Dec 082018

Today is the birthday (1765) of Eli Whitney, best known for inventing the cotton gin which radically changed the economy of the Antebellum South. Few people know much more about him than that he invented the cotton gin, so time for another history lesson.

Whitney was born in Westborough, Massachusetts, the eldest child of Eli Whitney Sr., a prosperous farmer, and his wife Elizabeth Fay, also of Westborough. Whitney’s mother died in 1777, when he was 11. At age 14 he operated a profitable nail manufacturing operation in his father’s workshop during the Revolutionary War. Because his stepmother opposed his wish to attend college, Whitney worked as a farm laborer and school teacher 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 in the fall of 1789 and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1792. Whitney wanted to study law but, because he was broke he accepted an offer to go to South Carolina as a private tutor, but ended up in Georgia instead.

In the closing years of the 18th century, Georgia was a magnet for New Englanders seeking their fortunes. When he initially sailed for South Carolina, among his shipmates were the widow and family of the 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: 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 the Union victory in the Civil War. All told, therefore, Whitney was a prime, though, unwitting figure in the causes of the Civil War and its outcome.

The cotton gin is a mechanical device that removes the seeds from cotton, a process that had previously been extremely labor-intensive. The word “gin” is short for “engine.” While staying at Mulberry Grove, Whitney constructed several ingenious household devices which led Mrs Greene to introduce him to some businessmen who were discussing the desirability of a machine to separate the short staple upland cotton from its seeds, work that was then done by hand at the rate of a pound of lint a day. In a few weeks Whitney produced a model. The cotton gin was a wooden drum stuck with hooks that pulled the cotton fibers through a mesh. The cotton seeds would not fit through the mesh and fell outside. Whitney occasionally told a story about how he was pondering an improved method of seeding the cotton when he was inspired by observing a cat attempting to pull a chicken through a fence, and could only pull through some of the feathers.

A single cotton gin could generate up to 55 pounds (25 kg) of cleaned cotton daily. This contributed to the economic development of the Southern states of the United States, which became a prime cotton growing area. Whitney received a patent (later numbered as X72) for his cotton gin on March 14th, 1794, but it was not validated until 1807. Whitney and his partner, Miller, did not intend to sell the gins. Rather, like the proprietors of grist and sawmills, they expected to charge farmers for cleaning their cotton – two-fifths of the value, paid in cotton. Resentment at this scheme, the mechanical simplicity of the device and the primitive state of patent law, made infringement inevitable. Whitney and Miller could not build enough gins to meet demand, so gins from other makers found ready sale. Ultimately, patent infringement lawsuits consumed the profits (one patent, later annulled, was granted in 1796 to Hogden Holmes for a gin which substituted circular saws for the spikes) and their cotton gin company went out of business in 1797. One often-overlooked point is that there were drawbacks to Whitney’s first design. There is significant evidence that the design flaws were solved by his sponsor, Mrs. Greene, but Whitney gave her no public credit or recognition.

After validation of the patent, the legislature of South Carolina voted $50,000 for the rights for that state, while North Carolina levied a license tax for five years, from which about $30,000 was realized. There is a claim that Tennessee paid, perhaps, $10,000. While the cotton gin did not earn Whitney the fortune he had hoped for, it did give him fame. It has been argued by some historians that Whitney’s cotton gin was an important if unintended cause of the American Civil War. After Whitney’s invention, the plantation slavery industry was rejuvenated, eventually culminating in the Civil War. The cotton gin transformed Southern agriculture and the national economy. Southern cotton found ready markets in Europe and in the burgeoning textile mills of New England. Cotton exports from the U.S. boomed after the cotton gin’s appearance – from less than 500,000 pounds (230,000 kg) in 1793 to 93 million pounds (42,000,000 kg) by 1810. Cotton was a staple that could be stored for long periods and shipped long distances, unlike most agricultural products. It became the U.S.’s chief export, representing over half the value of U.S. exports from 1820 to 1860.

Paradoxically, the cotton gin, a labor-saving device, helped preserve slavery in the U.S. Before the 1790s, slave labor was primarily employed in growing rice, tobacco, and indigo, none of which were especially profitable any more. Neither was cotton, due to the difficulty of seed removal. But with the gin, growing cotton with slave labor became highly profitable – the chief source of wealth in the American South, and the basis of frontier settlement from Georgia to Texas. “King Cotton” became a dominant economic force, and slavery was sustained as a key institution of Southern society.

Eli Whitney has often been incorrectly credited with inventing the idea of interchangeable parts in manufacture (an essential component of Ford’s movable assembly line), which he championed for years as a maker of muskets. However, the idea predated Whitney, and Whitney’s role in it was one of promotion and popularizing, not invention. Successful implementation of the idea eluded Whitney until near the end of his life, occurring first in others’ armories.

The motives behind Whitney’s acceptance of a contract to manufacture muskets in 1798 were mostly monetary. 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 to 15,000 muskets in 1800. He had not mentioned interchangeable parts at that time. Ten months later, the Treasury Secretary, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., sent him a “foreign pamphlet on arms manufacturing techniques,” after which Whitney first began to talk about interchangeability.

In May 1798, Congress voted for legislation that would $800,000 in order to pay for small arms and cannons in case war with France erupted. It offered a $5,000 incentive with an additional $5,000 once that money was exhausted for the person that was able to accurately produce arms for the government. Because the cotton gin had not brought Whitney the rewards he believed it promised, he accepted the offer. Although the contract was for one year, Whitney did not deliver the arms until 1809, using multiple excuses for the delay. Recently, historians have found that during 1801–1806, Whitney took the money and headed into South Carolina in order to profit from the cotton gin.

Although Whitney’s demonstration of 1801 appeared to show the feasibility of creating interchangeable parts, Merritt Roe Smith concludes that it was staged and duped government authorities into believing that he had been successful. The charade gained him time and resources toward achieving that goal. When the government complained that Whitney’s price per musket compared unfavorably with those produced in government armories, he was able to calculate an actual price per musket by including fixed costs such as insurance and machinery, which the government had not accounted for. He thus made early contributions to both the concepts of cost accounting, and economic efficiency in manufacturing.

Whitney died of prostate cancer on January 8, 1825, in New Haven, Connecticut, just a month after his 59th birthday. He left 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.

Georgia is noted for peaches, of course, as is South Carolina (even though Georgia is officially the Peach State). I gave a recipe for Georgia peach pie here —  Here is Georgia peach crisp. It’s excellent served warm with ice cream.

Georgia Peach Crisp


5 tbsp salted butter, at room temperature, divided
4 cups peeled and sliced fresh peaches
¾ cup packed dark brown sugar, divided
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 cup chopped pecans
½ tsp kosher salt


Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C.  Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil.

Heat a 12-inch ovenproof skillet over medium heat and melt 1 tablespoon of the butter.  Add the peaches and ¼ cup of the brown sugar.  Cook, stirring, until the juices thicken into a light syrup- about 8 minutes.  Remove the pan from the heat. Add the peaches in an even layer

Combine the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter, the remaining ½ cup brown sugar, flour, pecans and salt in a mixing bowl and spread the mixture evenly over the peaches.  Place the skillet on the lined baking sheet.

Bake until golden brown and bubbly, about 30 minutes.  Serve warm.

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