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Eli Whitney - America’s Cotton Aficionado

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Eli Whitney

America’s Cotton Aficionado

Laura Shelton |American History |November 16, 2016 |Mrs. Fraley    

      There are three vital requirements needed in order for a person to survive: sustenance, housing, and clothing. Eli Whitney, an American originator and constructer, is a major supplier to the last of these requirements. Whitney, a gentleman of great grit and a victim of ill-fated circumstances, is best recalled as the creator of the cotton gin. His creation, coupled with the advance of the textile industry by Samuel Slater, led to a cotton revolution. (Benson)

     Born on December 8, 1765, Eli Whitney spent his primary years on his family’s farm in Westborough, Massachusetts. His mother perished when he was twelve, so he took more accountability on the farm with his three younger siblings and his father. (Editors) Whitney had an unusual talent that was evident to his family and neighbors around him. He predisposed a great understanding of mechanics and used it to his benefit. According to Karen Britton, Eli Whitney “once pretended to be ill so that he could stay home from church and take apart his father’s watch. (Britton) Unlike most curious children, however, he was able to put it back together so that it ran perfectly”. He started working as a blacksmith, and made nails on a machine he had at home. One fascinating fact is that Eli Whitney was at one time the nation’s solitary creator of ladies’ hatpins. (Staff) During the Revolutionary War, he opened a small business and formed nails to help with the scarcity. After the war, the price of nails went back down and Whitney’s interests went elsewhere.

     He was determined to enter Yale College, but he did not have the monetary means to do so. Whitney worked as a teacher in a nearby town to earn money for school. In March, 1789, he moved to New Haven, Connecticut, and entered Yale at the age of twenty-three. Eli Whitney graduated in 1792 and faced the problem of finding a job that matched him. (Editors) He decided to stay with education and was offered a position as a tutor in South Carolina for the pay of one hundred guineas a year. The pay offered was too great to refuse so Whitney chose to take and ventured outside the North for the first time in his life. On the expedition from New York to Savannah, he befriended Catherine Greene, the widow of Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene, also on the trip was Phineas Miller, a Yale graduate who was soon to marry Mrs. Greene. Whitney had planned to travel to South Carolina after arriving in Savannah but he soon learned that the tutoring job only paid fifty guineas. This caused him to stay in Savannah with Greene and Miller on the plantation that they owned. While on the plantation, Whitney soon learned of the workers’ plight.

     Eli Whitney wrote a letter to his father during his stay on the Savannah plantation and included this:

…heard much said of the extreme difficulty of ginning Cotton, that is, separating it from its seeds. There were a number of very respectable Gentlemen at Mrs. Greene’s who all agreed that if a machine could be invented which would clean the cotton with expedition, it would be a great thing both to the Country and to the inventor. (Bellis) Involuntarily happened to be thinking on the subject and struck out a plan of a machine in my mind. (Bellis)

     With the existing method of cleaning cotton, there involved too much hand labor. It took ten hours to clean three pounds of seed from the short-staple cotton fiber. This labor-intensive and time-consuming process made growing and picking cotton wasteful. Eli Whitney began working on a design immediately and studied the way that cotton was separated by hand. One hand held the seeds while the other pulled the strands of lint. His machine duplicated this theory. Whitney built a crude prototype after only ten days. An offer of one hundred guineas was made to him for the invention, but he refused to sell. Whitney bought materials in Savannah and secretly worked in a basement from November, 1792, to April, 1793. The machine consisted of a frame, a cylinder, the breastwork, the clearer, and the hopper. (Britton)The gin had spiked teeth mounted on a boxed revolving cylinder which, when turned by a crank, pulled the cotton fiber through small slotted openings to separate the seeds from the lint. At the same time, a rotating brush, operated by a belt and pulleys, removed the fibrous lint from the spikes. The seeds were too large to pass through the comb and were left behind. The design was not all that complicated and Whitney wrote to his father that it “will clean ten times as much cotton” as before and “the machine may be turned by water or with a horse, with the greatest ease”. (Britton)The cotton gin allowed the seeds to be removed mechanically and rapidly, and eventually led cotton to become the cheapest and most widely used textile fabric in the world. (Staff) It seems that these events would lead Eli Whitney to become quite a wealthy and powerful man, but sadly that isn’t the case.

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