Cambridge Encyclopedia » Cambridge Encyclopedia Vol. 23

Eli Whitney - Invention and innovation, Other Inventions

cotton gin manufacturing

Inventor and engineer, born in Westborough, Massachusetts, USA. He showed early mechanical skill, manufacturing nails at home by age 15. Determined to get an education, he taught at schools to pay for his way at Yale (1789–92). Moving to Savannah, GA to teach, he found the post filled, but he was invited to stay on the plantation belonging to General Nathanael Green's widow. After learning of the problems of local cotton growers, by spring of 1793 he had developed the cotton gin for separating cotton from its seeds, a machine that could perform the work of 50 slaves. He soon ran into patent difficulties, and though he eventually won in court (1807), he profited very little from his invention. Deciding to turn to the manufacture of rifles, in 1798 he obtained a contract from the US government and opened a factory near New Haven, CT, and it was the manufacturing of firearms that led to his considerable fortune. Although now popularly associated with the cotton gin, he is actually more important for inventing machines that produced interchangeable gun parts, the basis for his reputation as the originator of mass production.

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