Thursday, May 19, 2011

How Eli Whitney Got His Groove Back!

Eli Whitney is known for basically one thing: inventing the cotton gin. It was a great invention, but perhaps not as good as his other invention that revolutionized the industrial world.

The cotton gin came from an act of kindness from Whitney. While visiting a widow named Mrs. Greene in Georgia, Whitney decided to design an embroidery frame for her. Greene was very impressed by the cleverness of the design and it got her thinking. If Whitney was as clever as he seemed, perhaps he could solve the problem she and other planters faced; cotton was hard to pick and clean and they wanted something to make it easier. Upland cotton, the type that grows in the interior of the south had seeds that stuck to the cotton like Velcro. It was very hard to remove the seeds by hand and a person could only clean about a pound of cotton per day. This made upland cotton basically worthless. Why bother with cotton? Since the industrial revolution in England, production of clothes using cotton became extremely popular, but it was expensive. England didn't have enough cotton to sell it at a decent price yet. The south wanted a way to provide England with the cotton it needed, and grow financially wealthy in the process.

Whitney took a few months to iron out the details but it took him only ten days to invent the cotton gin. The design was extremely simple. You feed cotton in while the teeth catch the cotton seeds and separate them while the cotton is spit out the end, seedless. With this new invention, a person could clean up to 10 pounds of cotton a day. The cotton gin changed everything in the south. Since upland cotton was now easy to seed, southern farmers began to dedicate their whole land to cotton. Tobacco was now out. The U.S. went from selling virtually no cotton to England, to selling 38 million pounds. By the time the civil war was about to start, the south was exporting 920 million pounds of cotton to England in one year. Whitney's invention also changed what people wore all around the earth. Since there was now a large amount of cotton, it went from being an extremely expensive material used in clothes, to being dirt cheap. Now everyone could afford a nice cotton shirt and not have to deal with wool. Not only was wool extremely uncomfortable to wear, but it was also hard to clean, so many people had filthy clothing on most of the time. Cotton was a welcome replacement: comfortable and easy to clean.

Now here comes the dark side of the cotton gin and something that Whitney had not intended. The cotton gin drastically increased the number of slaves people needed to cultivate their land. There is a misconception that the cotton gin helped slaves by eliminating the hand ginning, thus the machine made it so there didn't need to be as many slaves. While it's true that the machine made it easier, it also made it necessary (in the southern farmer's mind) to have more slaves to pick cotton. Slavery was thought to be dying out, and the gin just put it back on its feet. Between 1775 and 1800, the price of a slave dropped from $100 dollars to $50 dollars, which led to speculation from abolitionist that slavery was on the way out. Either it would die a natural death, or it would become so weakened that it would be easy to abolish. The gin came along and increased the number of slaves needed and between 1800 and 1850 the price of a slave went from $50 to as much as $1000. Yikes. Now slavery was deemed integral to the southern economy. This in turn caused many southern leaders to defend the institution of slavery militantly. It was now their goal to defend slavery and even expand it into new territories. Thanks to the cotton gin, the Civil War was now a sure thing.

Whitney had known that the gin would make him a wealthy man. His friend Phineas Miller agreed with that and they became business partners. Miller would provide the money for the gins and Whitney would build them. Things didn't go quite as planned however. There were two main problems with their dreams:
First, just as Whitney had intended, the cotton gin was so simple and easy to make that just about anyone who was good with tools could easily make one. So a lot of planters did, even though doing so violated Whitney's patent.
Secondly, Whitney and Miller were too greedy for their own good. They knew that even if they had enough money to build a gin for each planter, which they didn't, the planters wouldn't have enough money to buy them. So, they planned to set up a network of gins around the south where they would do the ginning in exchange for a share of the cotton they ginned. It happened to be a big share-40% to be exact. That was way more than southern planters were willing to part with and they decided to make a gin themselves, or buy an illegal copycat machine made by competitors.

Then came the rumors: that Whitney himself had stolen the idea for the cotton gin from a Southern inventor; that the copycat gins were actually "improved" models that didn't infringe on Whitney's patents; and, worst of all, that Whitney's machines damaged cotton fibers during the ginning process. The last rumor stuck: By the end of 1795, the English were refusing to buy cotton ginned on Whitney & Miller machines. From that point on, Whitney & Miller couldn't sell a gin for full price.

Whitney and Miller spent years battling the copycats in court and convincing the English textile mills that their cotton was still the best. The stress must of done a number on Miller, as he died from a fever in 1803, at just 39 years old. Whitney kept at it and eventually won his last court fight in 1806. This was a hollow victory since the patent on the gin ran out a year later. Now anybody could make a gin and it would be perfectly legal. So how much did Whitney make from the invention of the cotton gin? Nothing. In fact, historians believe that since he was in so many legal battles he may have lost money. Whitney was down, but he was not out. He was already working on another invention. One that would be better than his last.

Around 1798, it looked as if the U.S. and France were going to go to war. This was a problem because France was the United States' chief maker of muskets. So if there was war, where would the U.S. get it's muskets? Congress ordered that two national armories be started that would have to produce 50,000 muskets in order to fight the French. In four years, they only produced 1,000. This was bad news for the U.S. Congress decided to give the task to private contractors. Let me put this into perspective. Back then, firearms were made by highly skilled artisans who made the entire weapon, crafting each part from scratch and filing and fitting them by hand. Every part was one of a kind. One part made for one gun wouldn't work on another gun. Also, if your gun broke, it could only be repaired by a expert craftsmen. If your gun broke in the middle of a battle, then you might as well chuck it. To add to the problem, people who could make guns and fix them were rare and it took forever to train new ones.

Whitney knew what he had to do. He devised that instead of using one expert craftsman to make an entire gun, he would divide the tasks among several workers of average skill. They'd be easier to train, and easier to replace if they quit. Each worker would learn how to make one part, using high-precision machine tools, designed by Whitney. The tools would be so precise that the parts would be virtually identical to each other. Each part would fit interchangeably into any of the muskets made in Whitney's factory. Once the piece for the musket had been made, assembling them into the finished weapon would be literally a snap. Ready-made interchangeable spare parts would make it possible for any soldier to fix his musket himself.

The government gave Whitney the contract and Whitney had to deliver 10,000 muskets in two years. As we know, the war never came with France, which was probably a good thing since Whitney missed his deadline by eight years. Whitney though was a trusted inventor and so he was able to get advances on his contract. What really helped him get extra time to perfect his system was the demonstration he did for president-elect Jefferson and other high officials in 1801. Dumping a huge pile of interchangeable musket parts onto a table, Whitney invited them to pick pieces form the pile at random and assemble them into complete muskets. For the first time in history, they could.

So, Whitney basically changed the way that guns were manufactured. The parts were easy to assemble, and they didn't need skilled craftsman to make. Whitney used the interchangeable part in many other areas like clothing, furniture, tools, bikes, and just about anything else people could manufacture. Whitney called the process "the American system." Today we call it mass production.

So how did Eli Whitney get his groove back? Well besides inventing something that would eclipse the cotton gin in usefulness, he basically won the war for the north before the war even started. He did this with both of his inventions. The cotton gin caused the south to have a false sense of security. They thought that the north and England needed their cotton, so they wouldn't dare go to war with them or ignore them as a sovereign country. That is exactly what happened though. The north was willing to give up getting huge shipments of cotton to keep the country together, and many planters still sold cotton to the north anyway during the war, though secretly. The planters still had to make money. England had gotten a huge stockpile of cotton, so they wouldn't need cotton for many years, and they could just get it from India if they really wanted to. The English textile workers were also ready and able to go without jobs if it meant the end of slavery in America.

Another hit against the south was their inability to produce anything else but cotton. They focused on it so much that they had little to no industry in the south. The north on the other hand had fourteen times as many textile mills as the south, and way more factories; factories that used "the American system." When war came about, the north had the better arms and more of them, not to mention more people and supplies all around. Though the war lasted four years, the outcome had been sealed for a very long time.

So, Whitney's gin caused slavery to become popular and arguably helped cause the Civil War. Because of that invention though, the south relied to much on cotton and cash crops and did not diversify to have factories and industry, thus dooming them to have less supplies in the Civil War. So, in that way, the cotton gin both caused and helped end the Civil War. Though it wouldn't have been won by the north had the interchangeable part not been invented and given the north such an advantage in arms. Eli Whitney, once you really think about it, had one of the biggest impacts on history. On a side note, the interchangeable part did make Whitney a very wealthy man.


  1. On hearing of South Carolina's secession from the United States, Sherman observed to a close friend, Professor David F. Boyd of Virginia:

    "...You people of the South don't know what you are doing! This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don't know what you're talking about- war is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it! Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail! Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail...."

  2. Thanks! This really helped on my project on Eli Whitney.