Eli Whitney is one of those famous American inventors who have their names seared into the fabric of national history with his contribution to technology, most famously for the invention of the cotton gin. The cotton gin did not make Whitney a wealthy man, although it was certainly a boon for cotton growers. However, it did give him fame and the kind of reputation that allowed him to invent a much more significant contribution to the industrial revolution as a whole. He took on the challenge of standardized manufacturing, primarily in the production of guns.
From the Gin to the Gun
Eli Whitney was born on 8 December 1765 in Westborough, Massachusetts to Eli Whitney, Sr. and Elizabeth Fay. The senior Whitney was a wealthy farmer, and Eli was raised helping on the farm. He was noted as having a keen ability to comprehend and make technological solutions to problems with ease. Sadly, Elizabeth passed away in 1777, when young Eli was just 11 years old.
Eli worked as a blacksmith on the farm, and by age 14 was operating a nail forge he had made, using it to make ladies’ hatpins, as well. As he grew older, he set his determination on attending college with a possibility of studying law. This idea was not supported by his family, and so he was delayed on his departure from the family farm. He worked toward a higher education by taking on a tutoring job and attending Leicester Academy before entering Yale College in 1789.
After graduating from Yale in 1792, he had not yet taken the bar exam, and needed a way to pay off his debt before continuing. He was offered a tutoring job in South Carolina, which he took with an agreed-upon rate of pay. During his southbound ship journey, he met fellow passenger Catherine Greene, widow of Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene, and they struck up something of a friendship. She invited him to visit her farm in Georgia and to meet her fiancé, Phineas Miller, another Yale alumnus. When Whitney learned his agreed-upon pay rate for the tutoring job was to be halved, he refused the position, and decided to take up Greene’s invitation to visit her plantation near Savannah.
When Whitney arrived, it only took a few short days of being introduced to the issues associated with cultivating “inland” cotton, namely the problem of removing the seeds from short-staple cotton, for Eli to figure out a way to make seed removal easy. He built a hand-cranked “engine” that pulled the fibers through a set of rollers using closely strung wires to exclude the seeds from passing through with the fiber. A job that had required three weeks to perform by hand was suddenly reduced to an hour with the gin. This was good news for cotton growers because it essentially made short fiber cotton a cash crop overnight. To understand what kind of impact the cotton gin had, the United States cotton export in 1793 was 138,000 pounds; just two years later, the exported cotton totaled 1,600,000 pounds
Unfortunately, this was bad news for enslaved people, because their labor became exponentially more necessary to cultivate what would become millions of acres of cotton in the Southern states. It is suggested that the practice of slavery had been waning significantly until the cotton gin appeared.
Word of Whitney’s cotton gin configuration spread far and wide in a matter of weeks, making the invention’s patent process essentially moot. The patent was awarded to Whitney in 1794, but he ultimately fought the “counterfeit” gins for a decade, trying to reel the usurped invention back under his control by legal means. Most of the money made was spent on the next legal challenge. He eventually left cotton, and the South, behind.
In 1798, Congress allocated $800,000 for the purchase of cannons and small arms in case relations with France devolved into war. The opportunity to make money with a new endeavor held some of the draw for Whitney to pursue a small arms contract, but he also believed he could enact a plan to improve the gun-making process, especially with the encouragement of another fellow Yale alumnus, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., who just happened to be the Secretary of the Treasury. Whitney was awarded a contract with the United States government to fill an order for 10,000 muskets, deliverable in just two years—an amount that had never been made in such a short time period. Twenty-six other contractors were also awarded contracts for varying amounts of muskets, as well. How Whitney planned to accomplish this task was by bringing the concept of interchangeable parts to a hydro-powered milling factory.
At the time, muskets were individually hand-crafted by gunsmiths. Each part was forged or carved to fit on a single gun. This made crafting guns a tedious and time-consuming process, also requiring custom parts to be made when repair was needed. Whitney intended to make a supply of each required part and then assemble the guns from the various pieces. This was not a new concept, but his plan was to improve on the build process, speed, and standardization of manufacturing. What he didn’t know about gunsmithing, he made up for with creativity and confidence.
Whitney was specifically tasked with recreating a 1763 French Charleville Musket, of which the government gave two or three to each contractor to replicate. The government was actually hoping for interchangeable parts, at least with those made by each manufacturer, to make repairs easier to manage, especially in battle.
The first challenge, aside from finding investors and a place to build his manufacturing shop with access to running water, was to compensate for the lack of skilled labor. At the time, there were very few skilled machinists who could make a gun part from scratch. How could he compensate for skill, while also increasing his workforce to increase output? Whitney created a pattern for each part of the gun, but even with a pattern, a worker would have to know how to cut that metal with a chisel and do so precisely every time. How could he maintain accuracy from worker to worker? Create a machine to cut the metal. Which is what he did. He invented milling machines to cut each part of the gun. All a worker would have to do is run the machine and follow the pattern.
With his factory established in New Haven, Connecticut with money borrowed from investors and banks, Whitney spent much of the first year inventing the different hydro-powered machines to mill the gun parts. He only delivered 500 of 4,000 promised guns at the end of that first year, earning a negative report from a government commission, which understandably worried investors. As he quite literally invented the factory from concept to machine and from pattern to production, each individual detail of the product had to be considered. The learning curve was extreme because he was literally making it up as he went, eventually delivering his order over the course of 10 years, the lion’s share being delivered in the last two years. But experience and shared knowledge between manufacturers improved the process greatly across the industry. In 1811, Whitney was awarded another contract for 15,000 guns, which were successfully delivered in two years.
After finally actualizing his success in a measurable way, Whitney allowed himself to get married in 1817 at the age of 51 to Henrietta Edwards. He also brought his family into the business. His nephews and son would eventually carry the Whitney manufacturing legacy into the 20th century. Eli Whitney died on 8 January 1825, at the age of 59, leaving behind his wife of eight years with four young children.
While he can’t explicitly be dubbed the father of American manufacturing, he was definitely a proponent of this method of production and an innovator who applied skill and ambition to ideas in such a way that they became reality. It is arguable that his greatest contribution was the concept of “work smarter, not harder” by expanding the workforce beyond specialized craftsmanship, growing a middle class of workers with a new skill, and helping to usher the United States into its industrialized era with the innovative use of machines.
Early America was a country largely comprised of farmers. In fact, in 1820 over seventy percent of the population were identified as farmers. With each passing decade, the percentage of farmers declined; however, they were then and remain now an integral part of the United States economy and food supply. Unless part of the wealthy planter class of Colonial America or the Antebellum South, the lives of most farmer ancestors aren’t found recorded in the richly detailed biographical sketches of county historical atlases, nor were their successes commonly emblazoned across the headlines of their local newspapers. That being said, there are records which can reveal great insight into the lives of these growers and ranchers.
Special schedules of the United States Federal Censuses, specifically the Agricultural Schedules, can provide great insight into lives of farming ancestors. In addition to identifying the land holdings and values of their holdings and crops, it can also show neighboring farms and can aid in distinguishing between like-named individuals. Beginning with the 1840 Census, the government began assessing crops and livestock and identifying where specific types of crops and livestock were being grown or raised. Not all of these schedules, including the inaugural 1840 schedule, survived the years, as they were destroyed after the data was compiled or lost after being distributed to lower governments. Agricultural Schedules have survived for the decennial censuses from 1850 through 1880 and include varying details.
The 1850 and 1860 schedules included farmers or planters who produced a minimum of $100 worth of farm good annually and detailed the name of the owner or manager of the farm, the amount of both the improved and unimproved acreage, value of real estate and equipment, as well as the value and type of livestock and crops produced during the preceding year. These particular schedule years, in conjunction with the Slave Schedules, can provide insight for African-American research by helping to identify owners, overseers or Black sharecroppers and free men. The 1870 and 1880 schedules differed slightly by recording farmers who planted a minimum of three acres or produced at least $500 in crops and goods during the past year. In addition, the 1880 schedule took it a step further and identified the farmers as landowners, sharecroppers or tenant farmers and details about farm employees or paid labor and detailed the amount of acreage used for each kind of crop, as well as the number of poultry and eggs produced.
Index images of non-population schedules for the years of 1850-1880, including the Agricultural Schedules, can be found on Ancestry.com for over 20 United States states and territories — Alabama, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Washington Territory. If the schedules for the area where your farming ancestors lived are not available in this collection, they may be found at either state or local archives, historical societies or universities.
It is well known that land deeds can provide great contextual information for our landowning ancestors, but many do not realize that non-landowner ancestors, such as tenant farmers and sharecroppers, can be found in deeds as well. The sharecroppers or tenant farmers often had to borrow supplies or the funds to obtain the supplies every year to prepare their land, plant their crops and provide food and shelter for their families. These agreements were essentially liens filed with the county. After selling the harvest, they had to first pay back the liens before realizing any profits for themselves. They were often left with little or no money, but if the farmer had put up any holdings as collateral and the debt was not paid by the agreed upon date, the lienholder could seize and sell the collateral property. These types of deeds were often maintained separately from other types of deeds and were sometimes known as Deeds of Trust, but the name and filing system varies by state.
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Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop, (https://www.eliwhitney.org : accessed 28 November 2021), “Eli Whitney: The Inventor.”
Trevor English, Interesting Engineering, (https://interestingengineering.com : accessed 28 November 2021), “The History of Interchangeable Parts in the Industrial Revolution.”
History.com (https://www.history.com : accessed 29 November 2021), “Cotton Gin and Eli Whitney.”
Independence Hall Association, ushistory.org (https://www.ushistory.org : accessed 30 November 2021), “The Crowning of King Cotton.”
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 30 November 2021), digital image from photocopy of original advertisement, “General view from the southwest, c.1862 Photocopied from an advertisement, 'Whitney's Improved Fire-Arms,' Dana Scrapbook v. 61, p. 68, NHCHSL. - Eli Whitney Armory, West of Whitney Avenue, Armory Street Vicinity, Hamden, New Haven County, CT,” 1862, Digital ID: hhh ct0106.photos.023849p.
Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eli_Whitney_by_Samuel_Finley_Breese_Morse_1822.jpeg : accessed 30 November 2021), digital image oil on canvas, 1822, “Eli Whitney by Samuel Finley Breese Morse 1822.jpeg;” image uploaded by user Revent.
Wikipedia (https://wikipedia.org), “Eli Whitney,” rev. 02:21, 25 July 2021.
National Archives and Records Administration (https://www.archives.gov/ : accessed 2 December 2021), digital image from original document, “Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin Patent Drawing,” 14 March 1794, Digital ID: 305886, Records of the Patent and Trademark Office, Record Group 241, NARA, Washington, D.C.
Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_Stiff_Pull.jpg : accessed 2 December 2021), digital image of platinum print, Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936) photographer, 1886,, “File:A_Stiff_Pull.jpg;” image uploaded by user Kjetilr.
National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/ : accessed 2 December 2021), “Nonpopulation Census Records.”
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