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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Exceptional American of the day: Eli Whitney

It is Sunday and I am posting another chapter of my latest volume, "Exceptional Americans 2: The Capitalists."

4. Eli Whitney's cotton gin.

     As the 18th century closed, the new nation of the United States of America seemed poised to sail into greatness. Eli Whitney seemed poised to sail into the academic life.
     Unfortunately, when he graduated from Yale, the school didn't offer Whitney a teaching position, so the bright young man headed south to Georgia, where he invented and perfected the cotton gin, the engine -- gin, for short-- that made growing upland short cotton profitable. It also gave birth to King Cotton, the behemoth who expanded slavery, pushed longstanding Indian tribes off their land, turned Kansas bloody, and led to the American Civil War.
     However, Whitney profited little from his cotton gin. Like most inventors, Whitney wanted to make money. But he had invented a device so simple that he couldn't; anyone could make it, and such piracy made his patent nearly worthless.
     But don't cry for Whitney. He made a fortune manufacturing firearms, as he promoted the use of interchangeable parts and introduced cost accounting, as well.
     Born in Westborough, Massachusetts, on December 8, 1765, to a prosperous farmer, Whitney achieved majority status the year the Treaty of Paris ended the War for Independence. His stepmother opposed sending him to college. Whitney worked as a farm laborer until he had enough money to attend college. He was 24 when he entered Yale, studying science and the applied arts, as technology was then called. Graduation Day in 1792 drew some disappointment as he failed to land any teaching job at the school, even though he had twice been promised jobs as an educator. An offer from Georgia served as his fallback, but the job did not last long, and he was suddenly stranded in Georgia without cash or employment.
     But Catherine Greene, widow of Revolutionary War hero General Nathanael Greene, owned the Mulberry Grove plantation, which her fiance, Phineas Miller, another Yalie, managed. He had been the tutor of the children before the general died in 1786. Missus Greene and Miller befriended Whitney and soon he was running the plantation. The farm work that he had performed to get the money to go to Yale was now paying off better than his Yale degree.
     The plantation had switched from growing tobacco, whose market was on the wane, to growing cotton, which was an ideal crop. Unlike food crops, cotton had a nearly indefinite shelf life. Demand was high as the British had a nearly insatiable desire for all things cotton. English mills were figuratively hungry for cotton, but cotton plants contained seeds that were difficult to separate from the soft fibers.
     Along the coastal regions, there was a variety of cotton that was easy to clean, but inland -- upland -- the crop was short-staple cotton, or green-seed cotton, which slaves cleaned painstakingly by hand, one plant at a time. The average cotton picker could remove the seeds from only about one pound of short-staple cotton per day. If only there were some way to remove the seeds quicker. The problem was not the cost of labor but the slowness of production.
     Whitney had an idea for a cotton engine that separated seed from cotton quicker, and Missus Greene had the money to back such an invention. On March 14, 1794, Whitney received his patent from the U.S. Patent Office. One legend holds that the Catherine Greene was the real inventor, but because women could not hold a patent in 18th century America, Missus Greene filed the patent under his name. However, considering her relationship with Miller, she would have used him as the beard in such a venture. Given Whitney's mechanical training and his work after the cotton gin's invention, there is no reasonable doubt that Whitney was the inventor.
     Overnight, inland plantations could go from producing one pound of cotton per slave per day to 55 pounds per machine. Incredibly, slave owners were reluctant to sign up at first. They had reason. The business model Whitney and Miller developed was not that of selling the machines to farmers, but rather that of a miller or sawyer, where farmers brought their crop to the gin, just as farmers brought wheat to a gristmill. Instead, patent pirates made gins and sold them. The planters successfully warded off several attempts by Whitney and Miller to collect royalties through patent infringement lawsuits. Patent litigation nearly bankrupted them. Finally, in 1802, the state of South Carolina paid off the pair with $50,000 for the patent rights. It was guilt money. By then, Whitney was back in New England working on his next project, and Miller married the Widow Green, and sold off their estate.
     Having earned his place in history, Whitney had to earn a living. Using his Yale connections -- Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott Jr. was a 1778 graduate -- Whitney secured a government contract to supply the military with 10,000 muskets in two years. He promoted the use of interchangeable parts in the manufacture of these weapons. However, he never quite developed a way to do so. While the parts were interchangeable, his production fell far short of the contract's terms.
     What he did do was develop cost accounting, after the government complained that he was charging more per musket than the armories were. Whitney showed how after including fixed costs such as insurance, the cost of his muskets was actually cheaper. People today may gloss over that innovation, but it has become a staple in accounting and government contracts.
     His firearms company became a success. He preached sobriety and diligence to his employees at a time when many factories supplied beer throughout the workday. Drunkenness was a plague upon America in its early days, its middle days, and its current days. The damage done wrought temperance later.
     At 52, Whitney finally got around to marrying, when he wed Henrietta Edwards, a granddaughter of the Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards. They had four children. Whitney died of prostate cancer on January 8, 1825, in New Haven, Connecticut.
     His invention of the cotton gin is often credited with the re-invigoration of slavery in America. However, just as guns don't kill people, gins don't enslave them.


I am publishing the best of these tales, in Kindle and on Amazon. Volume I covering American history from the 16th through the 20th century is here. And Volume II on The Capitalists is available here.

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