Eli Whitney Essay, Research Paper
The Gin. The Guns. The Legend.
By Mike Klage
Honors English 11
Eli?s Early Life
Eli Whitney was born in Westborough, Massachusetts, on December 8, 1765, to Eli Sr. and Elizabeth Whitney. (Whitney) At the age of 12, Elizabeth dies, leaving behind Eli and 2 other children. This combined with having a stepmother within two years of his mother?s death greatly effected Eli?s childhood. During the Revolutionary War, Eli started his first job. He decided to make nails, due to their demand at the time. (Eberius) This was only a sign of what was to come in his life. Eli had strong urges to attend Yale, despite the fact he was not going into the professions or theology or law, which the majority of Yale attendees did at that time. To pay his way through Yale, he taught to the side. He struggled those years with money, but at the age of 27, Whitney did graduate. (He can?) After graduating, Eli was offered a teaching position in South Carolina. On his trip, his ship wrecked, he got smallpox, and he ended up at the plantation of Catherine Greene. This was where it all began. (Eberius)
The Cotton Gin
Up to this point, the only major cash crops of the south were tobacco, rice, and indigo. As far as cotton goes, coastal islands grew long staple cotton, and made a decent profit off of it, but the long staple variety does not grow in the majority of the south. Short staple cotton was grown, but not in large portions due to its tedious cleaning process. For every four pounds of cotton plant picked, only one pound would actually be cotton fiber, the rest being seeds. (Bachman) This made cotton virtually pointless to grow from a financial perspective. After being informed about the problem, Eli started working on a machine to fix this. It only took Whitney six months to have a working prototype. This prototype cleaned the short staple cotton ten times faster, and did a more thorough job of doing it, that cleaning by hand. (Schapsmeier) Finally, growing cotton had a possibility of being a profitable industry. To start making money on his invention, Whitney applied for a patent, and started the company of Miller and Whitney. ?Miller? was Phineas Miller, the manager of the Greene Plantation. The deal was that Whitney would go back north to New Haven, Connecticut, to start a factory to make the gins, while Miller stayed in the south to market and install the gins. (He can?)
Miller and Whitney had several problems from the beginning, both in the north and in the south. First, the factory in New Haven burnt down, destroying twenty complete gins and the machinery to make more. In the south, people began to pirate Whitney?s idea when harvest time came around and the gins were not available yet. Once they were available, they became harder to sell, because Miller got caught in a land speculation deal, which hurt his (and likewise the company?s) reputation. There were also problems with the states recognizing Whitney?s patent on the gin. Throughout its existence, Miller and Whitney struggled with debt and bankruptcy, and eventually went under, even though the company?s only product was one of the greatest inventions of the time. When all was said and done, Miller and Whitney only took in about 90,000 dollars, most of which was used to cover court costs and supplies. (He can?) This small sum was despite the fact that cotton production in the south jumped from 138,000 pounds in 1792, one year before the cotton gin, to 17,000,000 pounds in 1800, only eight years later. (Bachman) Whitney probably only earned several thousand dollars for inventing the cotton gin, so the main thing Eli Whitney gained from the cotton gin was pride, and making his name known, which will help him in future years. (Schapsmeier)
After early successes inventing, but major failures when it comes to money resulting from inventions, Eli started looking for an invention which would bring in more money. He turned to the United States government. Up until this point, guns had to be made one at a time, by an expert craftsmen. This process was long and tedious. It required making each gun one piece at a time, from stock to barrel. This process was so slow, that in three years, the federal arsenal had turned out only one thousand guns. (Eberius)
This was where Whitney came in. He proposed a radical new idea to mass produce guns. It was called interchangeable parts. This meant that he would use machines to make multiple copies of each piece of a gun, all so closely the same that they would all fit together in any combination with any other parts. This served many purposes, and solved many problems at once. One major problem solved was that when a gun was broken in the field, it didn?t have to be sent back to a gunsmith to be fixed. The gun could be fixed in no time at all because they would just take an extra part that was already made to fit. This saved time, and allowed guns to be functional a higher percentage of the time. Next, it allowed the guns to be made by people other than gunsmiths. The interchangeable parts method divided producing a gun into around one hundred small simple steps. These steps could be done by anyone, not just a gunsmith. This way, people who were not skilled gunsmiths could make guns that were in fact superior to guns made by master craftsmen who had been making guns for their whole life. (Bachman) The biggest reason interchangeable parts were necessary was speed. After only one thousand guns made in the last three years, Eli Whitney proposed to make ten thousand guns in only twenty-eight months. This is why people almost laughed at Whitney for his boasts. People did not believe guns could be made to such tight tolerances as to be completely interchangeable, not to mention in that short of a time frame. Because of Eli Whitney?s reputation as being able to create the impossible, and the U.S. governments extreme need of firearms, they decided to give him a chance. (He can?) The government offered to pay him 134,000 dollars to fill this order.
Before Whitney could even start making the guns, though, he first had to invent the machines to that would make the guns. Therefore, within the overall invention of interchangeable parts, he made many other ingenious inventions to make the interchangeable parts system work. One of the major ones was the milling machine. This was basically was a circular saw blade that could cut metal to much greater accuracy than was previously able. It took him almost a year to get the machines created, up, and running, and he only produced five hundred rifles instead of four thousand. (Whitney) They government became skeptical, but they left their trust in him and kept supporting him, despite these early struggles. When all was said and done, it took him eight years to make all ten thousand rifles, which wasn?t what he had promised, but still substantially faster than others before him had been able to make them. Towards the end of the eight years, production really sped up. Then in 1811 he received an order for fifteen thousand more rifles, which he turned out in only two years. (He can?) This proved Whitney had succeeded and that interchangeable, mass produced products were not only possible, but far superior to currents methods of manufacturing.
The Later Years
Eli loved inventing and his work so much, he forgot about marriage until he was fifty-two years old, which was an old man in those days. On January 6, 1817, Henrietta Edwards became Henrietta Whitney. Whitney ended up having four children, consisting of two boys and two girls, one of which died at 21 months. (Eberius)
After only five years of marriage, Whitney?s health started to decline, due to an enlarged prostate gland. Even in his pain and suffering, Whitney was inventive. After reading everything he could about the prostate and his illness, Whitney sent away for supplies from Europe. Eli used these to invent instruments of relief for himself, including a catheter, which reduced his suffering greatly. (Eberius)
After three years of sickness, Whitney?s body finally gave in. He passed away on January 8, 1825, only eight years after his marriage. (Encarta)
Eli?s Effect on Modern Manufacturing
The industrial revolution in America started mainly because of Eli Whitney. It was his ideas that invented mass production, interchangeable part, and that laid the seeds for assembly lines. Henry Ford is credited with the assembly line, but he basically just added a conveyor belt to Whitney?s interchangeable parts ideas. Try to imagine how much a car would cost if every one was built by hand by one person. Ever heard of Rolls Royce? There?s your answer. Just think how much your car would cost to fix if every time something went wrong with it, you had to have a new part built by hand to specially fit your car. Instead, they order a part that is identical to the old one, and to the one on every other car like yours. Modern milling equipment all stemmed from Whitney?s original millers made to mass produce his guns. Even the cotton gin is the same in principle today as Whitney?s original versions, only with extra bells and whistles, and now they run on electricity. You will be hard pressed to find one item in a store that isn?t mass produced, or one that uses interchangeable parts. Everything from candy bars to clothes are now mass produced, and every car, machine, and electronic device is made from interchangeable parts. All of these are the result of Eli Whitney?s original ideas to mass produce guns with interchangeable parts.
Effects on North and South in Civil War
The South received the cotton gin from Whitney. This led to cotton production skyrocketing, side by side with slavery. This graph demonstrates
With this large increase in slavery, it increased the gap between the North and the south. Therefore, the cotton gin led in large part to the secession of the south, which had far reaching consequences. (Eberius)
As far as the North goes, the new wave of manufacturing using interchangeable parts, started by Eli Whitney, caused the North to separated more from the South, because they industrialized exceptionally fast, while the south increased slavery and went nowhere as far as industry is concerned. This was how Whitney indirectly sped up the progression to civil war in the United States.
Eli Whitney gave the world more than his share in his lifetime, and definitely received less than he should have for his greatest accomplishments, but Whitney will go down in the history books as one of the most brilliant inventors of the age, and the pioneer of the Industrial Revolution.
Bachman, Frank. Great inventors and Their Inventions. New York: American Book
Eberius, Bill. ?Eli Whitney.? Internet.
?He can make anything.? Internet. www.eliwhitney.org/ew.htm
Schapsmeier, Edward l. ?Cotton Gin.? Internet.
?Whitney, Eli.? Microsoft Encarta.