Eli Whitney, born December 8, 1765, was an American inventor known best for his invention of the cotton gin and interchangeable parts, which played major roles in the Industrial Revolution during the 19th century.
He grew up in Westborough, Massachusetts and was the eldest son of his parents Eli Whitney Sr., a wealthy farmer, and Elizabeth Fray.
Whitney lost his mother when he was very young, and began working in his fathers nail manufacturing business during the Revolutionary War at the age of fourteen.
As he got older, Whitney wished to stop working on his father’s farm and, instead, attend college. However, his stepmother refused to let him leave, so Whitney continued his farm duties and gave private tutoring lessons on the side to save up enough money to attend Yale at Leicester Academy.
He enrolled in 1789, graduated in 1792 as a Phi Beta Kappa, and left school intending to go to South Carolina to continue his tutoring. However, Whitney decided to go on to Georgia instead after meeting a widow of a soldier from the Revolutionary War named Ms. Greene. She invited Whitney to visit her plantation, Mulberry Grove, where he met his eventual business partner Phineas Miller.
Over the next five years, Whitney began studying the cotton industry and tried to find a way to speed up the production of such a valuable good. Finally, in 1797, Whitney received a patent for the cotton gin.
The cotton gin was a mechanical device that removed the seeds from the cotton. In prior years, workers had to individually remove seeds from the cotton, which was very intense and time consuming.
Whitney’s invention looked like a small wooden drum with hooks that pulled the cotton fiber through a mesh material. The seeds could not fit through the mesh material, and simply fell out.
This new invention contributed to the economic development of the southern states of the United States, a prime cotton growing area. Plantations could now generate up to 55 pounds of clean cotton a day.
By 1810, nearly 93 million pounds of cotton were being produced annually, compared to 500,000 pounds 15 years prior. Cotton was good because it could be stored for long periods and shipped long distances, unlike tobacco or other products. It became the U.S.'s chief export, representing over half the value of U.S. exports from 1820 to 1860.
Although Whitney’s invention did not make him rich, it did, however, make him extremely famous. Many believe the cotton gin was a prime reason for the start of the Civil War in the mid 19th century, as it brought about an even larger demand for slaves on plantations.
Before Whitney’s invention, slavery in the southern United States had been on the decline. Plantation owners often gave away their slaves since tobacco, rice, and indigo were no longer in high demand. Once the cotton gin was invented, an economic boom occurred and slaves were being shipped in from all over the world to help speed up cotton production.
Whitney soon began to realize how important social and political connections had on his business, taking full advantage of Yale alumni.
In 1817, Whitney married Henrietta Edwards, granddaughter of the famed evangelical Jonathon Edwards, daughter of Pierpont Edwards, head of the Democratic Party in Connecticut, and first cousin of Yale's president Timothy Dwight, the state's leading Federalist. The connections to his wife helped further tie him to Connecticut's upper class and ruling elite. Such connections were an essential part of his success.
However, eight years after marriage, Whitney died from prostate cancer on January 8, 1825, shortly after celebrating his 59th birthday. Before his death, Whitney had invented several devices to help ease his pain. He left behind his wife and four children.