Eli Whitney ranks as one of the great inventors of American history. Associated in innumerable textbooks with the cotton gin that he developed, his contribution to the development of the American economy extended far beyond this simple device. Constance McL. Green explains his impact on our history in this brief biography, one that serves both as a study of his life and of the evolution of early American industry.
Whitney displayed his mechanical aptitude from an early age. Growing up in colonial Massachusetts, he preferred tinkering in his father’s workshop to his various chores on the family farm. Though his family was middle class by the standards of the age, his request to go to college was nonetheless a considerable burden on the family finances, though one to which his father assented. Whitney attended Yale, which Green sees as a decision with critical consequences, as his subsequent career would be greatly aided by his fellow alumni.
After his graduation in 1792, Whitney’s acceptance of an tutoring position brought him to Georgia, where he made the acquaintance of the remarkable Catherine Greene, the widow of General Nathaniel Greene. It was while he was staying at her plantation that he set himself to solving one of the most perplexing problems the South faced – how to process green-seed cotton cheaply. Here the author provides a valuable context, explaining the new nation’s economic straits in the aftermath of the American Revolution. With America now cut off from most British markets and with her industry undeveloped, many believed that the solution was to develop a new staple product to export. The Industrial Revolution was stimulating a growing demand for raw cotton for the new machines to weave into cloth, but the green seeds of the dominant American variety were prohibitively difficult to separate from the fibers.
Eli Whitney solved this problem by building a machine the separated the seeds from the fiber easily. His new device, the cotton gin, was quickly seen as the revolutionary device it was, energizing the economy of a region that until then was bereft of a role. Filing a patent for it, he went into business with Greene’s plantation manager, Phineas Miller. Their plan to gin cotton for 2/5 of the crop soon encountered hostility from numerous Southern cotton growers, however, who preferred to copy the gin and do it themselves. The subsequent legal battles dragged on for another decade, and resulted in judgements that brought in only a fraction of the money Whitney and Miller had hoped to make.
Yet Whitney’s efforts on the cotton gin were to lead to an even more revolutionary innovation. To produce the number of machines believed his company would need, Whitney developed a standardized production process, one which he soon sought to apply to the production of muskets. After his struggles with marketing the cotton gin, Whitney turned to musket manufacturing as an endeavor that ensured a guaranteed income through federal contracts. His promise to deliver thousands of muskets rested not on a new design of the weapon, but on the application of his “uniformity system” to their production. This, as Green notes, was Whitney’s “unique contribution to American industrial development . . his execution of a carefully-thought-out system, of which every separate type of machine was a part.” Such a system offset the shortage of labor plaguing the young nation, and permanently transformed both American manufacturing and the American economy.
Green’s book is a good examination of both the man and his legacy. Drawing upon a range of materials, it describes his inventions and his business activities in a clear and accessible manner. More than just a portrait of Whitney, it is a study of a pivotal moment in the history of the American economy and in the development of American technology, with lessons and insights that are as applicable today as they were in his age.