Eli Whitney was born in 1765, the year of the Stamp Act, in Westborough, Massachusetts. He witnessed and grew up during the uproarious years of the revolution in America. Despite being the eldest son of a farmer, he didn’t have an interest in farming and was fascinated with machines and technology. Whitney was expected to study and pursue law but due to the shortage of funds, he accepted an offer to become a private tutor in South Carolina.
Eli Whitney, the American inventor, invented the cotton gin and paved the way for pushing the “interchangeable parts” mode of production.
Cotton Gin & Idea of Mass Production: During his stay in Georgia, he discovered the need for a machine that is able to remove seeds from raw cotton fibers. The overgrowing textile industry in England had a huge demand for cotton, but the complexity in removing seeds from the fibers made cotton production unprofitable in South America. The cotton gin created by Whitney changed it overnight.
In 10 days, he devised a model for a cotton gin that was capable of cleaning 10 times more cotton than a single man doing the same work by hand. He got his machine patented in 1794 but was never able to produce enough machines to cater to the needs of the farmers.
The cotton growers in the South understood the simple principles behind the machine and started its manufacturing on their own, or at other times started buying the machines from the local manufacturers. He was actually a true mechanical engineer of the 18th century, a time at which the profession did not exist.
Interchangeable Parts: Whitney’s next venture was into the production of arms, realizing the opportunity when the nation was on the verge of a potential war with France. The government was keen to work with private contractors for the supply of firearms. This was real support for Whitney at the time when he was not gaining any compensation for his cotton gins. Whitney promised the manufacturing of 10,000 rifles within a time period of two years, and his bid was accepted by the government in 1798.
At that time individual craftsmen used to assemble their own design. Whitney set up a base in Connecticut and devised milling machines that helped laborers slice metal in a pattern, thereby producing one particular part of the weapon. When put together, each part, though made separately, formed a working model.
Whitney faced many challenges and he was able to produce only a part of the order he promised. He took 10 years to complete the manufacturing of 10,000 arms. Even after the delay, Whitney received an order for 15,000 muskets, which he was able to complete in two years.
Other inventors are also believed of having come up with the idea of interchangeable parts, and there is some skepticism on how different they were from the interchangeable part that came from the original Whitney millers. Whitney is also credited with pushing the Congress to support the production of weapons and helping to propagate the manufacturing system that influenced modern assembly lines. Such pursuits of Whitney have led him to be known as “the father of American technology.” He also constructed worker residences that came to be known as Whitneyville, Connecticut. A series of ethical guidelines was instituted by him for promoting harmonious relations between the employee and the employer; however, the guidelines were later dropped in the wake of rapid industrialization.
Eli Whitney fathered the idea of the cotton gin and built a factory for mass producing muskets by fitting the interchangeable parts in an assembly line. Whitney was supported by the U.S. Army with large procurement contracts. Such governmental support for industrial development was seen rarely but played a crucial role in the industrialization of America, and Eli Whitney has an unforgettable impression in this chapter of American development.