Eli Whitney Jr. (1765 – 1825)

Whitney was born in Westborough, Massachusetts, on December 8, 1765, the eldest child of Eli Whitney Sr., a prosperous farmer. His mother, Elizabeth Fay of Westborough, died when he was 11.At age 14 he operated a profitable nail manufacturing operation in his father’s workshop during the Revolutionary War. Whitney worked as a farm laborer and schoolteacher to save money. He prepared for Yale at Leicester Academy (now Becker College) and under the tutelage of Rev. Elizur Goodrich of Durham, Connecticut, he entered the Class of 1789, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1792.Whitney expected to study law but, finding himself short of funds, accepted an offer to go to South Carolina as a private tutor. Instead of reaching his destination, he was convinced to visit Georgia. In the closing years of the 18th century, Georgia was a magnet for New Englanders seeking their fortunes (its Revolutionary-era governor had been Lyman Hall, a migrant from Connecticut). When he initially sailed for South Carolina, among his shipmates were the widow and family of Revolutionary hero, Gen. Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island. Mrs. Greene invited Whitney to visit her Georgia plantation, Mulberry Grove. Her plantation manager and husband-to-be was Phineas Miller, another Connecticut migrant and Yale graduate (Class of 1785), who would become Whitney’s business partner. Whitney is most famous for two innovations which later divided the United States in the mid-19th century: the cotton gin (1793) and his advocacy of interchangeable parts. In the South, the cotton gin revolutionized the way cotton was harvested and reinvigorated slavery. In the North the adoption of interchangeable parts revolutionized the manufacturing industry, and contributed greatly to their victory in the Civil War.

Though Whitney is popularly credited with the invention of a musket that could be manufactured with interchangeable parts, the idea predated him. The idea is credited to Jean Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval, a French artillerist, and credits for finally perfecting the “armory system,” or American system of manufacturing, is given by historian Merritt Roe Smith to Captain John H. Hall and by historian Diana Muir writing in Reflections in Bullough’s Pond to Simeon North.  By the late 1790s, Whitney was on the verge of bankruptcy and the cotton gin litigation had left him deeply in debt. His New Haven cotton gin factory had burned to the ground, and litigation sapped his remaining resources. The French Revolution had ignited new conflicts between Great Britain, France,and the United States. The new American government, realizing the need to prepare for war, began to rearm. The War Department issued contracts for the manufacture of 10,000 muskets. Whitney, who had never made a gun in his life, obtained a contract in January 1798 to deliver 10,000 – 15,000 muskets in 1800. He had not mentioned interchangeable parts at that time. Ten months later, Treasury Secretary Wolcott sent him a “foreign pamphlet on arms manufacturing techniques,” possibly one of Honoré Blanc’s reports, after which Whitney first began to talk about interchangeability. After spending most of 1799-1801 in cotton gin litigation, Whitney began promoting the idea of interchangeable parts, and even arranged a public demonstration of the concept in order to gain time. He did not deliver on the contract until 1809, he then spent the rest of his life publicizing the idea of interchangeability. Whitney’s defenders have claimed that he invented the American system of manufacturing, the combination of power machinery, interchangeable parts and division of labor that would underlie the nation’s subsequent industrial revolution. While there is persuasive evidence that he failed to achieve interchangeability, his use of power machinery and specialized division of labor are well documented.

Machine tool historian Joseph W. Roe credited Whitney with inventing the first milling machine. Subsequent work by other historians (Woodbury, Smith, Muir) suggests that Whitney was among a group of contemporaries all developing milling machines at about the same time (1814 to 1818). Therefore, no one person can properly be described as the inventor of the milling machine.

His 1817 marriage to Henrietta Edwards, granddaughter of the famed evangelist Jonathan Edwards, daughter of Pierpont Edwards, head of the Democratic Party in Connecticut, and first cousin of Yale’s president, Timothy Dwight, the state’s leading Federalist, further tied him to Connecticut’s ruling elite. In a business dependent on government contracts, such connections were essential to success.

Whitney died at age 59 of prostate cancer on January 8, 1825, in New Haven, Connecticut, leaving a widow and four children. During the course of his illness, he invented and constructed several devices to mechanically ease his pain. These devices, drawings of which are in his collected papers, were effective but were never manufactured for use of others due to his heirs’ reluctance to trade in “indelicate” items. At his death, his armory was left in the charge of his talented nephews, Eli Whitney Blake and Philos Blake, notable inventors and manufacturers in their own right (they invented the mortise lock and the stone-crushing machine). Eli Whitney Blake (1820-1894) assumed control of the armory in 1841. Working under contract to inventor Samuel Colt, the younger Whitney manufactured the famous “Whitneyville Walker Colts” for the Texas Rangers. The success of this contract rescued Colt from financial ruin and enabled him to establish his own famous arms company. Whitney’s marriage to Sarah Dalliba, daughter of the U.S. Army’s chief of ordinance, helped to assure the continuing success of his business.

This page has been pieced from data by Wikipedia’s website.
%d bloggers like this: