Eli Whitney (08/12/1765 – 08/01/1825) was an American inventor who played a huge part in the history of manufacturing. He worked his way through college at Yale then settled in South Carolina. He was famously known for his invention of ‘the cotton gin’ and the idea of interchangeable parts. He drastically changed both agriculture and manufacturing in America. He also was in partnership with Harpers Ferry Armoury for the invention of the M1841 Mississippi rifle.
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In 1793 he entered the cotton industry where there was an abundance of cotton. However, the cotton had lots of seeds which took hours of manual labour to remove. Before the cotton could be spun into fabric. Whitney realised that this was a laborious process so “he invented a machine that could do the task ten times faster than a slave doing the work by hand. The cotton gin revolutionized agriculture. It also made possible the cotton economy of the American South, perpetuating and increasing the practice of slavery upon which the agricultural system depended.” (Pbs.org, 2020). This resulted in the explosion of the slave industry. An industry that was previously forged by slaves, with the invention of the cotton gin this freed many slaves from the cotton industry.
This was an invention that established the cotton industry and revolutionized agriculture - the cotton gin removed the previously labour-intensive task providing a quick and efficient service. “Whitney received a patent for his invention in 1794; he and Miller then formed a cotton gin manufacturing company. The two entrepreneurs planned to build cotton gins and install them on plantations throughout the South, taking as payment a portion of all the cotton produced by each plantation. While farmers were delighted with the idea of a machine that could boost cotton production so dramatically, they had no intention of sharing a significant percentage of their profits with Whitney and Miller. Instead, the design for the cotton gin was pirated and plantation owners constructed their own machines–many of them an improvement over Whitney’s original model.” (HISTORY, 2020) However, Whitney never got to see much of the profits from this invention due to the ambiguities in the patent laws. The lack of business skills also hindered his profits resulting in him having to move away from the cotton industry.
Since Whitney had such a hard time receiving profits from the cotton gin he went into the arms business. When the American government was faced with a war with France in 1797, he moved into the production of the M1841 Mississippi rifle. “Gunmaking was considered an extremely skilled craft in the 18th century, and firearms, including pistols and muskets, were all constructed by hand. In this way, every gun was a one-of-a-kind possession, and a gun broken could not be easily repaired. At the very least, the process was time consuming and expensive, as the gun had to be brought to a craftsman and repaired to order.” (HISTORY, 2020) Every weapon had to be made from scratch one by one which meant that it took an incredible amount of time to produce 10,000 muskets. This is where he conceived the idea of interchangeable parts, so he started to make 10,000 triggers, 10,000 barrels etc. and then putting them together as needed which introduced the concept of assembly and revolutionised mass production. Due to the assembly element of the manufacturing this speeded up the process of the gun-making which resulted in producing a larger number of weapons in a shorter period in comparison to making a single weapon at a time. “The result of this process made each weapon unique, which meant that when a weapon needed repair, its replacement parts had to be handcrafted to fit that individual gun. Whitney focused on making a series of weapons with interchangeable parts. This was significant for numerous reasons. Not only did it allow soldiers to more readily fix their weapons in the field, but it also lowered costs by making production more efficient.” (Connecticut History | a CTHumanities Project, 2020).
Whitney’s idea of interchangeable parts also opened a new door to the repair of machines. Rather than disposing of the entire machine when it breaks the faulty part(s) could now be replaced with interchangeable parts. This is something that is now used worldwide in products which not only reduces waste but also gives the product a much longer working life.
The idea of interchangeable parts helped initiate factory production and the second wave of industrialisation. “Whitney proved to be an effective businessman and manager, dividing labour efficiently among his largely unskilled work force and building precision equipment that enabled the production of large numbers of identical parts quickly and at a relatively low cost.” (HISTORY, 2020). This was the beginning of what was soon to be known as the “American system” of mass production.
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Eli Whitney was one of the most influential innovators in manufacturing history - from solving problems such as speeding up the production rate and efficiency of the cotton industry to popularising the idea of interchangeable parts and assembly of products. He made a huge impact in the manufacturing industry aiding in the level of manufacturing we have today. “These three inventions may not seem like all that much, but the results of Whitney's work in industry created thousands – if not millions – of jobs for the American people.” English, T., Young, C. and McFadden, C. (2020).
- Pbs.org. (2020). Who Made America? | Innovators | Eli Whitney. [online] Available at: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/theymadeamerica/whomade/whitney_lo.html [Accessed 6 Mar. 2020].
- HISTORY. (2020). Cotton Gin and Eli Whitney. [online] Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/cotton-gin-and-eli-whitney [Accessed 6 Mar. 2020].
- HISTORY. (2020). Interchangeable Parts. [online] Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/interchangeable-parts [Accessed 6 Mar. 2020].
- Connecticut History | a CTHumanities Project. (2020). The Whitney Armory Helps Progress in Hamden | Connecticut History | a CTHumanities Project. [online] Available at: https://connecticuthistory.org/the-whitney-armory-helps-progress-in-hamden/ [Accessed 7 Mar. 2020].
- English, T., Young, C. and McFadden, C. (2020). Eli Whitney's Inventions Changed America and Unfortunately Caused a Rise in the Use of Slavery. [online] Interestingengineering.com. Available at: https://interestingengineering.com/eli-whitneys-inventions-changed-america-and-unfortunately-caused-a-rise-in-the-use-of-slavery [Accessed 7 Mar. 2020].
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