Donald Elder: Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin

May 18, 2015 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin


Michael F. Shaughnessy –


1. Eli Whitney is one of those Americans, who by his insightful thinking and inventions revolutionized things in America. What were his early years of schooling and education like?

Eli Whitney was born on December 8, 1765, in Westborough, Massachusetts. He gave a glimpse of his future technological genius by creating a nail manufacturing business at the age of 14 in his father’s workshop on the Whitney family farm. Whitney was able to attend Leicester Academy, which was a private school that had opened in 1784 in Leicester, Massachusetts. Whitney then set his sights on attending Yale, and worked as a school teacher to earn money for his tuition. Because of this, Whitney was not able to start college until he was almost 24.

He proved to be an excellent student, and graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors in 1792. At this point Whitney hoped to begin the study of law, but he didn’t have the necessary funds. Instead, he agreed to become a private tutor in South Carolina. On his voyage to that destination, he met the widow of Nathaniel Greene, a man who had been one of the nation’s greatest heroes during the American Revolution. In recognition of his service, Greene had been presented with a plantation in Georgia, and his widow was sailing back there after a visit to her native New England. When the ship arrived at it destination, Whitney received the news that his employer was only going to pay him half the salary they had initially agreed upon. Disgusted, Whitney was ready to head north again, but Mrs. Greene convinced him to go to her neighborhood in Georgia to seek a tutoring position there. Whitney did, and shortly after arriving found himself meeting one night with Mrs. Greene and other plantation owners.

The owners talked that night about how their business prospects were not bright, due to the fact that they had not yet found a cash crop that could be profitably grown. Indeed, the only crop that would thrive in that region was a type of cotton that had firmly embedded seeds in its bolls. This made it virtually impossible to remove the seeds without damaging the cotton fiber. Hearing this, Whitney began to think of a possible solution. The end result was a device commonly known as the cotton gin.

2. His name is almost synonymous with the cotton gin- but some do not know all of the details. Can you fill us in?

Whitney’s famous invention is a remarkably simple contraption. Its main feature is a wooden cylinder with metal spikes attached. This is rotated by a crank, and the spikes catch the supply of cotton fed into the engine (“gin” is a shortened version of that word). As the cotton is moved by the roller, it must pass through a grate with very narrow slits. These openings are so narrow that the seeds in the raw cotton cannot fit through, and they thus fall harmlessly to the bottom of the device.

One of Whitney’s cotton gins allowed an individual to process over 50 pounds of cotton in a single day. Whitney’s device was ingenious, but it was also remarkably easy to produce. This, ironically, would cost Whitney. Virtually anyone with any mechanical aptitude could build one, and even though Whitney had filed a patent for the cotton gin he saw hundreds of cotton gins illegally built within months of his invention.

Whitney went broke trying to bring suit against those individuals who had violated the law to copy his invention, and gave up the business of manufacturing cotton gins in 1797.

3. Indirectly, some historians believe that the cotton gin led up to the Civil War- your thoughts?

It is definitely possible to trace a direct route from Whitney’s invention to the Civil War. It all has to do with the effects of the cotton gin on slavery. While that institution had been profitable during the early years of the English colonization of America, by the 1790s it was no longer seen as economically viable. But Whitney’s device changed all that, as it created a huge demand for cotton. Cotton, in turn, was an extremely labor intensive crop at that time, and this meant and increased demand for slaves. This seemed to many historians to have changed the attitude of white Southerners about that institution. Many of the most prominent planters at the time of the Revolutionary War had begun to think of slavery as something that could—and should—be done away with, but as it became possible to amass a fortune producing cotton the planter class began to regard slavery as a positive situation.

Thus, when Northerners increasingly began to oppose the extension of slavery, white Southerners started to feel that their interest in slavery would best be protected if they became an independent country. In this manner, it can be argued that if the cotton gin had never been invented, secession would never have occurred.

4. What other inventions was he know for?

As we have seen, Whitney is best known for an invention that never made him any money. But Whitney did indeed become one of the wealthiest men in America by perfecting someone else’s idea. It had been suggested that if a system of interchangeable parts could be perfected, factories could then mass produce products.

Whitney was the first to capitalize on this idea, focusing on the manufacture of weapons. The uncertain times that the United States lived in during the Napoleonic era caused the federal government to feel the need to secure a large supply of weapons, and because of his fame as the inventor of the cotton gin Whitney was able to win a contract to supply 10,000 muskets.

Whitney famously gave a demonstration of the principle of interchangeable parts to President Thomas Jefferson, and earned more government contracts. Whitney was not able to produce totally interchangeable parts for a number of years, but by the time of his death in 1825 his company was mass producing weapons. And in that sense, he may have influenced the outcome of the war that his cotton gin helped start, as the manufacturing capabilities of the North was one of the most important reasons that it triumphed during the Civil War.

5.  What were his later years like? And was he recognized during his time frame as a veritable genius?

Whitney died of prostate cancer in 1825, but remained to the end a remarkably inventive man. Indeed, as he was dying of that disease he invented a mechanical device to ease his own suffering. He left a fortune and a thriving business to his wife and four children. For over 90 years, the name Whitney was one of the most prominent in the realm of arms manufacturing. Eli Whitney was thus well known both during his lifetime and ever since.

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