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Eli Whitney: Great American Inventor

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Eli Whitney

Great American Inventor

Colleen Hogan

A.P. History

Semester 1, 2002

Eli Whitney was a great American inventor. He was also a noted manufacturer, craftsman, and pioneer. He is best known, of course, for inventing the cotton gin. Many also know him for his manufacturing of interchangeable gun parts. Both of these achievements had profound impact on American history and brought fame to a humble farmer's son who always tried his best and hung on to his dreams.

Eli Whitney was born in Westboro, Massachusetts, on December 8, 1765. He was the eldest of four born to Elizabeth Fay and Eli Whitney. His mother died when Eli was twelve years old. Eli senior was a farmer and, like many at the time, he had a shop in which to maintain the tools and other things needed for farm life. Eli learned to use his father's variety of tools very young, and loved working in the shop. He never showed any interest in farm work, but had great mechanical inclinations. As a boy he had seen a violin and made a fine one for himself. He was also able to take apart his father's watch and completely reassemble the delicate workings in perfect running order. He was constantly fixing and making things and, as news of his craftiness spread, he was often fixing things for neighbors and friends as well. (Cannon, 1963)

Eli was well known as a mechanic repair genius in his hometown, and early on he began to make an impact on a wider horizon. Eli was just a teenager when the Revolutionary War broke out. Since manufacturing was concentrated on making weapons and supplies for battle and because trade with England was cut off there came a great need for nails. Eli's keen business sense and vision of helping his country led him to form a plan for manufacturing nails himself. He had saved a few dollars of his own through his little projects, and with his father's help he set up a forge in the workshop. His nails were in high demand and after working by himself for a time he encountered problems with mass production. He decided to hire help so he borrowed his father's horse and was gone for three days to find a man. On his forty-mile journey Eli gathered information on mass production and found a man who worked for him for three months. After the Revolutionary War was over and the demand for nails fell, Eli's enterprising spirit constantly turned him to alternate business opportunities such as hatpins and walking sticks. (Larsen, 1954)

The Whitney family had very little money for schooling, but Eli had no desire to follow in his father's path, and he pursued his dream of attending Yale College. At eighteen he took on a job as a schoolmaster in a nearby town so that he could earn tuition while studying and preparing for college. (Larsen, 1954) The pay he received at this job allowed him to study at Leicester Academy. It took him five years to prepare himself for the extensive entrance examinations at Yale, but on April 30, 1798 he was admitted. (Cannon, 1963)

While at Yale, his mechanical aptitude showed itself frequently. On one occasion he repaired a delicate scientific instrument that would have otherwise had to be sent to its European manufacturer. (Gilbert, 1956) Whitney enjoyed himself very much at Yale and joined many clubs and organizations, studied hard, and made good friends including the president of the college, Ezra Stiles. Yet college was not all fun for Whitney. Though his father had set aside a thousand dollars for his tuition, Eli still incurred debt due to the fees, board, and extras. He had to write his father for more money and work many odd jobs. (Larsen, 1954) Then there was the question of what to do when he was finished at Yale.

When Whitney graduated in 1792 he was far from being a specialist. He thought he might try a career in law, but he still needed to study for that. President Stiles found Whitney a job offer as a tutor for the children of a South Carolina planter, Major Dupont. Whitney hesitated to go so far from home, but the solid salary proposed gave him the extra push he needed and he figured he could study law on the side. Another Yale graduate, Phineas Miller, who was working on behalf of Dupont, invited Whitney to come to New York City and travel to the plantation with him and the Major's neighbors. Whitney was seasick most of the way, but the family with which he was traveling, the Greenes, was very hospitable. Catherine Greene, the widow of Revolutionary War General Natanael Greene, invited him to come to their estate, Mulberry Grove, neighboring Dupont's. He met Dupont at the Greene's estate and promptly discovered that the salary being offered was half of what had originally been stated. Whitney decided not to take the job, but accepted the invitation of Mrs. Greene to stay as a guest for some time. (Cannon, 1963) It was while Whitney stayed as a guest on the Greene's southern plantation that he invented the machine that secured his fame as an inventor and changed the face of the south.

Whitney met many southern planters who came to the Greene estate. While Mrs. Greene was entertaining a group one day, they spoke of the hopeless conditions for the planters in the South. With new textile machines that could spin cotton and wool very rapidly, there was a huge market for cotton in the North and abroad. However, only short-stapled cotton, which has stubbornly stuck seeds, could grow in most of the South, and the labor required to clean the cotton of its seeds was not worth the trouble. The planters speculated about a machine that could do the work, but no one believed it would ever exist. Now, having had many things fixed for her by Whitney, Mrs. Greene liked to suggest his services to others. When she proposed the idea that Mr. Whitney could make a machine to do such work the planters all scoffed. (Hylander, 1937) But after examining the cotton plant, Whitney formed an idea. Within ten days he had made a small model of machine and could demonstrate the basic concept. When he shared his idea with Phineas Miller, the two formed a partnership and Miller agreed to finance the development and manufacture of this "cotton engine" or "cotton gin". (Cannon, 1963) Whitney continued to improve his design in order to submit a model for patent. The concept was simple. There were two parallel rollers; one had rows of teeth that pulled the cotton

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