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The third best known American inventor of the pre-atomic age, after Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, is probably Eli Whitney. Whitney certainly transformed the economies of the antebellum North and South. But among invention aficionados, his invention of the cotton gin is a matter of some dispute.
Whitney was born in Westboro, Massachusetts in 1765. As a child, he showed an instinct and talent for machinery. He worked as a blacksmith, and invented a nail-making machine. Whitney's dream of attending Yale College was frustrated for some years, because no college then taught or much appreciated the "useful arts." But Whitney did attend Yale, and graduated at the age of 27, only to find that there were no jobs for engineers either. So he accepted a teaching position in South Carolina.
En route, in early 1793, Whitney was befriended by Katherine Greene, the widow of a Revolutionary War general. When Whitney's teaching job later fell through, Greene invited him to stay at her plantation, Mulberry Grove, where she thought he might make himself helpful. As Whitney soon discovered, most cotton plantations were then on the brink of insolvency, because "green seed" cotton, the only strain that would grow inland, took too long to cull from its seeds. To sift out a single "point" of cotton lint from its surrounding seeds required ten hard hours of hand labor.
Everyone agreed that the solution was a machine to do this work; but no one had been able to make one. According to legend, within ten days of his arrival Whitney had observed the manual process and built a machine that did the same thing much faster. It is clear that his very first model did not work. In it, the bulk cotton was pressed against a wire screen, which held back the seeds while wooden teeth jutting out from an adjacent rotating drum teased the cotton fibers out through the mesh. This model invariably jammed. The next version was a complete success, thanks to thin wire hooks replacing the wooden teeth, and a moving brush that constantly cleared away the collected fibers.
By all accounts, Greene encouraged Whitney. The vexed question is whether the key element, the wire hooks, was his idea or hers. Greene supporters cite the claim of a friend of a friend of her plantation foreman, that Greene invoked "a woman's wit" and told Whitney to replace his wooden pegs with the wires of a fireplace cleaning brush. Whitney supporters cite a letter to the editor of Southern Agriculturalist magazine, whose author heard from admittedly shadowy sources that Whitney had explicitly asked Greene for a pin to experiment with at the start of his efforts. (Note that for some time during his Massachusetts days, Whitney had been the New World's sole manufacturer of hatpins.)
Whatever the comparative contributions, the cotton gin ("gin" is simply short for "engine") was a stupendous success. After Whitney gave a one-hour demonstration, in which the machine did the day's work of many men, farmers raced to sow their fields with green seed cotton. As the cotton grew, Whitney's workshop was broken into and his machine was examined in detail: soon, copies were everywhere. Whitney could not possibly have manufactured one tenth of the gins that that first crop would require; but it is nonetheless unfair that his patent (granted in 1794) guaranteed him only ten years of legal battles, which ended in penury.
In 1804, Whitney left the South forever, disappointed and disgusted. In his words, "An invention can be so valuable as to be worthless to the inventor." In fact, Whitney never attempted to patent any of his later inventions (for example, a milling machine). But after settling in New Haven, Connecticut, Whitney re-invented American manufacturing as a whole, through mass production.
Whitney wanted to enable unskilled laborers to make complex products. He managed this by designing products (his test case was rifles) with interchangeable parts. These were cut and shaped by machines that each performed one precise function over and over again. The workers would merely put each machine through its motions.
Mass production is not a romantic notion. But it allowed
for an unprecedented boom in American industry, and eventually
provided employment for thousands of workers who were unwilling
or unable to acquire apprenticeships in skilled crafts. And
by all accounts, Eli Whitney himself treated his "manufactory"
workers with appreciation and respect: the awful abuses of
laborers that came about after his death in 1825 were a perversion
of his system.