Archive:Eli Whitney (1765-1825)

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Eli Whitney, Inventor of the Cotton Gin

His full ancestry and information about his descendants is available on-line.

Family Group Records - Eli7 Whitney, Eli6, Nathaniel5, Nathaniel4, Nathaniel3, John2, John1,

From The Free Dictionary:

Eli Whitney (December 8, 1765 - January 8, 1825) was an American inventor and manufacturer who is credited with creating the first cotton gin in 1793. The cotton gin was a mechanical device which removed the seeds from cotton, a process which was until that time extremely labor-intensive.

Whitney's greatest contribution to American industry was the development and implementation of the American System of manufacturing and the assembly line, which he was the first to use when producing muskets for the U.S. Government. Whitney's concepts were later exploited by Henry Ford and others in manufacturing.

There exists question today over whether the cotton gin, which Whitney received a patent for on March 14, 1794, and its constituent elements should rightly be attributed to Eli Whitney; some contend that Catherine Littlefield Greene should be credited with the invention of the cotton gin, or at least its conception. It is known that she associated with Eli Whitney (along with other historical figures such as George and Martha Washington). Some historians believe that this invention allowed for the African slavery system in the Southern United States to become more sustainable at a critical point in its development.

Born in Westborough, Massachusetts, he was graduated from Yale College in 1792. While his ideas were innovative and useful, they were so easy to understand and reproduce that the concepts and designs were readily duplicated by others. Whitney's company that produced cotton gins went out of business in 1797.

He never patented his later inventions, one of which was a milling machine.

Portrait of Eli Whitney:
Eli Whitney.


From the New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release 6:

Whitney, Eli

The inventor of the cotton gin and a pioneer in the use of mass production methods, Eli Whitney was born in Westboro, Mass., on Dec. 8, 1765, and died on Jan. 8, 1825. He graduated from Yale College in 1792 and by April 1793 had designed and constructed a machine called a cotton gin that quickly and easily separated cottonseed from the short-staple cotton fiber. Whitney's cotton gin was capable of maintaining a daily output of 23 kg (50 lb) of cleaned cotton, and its effect was far-reaching, making southern cotton a profitable crop for the first time. Whitney, however, failed to profit from his invention. Numerous imitations appeared, and his 1794 patent was not validated until 1807.

In 1798, Whitney obtained a government contract to make 10,000 muskets. He demonstrated that machine tools--manned by workers who did not need the highly specialized skills of gunsmiths--could produce standardized parts to exact specifications, and that any part could be used as a component of any musket. The firearms factory he built in New Haven, Conn., was thus one of the first to use mass production methods.


  • Green, Constance McLaughlin, Eli Whitney and the Birth of American Technology (1956)
  • Mirsky, Jeanette, and Nevins, Allan, The World of Eli Whitney (1952; repr. 1962)
  • Olmsted, Denison, Memoir of Eli Whitney, Esq. (1846; repr. 1972)

On 17 Mar 1998, Jim Whitney wrote:

"Eli [Whitney] spent quite a bit of time in the New Haven, Connecticut area, where he studied as a student at Yale. I believe there is a museum at Whitneyville, which is a suburb of New Haven. The museum is in an old mill where he worked on a number of inventions. ....
"As a bit of trivia, he could not afford to attend Yale after being accepted there and worked as a teacher in Paxton, Massachusetts, a town just north of Worcester in central Massachusetts. The headmaster allowed Eli to stay at his house so he could save his teaching stipend for his Yale expenses. This is how he was able to afford to go to Yale."

Cotton Gin

The cotton gin is a device for removing the seeds from cotton fiber. In ancient India a machine called a charka was developed to separate the seeds from the lint when the fiber was pulled through a set of rollers. The charka worked well on long-staple cotton, but variations of this machine used in colonial America could not be adapted for short-staple cotton. For the latter, cottonseed had to be removed by hand, work that was usually performed by slaves.

A machine for cleaning short-staple cotton was invented by Eli Whitney in 1793. His cotton engine consisted of spiked teeth mounted on a boxed revolving cylinder which, when turned by a crank, pulled the cotton fiber through small slotted openings so as to separate the seeds from the lint. Simultaneously a rotating brush, operated via a belt and pulleys, removed the fibrous lint from the projecting spikes. Although patented in 1794, the design was imitated so much by others that Whitney gained only a modest financial reward from his simple but ingenious invention.

The gin, with subsequent innovations, made the raising of short-staple cotton highly profitable and thereby revived the institution of slavery. Through the use of horse-drawn and water-powered gins, the ginning process was speeded up enormously. This permitted increased cotton production and lowered costs. As a result, cotton became the cheapest and most widely used textile fabric in the world.

With the advent of mechanical cotton pickers in the 20th century, it became necessary to refine the gin further. Among many modern improvements are devices for removing trash, drying, moisturizing, fractioning fiber, sorting, cleaning, and baling in 218-kg (480-lb) bundles. Using electric power and air-blast or suction techniques, highly automated gins handle 14 metric tons (15 U.S. tons) of cotton an hour.

Edward L. Schapsmeier

  • Green, C.M., Eli Whitney and the Birth of American Technology (1965)
  • MacMurray, R. R., Technological Change in the American Cotton Spinning Industry, 1790-1836 (1977)
  • Mitchell, Broadus, Rise of Cotton Mills in the South (1921; repr. 1968)

From Amanda Carbery

The Age of History - King Cotton

By the late 1780s the textile industry had been transformed. Machines had solved most problems and could now do nearly everything, from spinning thread to presing and rolling the finshing cloth. The demand for raw cotton soared. But here was another problem. It was simple enough to grow cotton, but difficult to clean the cotton 'bolls'. Once the answer had been found, cotton went on to become the most important product in the world.

Whitney's Gin

The southern states of the USA had once grown rich on tobacco and rice and cheap slave labour. Now the land was exhausted and slavery was in decline. Cotton farms made little money because it was so hard to separate the long cotton fibres from the gren seeds. It took 20 hours of hard work to produce one kilogram of cotton.

Then, in 1793, farmer's son Eli Whitney designed his cotton gin. This was a wooden drum stuck with hooks. As it turned, the hooks pulled the cotton fibres through a mesh. The seeds would not fit through the mesh and fell outside. With this simple machine, Whitney made cotton-growing a big business. Now, a worker could clean fifty times more cotton than before.

Slavery in the South

The effect of Whitney's invention was dramatic. Vast new areas of land in the southern states were planted with cotton.



They All Laughed

From the MGM Picture "Shall We Dance"
Music by George Gershwin; Lyric by Ira Gershwin 
Performed by Ginger Rogers

The odds were a hundred to one against me
The world thought the heights were too high to climb
But people from Missouri never incensed me
Oh, I wasn't a bit concerned
For from history I had learned
How many, many times the world had turned

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother
When they said that man could fly

They told Marconi
Wireless was a phony
It's the same old cry
They laughed at me wanting you
Said I was reaching for the moon
But oh, you came through
Now they'll have to change their tune

They all said we never could be happy
They laughed at us and how!
But ho, ho, ho!
Who's got the last laugh now?

They all laughed at Rockefeller Center
Now they're fighting to get in
They all laughed at Whitney and his cotton gin
They all laughed at Fulton and his steamboat
Hershey and his chocolate bar

Ford and his Lizzie
Kept the laughers busy
That's how people are
They laughed at me wanting you
Said it would be, "Hello, Goodbye."
But oh, you came through
Now they're eating humble pie

They all said we'd never get together
Darling, let's take a bow
For ho, ho, ho!
Who's got the last laugh?
Hee, hee, hee!
Let's at the past, laugh
Ha, ha, ha!
Who's got the last laugh now?

Copyright © 1999, 2006, The Whitney Research Group.

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