Eli Whitney was born on this day, December 8,1765, he lived to the age 59 and spent the majority of his adult life in New Haven Connecticut.
Eli Whitney is best known for two things: The Cotton Gin and Interchangeable Parts but in reality the unintended consequences of his life’s work brought riches for many and misery to many more.
The Cotton Gin (gin being short for engine) was a device that Whitney developed with his business partner and fellow Yale Alum Phineas Miller that provided a quick mechanized way to remove cotton seeds from bolls of cotton fiber, which until then was a time consuming and labor intensive process.
The Cotton Gin provided for nearly a fifty-fold increase in output productivity over what a single person (generally a slave) could do by hand.
The efficiency of the Cotton Gin, along with several other advances in textile processing, transformed the economy of the South as it turned cotton from a marginal crop into a highly profitable global commodity. American cotton production soared from 156,000 bales in 1800 to more than 4,000,000 bales in 1860. The profit opportunities created by cotton exports drove the increased demand for slaves to plant and pick cotton on Southern Plantations. The number of slaves in America grew in lockstep with the cotton industry from 700,000 in 1790 to 4,000,000 in 1860 to meet the demands of Cotton Growers/Slave Owners.
Numerous historians credit the actual invention of the Cotton Gin to Catherine Greene or Hodgen Holmes while others seem to believe that African American slaves conceived the Gin, but it was Eli Whitney who patented it in 1794.
Despite having a patent on one of most transformative inventions ever, the Cotton Gin didn’t bring riches to Whitney or Miller as their product was knocked-off (pirated) on a large scale by most of the Cotton Growers in the South due to it’s simplistic design, their flawed business model and an extremely weak patent system in the United States at the time.
Interchangeable Parts – Guns
Eli Whitney sought and won a 2-year government contract to make 10,000 muskets (guns) for the Federal Government in 1798. Whitney was awarded the contract due to his notoriety with the Cotton Gin despite having no expertise in gun manufacturing.
About a year into the contract Whitney received some materials on interchangeable part manufacturing that was being done in France and he decided to incorporate this idea into his manufacturing process. In the late 1700’s skilled Gun Smiths were very scarce, in high demand and expensive so he decided that if he could do component (or sub-assembly) based production of the guns so he could utilize semi-skilled laborers to full-fill his contract in a profitable fashion. Whitney developed innovative processes in milling for producing barrels, stocks…etc and workflow for labor component of assembling his finished muskets. There was a tremendous amount of trial and error involved in getting this new manufacturing process working properly and it took just about the remainder of his adult life to perfect it.
Eli Whitney delivered the balance of his 10,000 muskets on the initial contract but it took him nearly 10 years to do so, rather than the 2 years called for in the contract of 1798. The quality of the guns, after the first few years, earned him accolades by his newest client, The Federal Government, and many subsequent orders followed thus establishing Eli Whitney and Whitney Arms as a reputable source for quality armaments.
Eli Whitney died of prostrate cancer in New Haven in 1725 but the innovative advances in manufacturing that he pioneered during his lifetime positioned New Haven to become the epicenter of gun manufacturing in the United States for much of the next 200 years. Familiar gun manufactures such as Winchester, Marlin, Mossberg, Colt and nearly 30 other less famous names all have their origins in New Haven thanks to the path that Eli Whitney blazed.
Whitney’s innovative production manufacturing processes, which included standardization and interchangeable parts, were the biggest steps in the development of the modern industrial age as they were emulated and adopted in many other successful manufactures in other industries.