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By 1790 slavery was on the decline in America. Apart from tobacco, rice, and a special strain of cotton that could be grown only in very few places, the South really had no money crop to export. Tobacco was a land waster, depleting the soil within very few years. Land was so cheap that tobacco planters never bothered to reclaim the soil by crop rotation — they simply found new land farther west. The other crops — rice, indigo, corn, and some wheat — made for no great wealth. Slaves cost something, not only to buy but to maintain, and some Southern planters thought that conditions had reached a point where a slave’s labor no longer paid for his care. Eli Whitney came to the south in 1793, conveniently enough, during the time when Southern planters were in their most desperate days. In a little over a week, he started the biggest avalanche of production that any economy had ever experienced. The South would never be the same again.
Eli Whitney was born on December 8, 1765 in Westboro, Massachusetts. The tall, heavy-shouldered boy worked as a blacksmith. He had an almost natural understanding of mechanisms. On a machine made at home, he made nails, and at one time he was the only maker of ladies’ hatpins in the country.
In his early twenties, Whitney became determined to attend Yale College. Since Yale was mostly a school for law or theology, his parents objected. How could Yale College help enhance his mechanical talents? Finally, at the age of twenty-three, Whitney became a student at Yale. By this time, he seemed almost middle-aged to his classmates. After he graduated with his degree in 1792, he found that no jobs were available to a man with his talents. He eventually settled for teaching, and accepted a job as a tutor in South Carolina, his salary was promised to be one hundred guineas a year.
He sailed on a small coasting packet with only a few passengers, among whom was the widow of the Revolutionary general, Nathanael Greene. The Greenes had settled in Savannah after the war. When Whitney arrived in South Carolina, he found that the promised salary was going to be halved. He not only refused to take the position, but decided to give up teaching all together. Coming to his aid, Mrs. Greene invited him to her plantation where he could read law, and also help out the plantation manager, Phineas Miller. Miller, a few years older than Whitney, was a Yale alumnus and the fiancee of Mrs. Greene. Whitney accepted the offer.
Over time Whitney got settled in, and one day while neighbors were visiting the plantation, their conversation fell to discussing the bad times. There was no money crop whatsoever; the only variety of cotton that would grow in that region was the practically useless green seed variety. Ten hours of manual work was needed to separate one point of lint from three pounds of the small tough seeds. Until some kind of machine could be built to do the work, the green seed cotton was little better than a weed.
Overhearing their conversation, Mrs. Greene jumped in, “Gentlemen, apply to my young friend, Mr. Whitney. He can make anything.”
Phineas Miller and Mrs. Green urged Whitney to study the process in which the cotton was cleaned, and see if he could create some sort of machine to do this work faster and more efficiently. Whitney found that the process was actually pretty simplistic; one hand held the seed while the other hand sorted out the small strands of lint.
Whitney tried to make a machine that almost mirrored this process. To take the place of a hand holding the seed, he made a sort of sieve of wires stretched lengthwise. It took longer to make the wire than it did to string it; the proper kind of wire was nonexistent. To do the work of the fingers which pulled out the lint, Whitney had a drum rotate past the sieve almost touching it. On the surface of the drum there were small, hook-shaped wires projecting out that caught the lint from the seed. The wires on the sieve held the seeds back while the lint was pulled away. A brush, which rotated four times as fast as the drum, cleaned off the lint from the hooks. That was all there was to Whitney’s cotton gin. It never became more complicated than that.
A demonstration of his first model was given to a few friends. In one hour, he produced what would normally be a full day’s work for several workers. With no more than the promise that Whitney would patent the machine and make a few more, the men who had witnessed the demonstration immediately ordered whole fields to be planted with green seed cotton. Word got around the district so rapidly that Whitney’s workshop was broken open and his machine examined. Within a few weeks, more cotton was planted than Whitney could possible have ginned in a year of making new machines.
Before Whitney had a chance to complete his patented model, the prematurely planted cotton came to growth. With a harvest pressing on them, planters had no time to wait for the legal fine points to be sorted out. The cotton gin was pirated in a heart-beat.
Whitney went into partnership with Miller. Whitney was to go north to New Haven, secure his patent, and begin manufacturing machines, while Miller was to remain in the South and see that the machines were placed. The partners’ first plan was that no machine was to be sold, but installed for a percentage of the profit earned. Since they had no idea that cotton planting would take place in such mass proportions, they did not know that they were asking for an agreement that would earn them millions of dollars a year. Miller’s idea was to take one pound of every three of cotton, but the planters didn’t want to comply.
By the time Whitney and Miller were willing to settle for outright sale or even a small royalty on every machine made by someone else, the amount of money due to them was outrageous. He and Miller were now deeply in debt and their only fall back was to go to court; unfortunately, every court they could go to was in cotton country. Finally in 1801, eight years after the cotton flood started, Miller and Whitney were willing to settle for grants from cotton-growing states and in return, the cotton gin would be public property within each individual state boundary. The two men were asking $100,000 from each state, but only one state made a counter offer of half the asking price. In desperation, Whitney accepted the price of $50,000 for which he only received a down payment of $20,000 and no more.
The following year, North Carolina followed along, but instead of the grants, it levied a tax on every gin in the state. This sum, less 6 per cent for collection, went to Whitney and Miller; this added another $20,000 to the pot. Tennessee paid about $10,000, and there was another $10,000 from other states. The gross income was $90,000, but most of this was owed for legal costs and other expenses. In 1803, the states recalled their agreements and sued Whitney for all the money paid to him and his partner. That year alone the cotton crop earned close to ten million dollars for the planters. The price of slaves had doubled, and men where no longer concerned with the well-being of others.
At one final attempt of salvation, Whitney applied to the federal Congress for relief in 1804 and, by one vote, was saved from total ruin. This thirty-nine year old man had a worthless patent, he was penniless, and most of the past ten years had been wasted in courtrooms. With no where else to go, he gave up on cotton, the cotton gin, and the South forever.
Whitney returned to New Haven, in hopes of starting fresh. He wasn’t sure at first which way he should go, but he was about to enter the not as celebrated, but most productive time of his life. Whitney changed the South in ways that no other man ever did. He was now going to change the North into a system that is still in effect today. Whitney was going to start and invent the system that was to become known as the “American System of Manufacture.” This is the historical significance of Eli Whitney.
At this time, there was only a small handful of skilled machinists. Whitney was very aware of this, and proceeded to invent something that would prove to be far more useful than some machine. He would invent a system of manufacturing that would allow anyone to produce high quality goods, no matter what skill level. This system was first developed with the manufacturing of rifles. Whitney, without a single factory, or even a machine, persuaded the U.S. government to give him an order of ten thousand muskets at $13.40 each, all to be delivered within two years. Only a man with the status of inventor of the cotton gin could’ve talked the government into making such a big commitment. Coming from anyone else except Eli Whitney, the proposal would’ve sounded crazy.
Up until this time, every rifle was handmade from stock to barrel. The parts of one gun were not interchangeable with any other gun, and weren’t expected to be. Whitney’s plan was to make all the parts of his rifles almost identical so that they could be interchangeable from one gun to another. He accomplished this by taking one gun, and making a template from each individual part of the gun. Whitney’s next task was to invent the machine to cut the metal according to the templates. A metal plate was clamped to a table, then the template was placed over top. A cutting tool then followed along the outlines of the template. Usually, a chisel would be used as the cutting tool, however, a chisel required skill. To solve this problem, Whitney took an iron wheel, and carved out teeth around the circumference, making it look somewhat like a gear. The edge of each tooth was then sharpened and hardened. With this wheel, there was a continuous rotation of chisel strokes at exactly the same place, making every part identical.
This machine, a small part of the entire system, was a major innovation in itself. Whitney named it the milling machine, and remained unchanged in design for over a century and a half.
Whitney had thirty thousand dollars in bonds from his friends in New Haven, and he personally borrowed ten thousand dollars from the New Haven bank. The sum involved in this big order, $134,000, was the biggest single transaction in the country at that time. By then end of the first year, Whitney was just getting into production, a big accomplishment for those times, but instead of the four thousand muskets he had promised, there were only five hundred produced. When news of this got to Whitney’s financial backers, they became doubtful.
All in all, it took Whitney almost eight years to fill the entire order. There were still many gaps in his system. There were endless bugs to be worked out, however, most of the ten thousand muskets were produced in the last two years. In 1811, Whitney took another order, this time for fifteen thousand. These were all produced in only two years.
Whitney continued on with his development of the factory until his death on January 8, 1825. Unfortunately, Whitney has been all but forgotten. He is mostly remembered as “the cotton man,” and nothing else. However, without the ingenuity and dedication of this individual, who knows where the world might be today.
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