Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Eli Whitney: The Cotton Gin and Interchangeable Parts

Eli Whitney
He is better known as one of the greatest inventors of the United States of America. His invention change the economy of an entire nation. He brought the rise of cotton industry as an engine of economic growth in the Southern States. He began to practice a concept which was ahead of his time. The idea which would change the manufacturing sector of the United States and the world. He is best remembered as an inventor rather than a tycoon. He was Eli Whitney, the man who invented the cotton gin and thought of the idea of interchangeable parts.

Eli Whitney was born in 1765 in Westboro, Massachusetts to Eli and Elizabeth Fay Whitney. The Whitney family was prosperous yet a simple family. The young Eli Whitney did not delved completely in formal education. He did not also had the interest in farming. Instead, he saw his interest laid in mechanics and tool making. Nevertheless, farming became his training ground. He attempted to answer problems farmers faced in their fields. At the age of 14, he had the skills to make knives and tools. Although he did not like early education. His family and himself saw the need to finish college. They, however, didn't had the financial capability to enter college. Eli took the initiative to earn for his college tuition. He made money by being a teacher in a school. In order to fill his lack of early education, he studied lessons ahead of his students before teaching it to the children. After six years of teaching in a school and with family support, in 1789, he finally entered Yale. In 1792, he finished college. Although, he wanted to study to become a lawyer, he did not have the financial capability to do so. Instead, he decided to continue to find work as a tutor.

Eventually, he saw himself as a tutor in South Carolina. He receive employment from the couple Phineas Miller and the widow of the revolutionary General Nathaniel Greene, Catherine Greene. Later on, Greene and Miller would be husband and wife. Miller and Greene was supportive of Whitney. They treated him like a family. Greene, in particular, grew fond of Whitney’s mechanical skills. They both tried to answer many challenges facing the agricultural sector.

Whitney, Greene, and Miller saw an interesting problem facing the growing and profitable cotton industry of the south. The industrialization of Britain and the Northern parts of the United States gave rise of demand for cotton. The agricultural South began to cash in by planting cotton. The cotton variety that the South planted, however, had cotton sticking hardly to its seeds. Slaves in the South provided the manpower to do the painstaking work of removing the seed from the cotton. The work was so laborious that in a day only one pound of cotton can be cleaned by an individual. And so, farmers tried to look for ways to make the task easier.

Whitney, with the support of Miller and Greene, invented the cotton jenny or cotton gin in 1793 and granted a patent on the following year. Gin was short term for engine. The cotton gin worked by hand cranking the machine causing cylinders to move. This cylinders had hooks that roll and pass cotton through a screen which allowed the fibers to cross and the seed left behind. The cotton gin was revolutionary. It allowed an individual to process 55 pounds of cotton a day. It resulted to the increase in the production and profits for the Southern States.

For Whitney, Miller, and Greene, the machine promised huge wealth for them. Miller helped Whitney to set up a factory to build the cotton gin in New Haven, Connecticut. The partner’s scheme to profit from the cotton gin, however, was devious and extortionist in nature. The two would build several mills and set it up in different points. Then, they would provide the service for farmers to process their cottons. But the service was not cheap. Whitney and Miller demanded 20% of the profits or 20% of the total amount of cotton of farmers in exchange for their services. It was very expensive for farmers and plantation owners. In order to bypass Whitney and Miller, many farmers resorted to copy the design of the cotton gin and use it by themselves. Later on, Whitney and Miller’s scheme began to falter as numerous rip offs of their cotton gin began to spread. Whitney attempted to fight back by filling lawsuits against the copycats. Nevertheless, creation of imitations of the cotton gin continued. However, the lawsuits ran for decades and drained much of the profits Miller and Whitney had from the cotton gin. By the time the patent expired in 1812, Whitney spent more in patent infringement lawsuit than the amount he earned from the machine. Congress refused to renew it, especially those from the South who saw cotton gin’s impact to the economy of their respective states.

Although the plan to profit from the cotton gin was a fiasco, by the time the patent was expired, Whitney had already turned his attention to another concept which would revolutionize the American manufacturing sector forever. The idea of interchangeable parts came to the mind of Eli Whitney in 1798. Weapons manufacturing was booming. The United States began to establish its own weapons industry when threat of war from France became clearer as the problem of Louisiana became intense. France was the supplier of weapons for the United States Army. If war did came, it would be a strategical nightmare that the enemy controlled the source of weapons. And so, the United States Army began to look for arms manufacturers domestically. Whitney was one who answered the call. With his cotton gin business becoming a disaster, he decided to make his New Haven factory into an arms factory. He founded the Whitney Arms Company. He looked forward to take the contract to manufacture 10,000 muskets for the army for a price of $134,000, to be completed in 28 months.

Whitney had an edge against his competitors. He expressed to the army his idea of interchangeable parts. Under the concept, a piece from one musket would fit and work perfectly if placed in another musket.  Muskets would no longer be individually hand crafted. The idea of mass production came up. Parts of the muskets would be produced in huge quantities following a standard quality. Then, the parts would then be assemble by hand. Thus, the production time would be reduced along with prices and with higher efficiency. The Army saw also the idea as revolutionary. They knew the problems of handcrafted muskets. It was difficult to find the parts and also expensive to find a gunsmith to repair the weapons. And so, the Army was attracted by the cheaper idea of interchangeable parts. The Army granted Whitney the contract and paid him $5,000 in advance and to serve as capital.

Whitney, however, promised something that was not within his capability. He did not have the machine that was very precise to make the same part with the same dimensions – a very important aspect of interchangeable parts. He did not also have the skilled engineers to produce such machines. He thought of an idea ahead of his time. Precision machines would not appear until the 1840’s. As a result of overestimating his capability. By 1801, he only manufactured 500 muskets from the 10,000 muskets asked by the army, Nevertheless, the government continued to fund Whitney. In front of US President John Adams and President-elect Thomas Jefferson, he demonstrated the interchangeability of the parts of the muskets. The demonstration were practiced in advance and saw only some success in displaying interchangeability. But the Presidents and the Army remained confident and gave Whitney an additional payment of $30,000.

Although complete interchangeability was not achieved, he did exemplify that mass production create cheaper prices. A price of Whitney’s musket was about $13.40. It was higher than rifles from Europe but much cheaper than those from the government arsenal in Springfield, Massachusetts. Although higher in prices than Europe, the government continued to support Whitney. In fact, during the War of 1812, Whitney received additional contract from the Federal and State Government of New York to produce 15,000 muskets.

Whitney continued to produce muskets and attempted to achieve the idea of interchangeability of parts until he passed away in January 8, 1825.

Eli Whitney was one of the most remembered inventors in American History. Although, he failed to become a business tycoon, his vision to answer challenges and vision ahead of his made him a remarkable man. His skills to produce a simple machine led to the growth of cotton industry and ultimately, the Southern economy. His idea of interchangeable parts and mass production became a start where the United States would excel and develop. His legacy change the history of the United States and even perhaps, the world itself.

See Also: 
Cyrus McCormick

Carter, Gregg Lee (ed.). Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law. California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2012.

Ingham, J. Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders V. 5. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Geisst, C. Encyclopedia of American Business History. New York: Facts On File, 2006.

Van Riper, A. B. A Biographical Encyclopedia of Scientists and Inventors in American Film and TV Since 1930. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2011.

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