Throwback Thursday: Happy Birthday, Eli Whitney!
Today marks Eli Whitney’s 251st birthday. Although he’s known for a famous invention that completely transformed the economy of the south, Whitney’s roots are in Massachusetts.
He was born in Westborough on December 8, 1765. The son of a wealthy farmer, Whitney lost his mother when he was 11 years old. As a child, he created a device that made nails, and later produced ladies’ hatpins. Whitney prepared for college at Leicester Academy—now Becker College—before setting off for Yale University. After graduating in 1792, he considered becoming a lawyer, but the universe had other plans.
By chance, on his way to take a tutoring job in South Carolina, he met the widow of a Revolutionary War general aboard a boat. Instead of following through with the job, he decided to read law at the widow’s plantation, where he then met Phineas Miller, her fiancé. Together, Whitney and Miller agreed to figure out a way to make cleaning cotton more efficient. According to biography.com, after a winter of work, Whitney presented the cotton gin (“gin” is short for engine) and realized he’d tapped into something big.
His invention produced more cotton in one hour than what at the time could only be produced by multiple workers in an entire day.
“One man and a horse will do more than fifty men with the old machines,” Whitney wrote to his father. “Tis generally said by those who know anything about it, that I shall make a Fortune by it.”
Whitney’s revolutionary invention did not amass the fortune he had hoped for. Though he and Miller patented the cotton gin in 1794, copies immediately turned up. For years, Whitney was embroiled in legal battles as he fought for his intellectual property. He received a few settlements, but it was farmers in the south, not Whitney, who turned a major profit from the cotton gin. The Library of Congress notes the yield of raw cotton doubled each decade after 1800, and by the middle of the century, America was growing three-quarters of the world’s supply of cotton. The invention also played a role in the growth of slavery in the United States.
A frustrated Whitney went on to produce muskets for the United States Army, employing a system of interchangeable parts that he is credited with popularizing—he’d manufacture identical parts for the muskets, then have them assembled accordingly. He worked to produce and sell muskets for the rest of his life.
Whitney died in January of 1825 in New Haven, Connecticut. Today, in nearby Hamden, there’s an Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop that aims to teach about the roots of design and invention.