as a result the demand for cotton increased dramatically. Greene and Miller decided to back Eli Whitney in his attempt to create a machine that could separate the seeds. Eli Whitney worked evenings until he came up with a machine that could clean the seeds. His machine used a system of hooks, wires and a rotating brush. Before long, Eli demonstrated the machine to the local farmers who were immediately impressed. The machine could produce more cotton in an hour than a group of slaves could produce in a day. Eli called it a cotton gin, which was short for cotton engine. He secured a patent for his invention in 1794. It did not take long before farmers began to pirate his idea and create machines of their own. As a result, Whitney spent years in court battling the farmers, but even after he received a settlement from them the cotton gin still failed to bring in very much money. However, the farmers all got rich.

Frustrated, Eli returned north and purchased a factory in New Haven, Connecticut. Shortly afterward, in 1789 he signed a contract with the federal government that stated he would manufacture 10,000 muskets in just a 2 year period. At the time muskets were made one at a time by a single craftsman. Eli devised a milling machine that cut an individual pattern, creating one specific part at a time. When all of the cut parts were put together they became a musket. It would take him 10 years to complete the contract. However, the government was impressed by his idea. Eli Whitney's system of interchangeable parts revolutionized mass production and although he did not complete the contract in time the government ordered another 15,000 muskets. This time he did it in 2 years. As a result he became very wealthy. Today he is known as the “father of American technology.”

Eli Whitney