Eli Whitney

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Eli Whitney
BirthplaceWestborough, Massachusetts
EducationYale College

Whitney, Eli,

1765–1825, American inventor of the cotton gincotton gin,
machine for separating cotton fibers from the seeds. The charkha, used in India from antiquity, consists of two revolving wooden rollers through which the fibers are drawn, leaving the seeds. A similar gin was early used in the S United States for long-staple cotton.
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, b. Westboro, Mass., grad. Yale, 1792. When he was staying as tutor at Mulberry Grove, the plantation of Mrs. Nathanael Greene, Whitney was encouraged by Mrs. Greene and visiting cotton planters to try to find some device by which the fiber of short-staple cotton could be rapidly separated from the seed. Whitney, whose creative mechanical bent had been evident from boyhood, completed his model gin early in 1793, after about 10 days of work, and by April had built an improved one. With Phineas Miller, Mrs. Greene's plantation manager (and later her husband), he formed a partnership to manufacture gins at New Haven. He was unable to make enough gins to meet the demand, and although the partners received a patent in 1794, others copied his model and soon many gins were in use. After much litigation the partners received (1807) a favorable decision to protect their patent, but Congress in 1812 denied Whitney's petition for its renewal. His invention, which had immense economic and social effects, brought great wealth to many others, but little to Whitney himself. In 1798 he built a firearms factory near New Haven. The muskets his workmen made by methods comparable to those of modern mass industrial production were the first to have standardized, interchangeable parts.


See biographies by J. Mirsky and A. Nevins (1962) and D. Olmsted (1846, repr. 1972); C. M. Green, Eli Whitney and the Birth of American Technology (1956).

Whitney, Eli

(1765–1825) inventor, engineer; born in Westboro, Mass. Whitney showed early mechanical skill, manufacturing nails at home by age 15. Determined to get an education, he taught school to pay for his way at Yale (1789–92). Moving to Savannah, Ga., to teach, he found the post filled but he was invited to stay on the plantation belonging to Gen. Nathanael Green's widow. After learning of the problems of local cotton growers, by Spring of 1793 he had developed the cotton gin for separating cotton from its seeds, a machine that could perform the work of 50 slaves. He soon ran into patent difficulties, and although he eventually won in court (1807), he profited very little from his invention. Deciding to turn to the manufacture of rifles, in 1798 he obtained a contract from the U.S. government and opened a factory near New Haven, Conn.; it was the manufacturing of firearms that led to his considerable fortune. And although now popularly associated with the cotton gin, he is actually more important for inventing machines that produced interchangeable gun parts, the basis for his reputation as the originator of mass production.