A Brief History
On March 14, 1794, American inventor Eli Whitney patented his greatest invention.
Digging deeper, we find the young United States evolving away from a slave economy, with some slave owners giving their slaves away!
Suddenly, with Whitney’s invention of the “cotton gin,” a machine made to separate cotton seeds from cotton balls much more quickly and efficiently than could be done by hand, cotton became a much more profitable crop.
Of course, with cotton becoming the quick way to wealth for farmers, much farmland was turned over to growing cotton, and consequently many workers were needed to pick the cotton, a labor intensive task that no machine at the time could do.
Thus, an unintended consequence of Whitney’s cotton gin was the increased demand for slave labor and the importance of slave labor to the Southern economy was the prime factor in causing the Civil War. Although some modern revisionists try to gloss over the real cause of the Civil War by claiming “States’ Rights” was the main point of contention, in fact the “States’ Right” at issue was the “Right” to have slavery.
Unfortunately for Whitney, the cotton gin did not make him rich as he continuously had to fight for the protection of his patent, although the invention did make fortunes for many plantation owners across the south.
A second “invention” attributed to Eli Whitney was the concept of “interchangeable part” in manufacturing, although Whitney did not actually invent the concept. Whitney was, however, a foremost advocate of the concept and promoted the idea enthusiastically, and used the practice in manufacturing muskets for the US government. Whitney had famously staged a demonstration where bins of identical parts could be built into a musket without having to hand make each part individually. The cracked aspect of this story is that it has been alleged that this demonstration was a fraud. Either way, many other arms makers and other industries took the lesson to heart and thus was promulgated an important engineering idea.
Yet another “invention” sometimes attributed to Eli Whitney was a machine tool called the “Milling Machine.” Apparently many inventors were working on this concept in the early 1800’s and none deserves sole credit as the inventor. Milling machines are cutting machines that can use multiple cutting heads at one time to make multiple different cuts into material (usually metal) which greatly speeds up manufacturing parts and maintains the sameness of each part.
Finally, a last cracked aspect to this star crossed inventor was his invention of devices to help relieve the discomfort he felt from the prostate cancer that eventually killed him. Although the inventions reportedly worked, his heirs refused to produce and sell “indelicate” items!
Question for students (and subscribers): Should Eli Whitney be known as The Man Who Caused the Civil War? Share your thoughts in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Barnett III, Charles, Jessica Gunderson, et al. Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin (Inventions and Discovery). Capstone Press, 2007.
Huff, Regan A. Eli Whitney: The Cotton Gin and American Manufacturing (The Library of American Lives and Times). Powerplus, 2003.
Perry, Frances M. The Story of Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin. A. J. Cornell Publications, 2011.