Born in Westboro, Massachusetts, on December 8, 1765, Eli Whitney showed unusual mechanical ability at an early age. In fact, Whitney's mechanical skills kept him employed making and fixing various machines and paid his way through Yale University. Upon his graduation in 1792, he traveled to Savannah, Georgia, where he planned to teach while studying law.
In Georgia Whitney met Phineas Miller, another Yale graduate close to his age who managed the plantation owned by the widow of the American Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene (1742-1786). Catherine Littlefield Greene soon employed Whitney to attack several mechanical problems attendant to running a large plantation. Foremost among them was the slow and tedious work of removing the seeds from the short cotton grown in the Savannah area.
Stories of Whitney's invention of the cotton gin often attribute his invention to significant help from both Catherine Greene and the slaves who worked the plantation. The slaves used a simple comblike device to clean the cotton, and it is probable that Whitney simply mechanized this manual process. It is also maintained by some that Whitney was not the first to develop a cotton gin; gins of various designs had been in use in the British colonies from the seventeenth century, notably one designed by Joseph Eve (1760-1835) for use in the West Indies.
Despite arguments about the origin and invention of the cotton gin, there is no question that Whitney built and patented a rather simple device that revolutionized the cotton industry. His cotton gin received a U.S. patent in 1807--about fourteen years after his original gin was developed. The design was quite simple and very easy to duplicate. Due to widespread pirating of his design and constant court fights to protect his patent, Whitney (in partnership with Miller) never profited from his invention.
Discouraged with the cotton gin business, Whitney turned his mechanical genius to the manufacture of firearms, a business that he also revolutionized. At the time, skilled craftsmen made musket s one at a time; consequently each firearm was unique. If a musket broke down, its replacement parts had to be individually made to fit that particular musket. Whitney transformed his arms factory in New Haven, Connecticut, to produce musket parts that were precisely machined so that they were identical and thus interchangeable.
He received a contract in about 1797 to supply the U.S. government with 10,000 muskets in two years. This contract should be compared with the productivity of other musket-makers at this time: two national armories had produced only one thousand muskets in the previous three years. Whitney's revolutionary production methods proved to be successful. Yet, due to epidemics and supply problems, requiring extensions from the government, it took his arms factory over ten years to fulfill the contract.
For one of his extension requests, Whitney mounted a public demonstration for government officials. He dumped the parts necessary to build ten muskets into a pile and challenged the officials to build ten muskets. The officials completed the task and were instantly convinced of the value of Whitney's production methods. His extension was granted, his success assured, and arms manufacture was never to be the same.
Due to the success of his musket-manufacturing methods, Whitney is credited with pioneering the use of precision interchangeable parts assembled to a final product on a production line. This method of dividing the labor necessary to build a musket among several workmen was also revolutionary for the times. Whitney also helped develop the machine tool industry by inventing many of the machines required by his new production methods.
Unlike his cotton gin, Whitney's arms manufactures proved to be financially successful. After his death on January 8, 1825, in New Haven, Whitney's arms plants were placed under the control of his son, Eli Whitney, Jr. Whitney's methods were the foundation for later assembly line factory production.