The inventor of the cotton gin, Eli Whitney might have been at the core of the American Industrial Revolution. It definitely shaped the economy of the South before the American Civil War. By making cotton a profitable crop, Whitney basically strengthened the foundation of slavery in the United States. However, his life’s work isn’t just linked with – unfortunately – slavery and the cotton crops. Read on to find out the top 10 interesting facts about Eli Whitney!
Eli Whitney Interesting Facts
1. Eli was a businessman as early as age 14
When Eli Whitney was 14 years old, the Revolutionary War was in full swing. He operated a nail manufacturing business form his father’s workshop (his father was a prosperous farmer), an interesting fact about Eli Whitney. And he made good profit, too.
2. He was a prodigious inventor
Not only inventing the cotton gin, Eli Whitney is also known for his advocacy of interchangeable parts. As a maker of muskets, he embraced this idea and promoted it heavily, but wasn’t its inventor, as is sometimes claimed. He adopted the concept later in his life, when he was struggling financially. He took on an arms contract for the government and used interchangeable parts with his muskets.
3. He was an excellent student
Eli Whitney was admitted to the prestigious Yale University for his undergraduate education and obtained a degree in just three years (as opposed to the standard 4 years for a US university), an interesting fact about Elie Whitney. He was also a member of Phi Beta Kappa, which is an honor given to students based on academic merit upon graduation.
4. Whitney worked on lots of devices before the cotton gin
Thanks to his curiosity and intelligence, Eli Whitney was able to work on a variety of things before he came across his inventions. Amongst these were the crafting of nails, canes and ladies’ hatpins.
5. He died of prostate cancer
Eli Whitney was diagnosed with prostate cancer later in life. He worked on a number of devices to help lessen his pain. However, these were kept secret and never disclosed by his family, although they were rumored to be very effective.
6. He was particularly brave
One of Whitney’s big contributions was his production of muskets, and consequent use of interchangeable parts in this work. However, when he secured the government contract to deliver 10,000 muskets, he was bluffing. He had no factory or workmen to make that many muskets!
7. Despite the importance of the cotton gin, Whitney didn’t make money out of it
The cotton gin is a machine which removes seeds from cotton, and its importance was that this made the whole process of using cotton a lot faster and more economical. This contributed to the development of the Southern United States economy significantly, and made slavery more sustainable.
Whitney’s plan was to charge farmers for cleaning their cotton, rather than to sell the machines. He received a patent for the cotton gin in 1794, but this was not validated until 1807. Therefore, as farmers resented his approach and the machine was relatively simple to imitate, lots of infringements took place. He and his business partner, Phineas Miller, were unable to produce enough cotton gins to meet demand, which made others’ all the more attractive. All in all, given that the cost of patent infringement lawsuits used up all their profits, Whitney and Miller’s cotton gin company went out of business in 1797, not a well-known fact about Eli Whitney.
8. The initial cotton gin design was not the best
There is evidence that Whitney’s design, although the basis of the cotton gin which was used profusely, was not without flaws. In fact, there were a number of design faults which Mrs. Greene, Whitney’s sponsor on whose plantation he did his work, solved for Whitney. He didn’t give her any credit or public recognition for her help.
9. He was incorrectly given credit for inventing the milling machine
Historian Joseph W. Roe gave him credit for inventing the milling machine. However, this turned out to be incorrect. Whitney was among a group of inventors who were all working on developing milling machines around the same time in the period 1814-1818. Others made more significant contributions, however, and not one person can be given conclusive and definitive credit for this invention, a crazy fact about Eli Whitney. Also, it appears that the machine that Joseph Roe had examined was only built in 1825, after Whitney had already died.
10. Whitney had not planned to be an inventor
Contrary to his destiny, young Eli Whitney wanted to study law after his graduation from Yale. However, as he was short of money, he decided to accept an offer to work as a private tutor in South Carolina. On the way, he stopped to visit Georgia, which was an attractive destination for many New Englanders looking to make their fortunes. As Eli was sailing towards South Carolina, he met the widow and family of General Nathanael Greene – a hero of the Revolutionary War. Mrs. Greene invited Whitney to her Georgia plantation, where he would later work on the cotton gin and meet Mrs. Greene’s plantation manager, Phineas Miller, who later on was his business partner in the cotton gin.
In the late 18th century, Eli Whitney’s contributions ended up changing the course of American history. Without the cotton gin that he first developed, the use of cotton would have stayed quite manual and therefore not very economically effective, which in turn may have led to the decline of slavery. Instead, his invention led to many more slaves being brought across to the US as growing cotton became a profitable endeavor and the chief source of income in the Southern states. This was known as “King Cotton” – an economic force which sustained slavery and also encouraged Southern states’ wish to gain independence from the North.
Eli Whitney remains a key US figure – and here you have the top interesting 10 facts about him!
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