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Eli Whitney Biography

Inventor of Cotton Gin, Assembly Line Production

Posted on November 29, 2011 by , with 9006 views

Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney was born in Westboro, Massachusetts on December 8th, 1765. Throughout his spell at Yale University he worked on making and repairing machines to fund his own education. Graduating in 1792, he traveled to Savannah, Georgia, planning to study law and also to teach.

Whitney met Phineas Miller, who managed a plantation owned by the widow of American Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene. Whitney was offered employment by Catherine Greene to battle various mechanical issues on the vast plantation. Top of the agenda was tackling the slow, laborious task of separating the seeds from the cotton, grown in the surrounding area.

Whitney never really received the credit he deserved for his innovative gadget. Much of the work was associated with Catherine Greene and the slaves who were working on the plantation. The slaves were using a simple cob-like device to remove the seeds, though it is thought that Whitney automated this task mechanically. Gins are also thought to have existed before Whitney's idea, commonly used in British colonies in the seventeenth century. Joseph Eve made a cotton gin for use in the West Indies, which is believed to have been the first working example of such a tool.

The controversy surrounding the heritage of the cotton gin continues, but there is little argument that Whitney created a device which completely transformed the cotton industry. His cotton gin was patented in 1807, fourteen years after developing the idea which was very easy t duplicate. It was this ease of reproduction that prevented Whitney from making any profit from his invention, despite several attempts to clamp down on pirated reproductions.

The lack of recognition and profit forced Whitney away from the cotton industry and into the manufacturing of firearms. Muskets were made individually by skilled craftsmen, meaning every weapon was unique. Replacement parts had to be created specifically for that musket so that it would fit properly, thus inflating prices. Whitney set about creating precision musket parts using his machinery so that identical parts were interchangeable and therefore more readily available.

The U.S. government ordered 10,000 muskets over the course of 2 years from Whitney. The contract was agreed, but it took over ten years to honor, due to a series of epidemics and supply issues. A number of extensions were granted, as they realised how valuable the muskets were and just how cutting-edge they were designed. In one successful extension attempt, Whitney held a demonstration where he scattered the components of 10 muskets on the ground and asked officials to build them. The officials built the muskets successfully, and the contract terms were adjusted to allow him more time to supply the 10,000 figure.

The process used in his musket manufacturing allowed Whitney to be credited with being the pioneer of precision interchangeable parts assembled to produce a complete product using a production line. This assembly line method is still used to this day, and greatly improves both speed and accuracy. He also created many machines to accompany this new method of manufacturing.

Whitney finally received some profit for his efforts, unlike the cotton gin. Following his death on January 8th, 1825, the control of his arms plants were transferred to his son, Eli Whitney, Jr.

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