– PEOPLE WORTH REMEMBERING –

In the year 1793 Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin. Whitney’s contributions to technology went far beyond constructing that simple machine, for he later helped birth the Industrial Revolution in America.

• Born in 1765 in Massachusetts, Whitney was a born entrepreneur, for even as a youth he spent long hours bent over the forge, drawing out slivers of iron into hatpins to sell for a handsome profit.

• Not content to tinker all his life, though, Whitney graduated from Yale and then took a job as tutor to a family in Charleston, South Carolina. Passing through the impoverished South, Whitney heard about the hassle in cleaning cotton, a crop that had recently been introduced there;    the seeds had to be plucked from the fiber by hand, which required many workers and took many hours.

• Whitney began thinking big:    “I went to Philadelphia to make myself acquainted with the steps to obtain a Patent.”

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• Whitney’s brainchild was a simple gimmick – a roller with teeth, and a holder with slots – which could quickly claw seeds from bolls.    Eventually the gin was enlarged and hitched up to several types of energy:    horses on treadmills, water wheels, and steam.

• The genius of his invention was that every cotton gin was identical, and when parts wore out, instead of replacing the entire machine, it only required that the worn-out part be replaced. He was the first person to make interchangeable parts a part of the design.

• Patent in hand, Whitney began leasing the gins throughout the South.    But Georgia plantation owners disliked paying him leasing fees.    They resented that anyone else might make money from their crops, even though they themselves were meanwhile amassing riches on the backs of their slaves.

To circumvent leasing costs, farmers stole Whitney’s designs, created their own crude machines, and spread lies that Whitney had not invented the device in the first place. Determined to protect his property rights, Whitney filed a spate of lawsuit — more than 60 in Georgia alone.

• As if combating those scoundrels was not grief enough, Whitney’s Connecticut factory, including all his hand-made tools, was totaled by a fire.    He rebuilt, and then for more than ten years successfully battled his cases through the courts.

• Once the litigations were settled, Whitney turned his genius to the manufacture of rifles.    Political tensions overseas were brewing then between the United States and both the British and French governments, two nations which had been America’s chief sources of weapons. With his customary self-confidence, Whitney proposed to provide the United States government 15,000 stands of arms.    In view of the storm clouds then gathering in Europe, a nervous Congress agreed.

• As he had done earlier in producing cotton gins, Whitney now applied his technique of interchangeable parts to the making of muskets. Before the contract was signed, though, Federal inspectors randomly assembled from a tableful of scattered parts several sample guns and fired all of them with success.    President Jefferson advanced Whitney’s cause through Congress, and the weapons were finally made and paid for.

• Within the years of Whitney’s lifetime the cotton crop in America had increased a thousand-fold and more;    but beyond 1825 the growth in cotton production was far greater than that.    Even more important than the gin itself, though, was his discovery that any mechanical device could be made uniformly, thus paving the way for modern industry’s assembly lines.