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Eli Whitney: Inventions & Facts

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  • 0:03 Eli Whitney Biography
  • 1:45 The Cotton Gin
  • 2:40 Interchangeable Parts
  • 3:36 The Milling Machine
  • 4:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we'll learn about an early American inventor: Eli Whitney. We'll also learn what his inventions and contributions were and why they're important.

Biography of Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney was a famous American inventor. He is most remembered for inventing the cotton gin, a machine that separates cotton seeds from cotton fiber. Whitney's contributions did not end there, however. He was also a leading pioneer of interchangeable parts and has been credited with inventing the milling machine, although this is a matter of debate among historians. Whitney's inventions and contributions played an important role in the American Industrial Revolution.

Eli Whitney was born in 1765 in Westborough, Massachusetts. His father, Eli Whitney, Sr., was a farmer. During the Revolutionary War, while only a young man, Whitney became a successful manufacturer of nails. He quickly gained an interest in machinery. Whitney attended Yale College (now Yale University), and graduated in 1792.

After college, Whitney became acquainted with Catherine Greene, the widow of Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene. She convinced Whitney to accept a job at her Mulberry Grove plantation. This is where Whitney first recognized the difficulty in harvesting cotton. Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793.

Even though it was patented in 1794, his machine was widely copied and he made little money from it. In 1798, Whitney signed a contract to produce firearms for the new U.S. government. In this position he pioneered the use of interchangeable parts. Between 1814 and 1818, Whitney developed the milling machine, which could be used to cut metal and other material. Whitney died at the age of 58 in 1825.

The Cotton Gin

As mentioned before, the cotton gin is undoubtedly Eli Whitney's most important invention. The device efficiently separated cotton seed from cotton fiber. Before the invention of the cotton gin, cotton seeds had to be removed by hand or with other primitive tools, making it a laborious process. Whitney's invention was operated by a hand crank that rotated teethed cylinders. Cotton seeds were 'combed out' through a grid, leaving the cotton fiber (lint) free of seeds.

Over the years a number of variations of the cotton gin were produced, but the basic operating principle remained the same. The cotton gin could produce up to 50 pounds of cotton lint a day. The machine dramatically reduced the amount of time it took to separate cotton seeds from cotton fiber. As a result, the cotton industry thrived. Many historians cite the invention of the cotton gin as one of the leading causes of the American Civil War.

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