Eli Whitney, born in Westborough, Massachusetts in 1765, was reared in a rigid Puritan atmosphere, and worked hard from a young age to help support his family. At twenty, he became a schoolmaster, saving up his small salary to attend Yale. After college he was looking for employment and met Caty Greene, the widow of Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene. She took him under her wing and made use of his cleverness to construct items useful to her plantation.
“During this time,” Whitney wrote later to his father, “I heard much said of the extreme difficulty of ginning Cotton, that is, separating it from its seeds. There were a number of respectable Gentlemen at Mrs. Greene’s who all agreed that if a machine could be invented which could clean the cotton with expedition, it would be a great thing both to the Country and to the inventor. I involuntarily happened to be thinking on the Subject, and struck out a plan of a Machine in my mind….”
Caty agreed to finance the construction of a machine embodying Whitney’s ideas. Whitney constructed a full-scale model which made it possible to clean fifty pounds of cotton a day, and left for New Haven to set up a manufacturing shop. He was twenty-eight years old.
Whitney’s invention had the unfortunate effect of making short staple cotton into a profitable crop, which strengthened the economic foundation of slavery. But despite the social and economic impact of his invention, Whitney lost his profits in legal battles over patent infringement, closed his business, and nearly filed bankruptcy.
In the meanwhile, the French Revolution had ignited new conflicts among Great Britain, France, and the United States. The new American government, realizing the need to prepare for war, began to rearm. The War Department issued contracts for the manufacture of 10,000 muskets. Whitney, who had never made a gun in his life, obtained a contract in January, 1798 to deliver ten to fifteen thousand muskets in 1800. Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott sent him a “foreign pamphlet on arms manufacturing techniques,” which included descriptions of interchangeable parts. Whitney began promoting the idea, and used it in the manufacture of his muskets. He also pioneered the use of power machinery and specialized division of labor. When the government complained that Whitney’s price per musket compared unfavorably with those produced in government armories, Whitney was able to calculate an actual price per musket by including fixed costs such as insurance and machinery, which the government had not included. He thus made early contributions to both the concept of cost accounting, and the concept of the efficiency of private industry.
Whitney died at age 59 in New Haven, Connecticut, leaving a widow and four children.