Eli Whitney (December 8, 1765 Ц January 8, 1825) was an American inventor best known for inventing the cotton gin. This was one of the key inventions of the Industrial Revolution and shaped the economy of the Antebellum South. Whitney's invention made upland short cotton into a profitable crop, which strengthened the economic foundation of slavery in the United States (regardless of whether Whitney intended that or not). Despite the social and economic impact of his invention, Whitney lost many profits in legal battles over patent infringement for the cotton gin. Thereafter, he turned his attention into securing contracts with the government in the manufacture of muskets for the newly formed continental army. He continued making arms and inventing until his death in 1825.
Whitney was born in Westborough, Massachusetts, on December 8, 1765, the eldest child of Eli Whitney Sr., a prosperous farmer, and his wife Elizabeth Fay of Westborough.
Although the younger Eli, born in 1765, could technically be called a "Junior", history has never known him as such. He was famous during his lifetime and afterward by the name "Eli Whitney". His son, born in 1820, also named Eli, was well known during his lifetime and afterward by the name "Eli Whitney, Jr."
Whitney's mother, Elizabeth Fay, died in 1777, when he was 11. At age 14 he operated a profitable nail manufacturing operation in his father's workshop during the Revolutionary War.
Because his stepmother opposed his wish to attend college, Whitney worked as a farm laborer an school teacher to save money. He prepared for Yale at Leicester Academy...(now Becker College) and under the tutelage of Rev. Elizur Goodrich of Durham, Connecticut, he entered the Class of 1789, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1792. Whitney expected to study law but, finding himself short of funds, accepted an offer to go to South Carolina as a private tutor.
Petition by Whitney to the selectmen of Westborough to run a public school, with sample of his penmanship
Instead of reaching his destination, he was convinced to visit Georgia. In the closing years of the 18th century, Georgia was a magnet for New Englanders seeking their fortunes (its Revolutionary-era governor had been Lyman Hall, a migrant from Connecticut). When he initially sailed for South Carolina, among his shipmates were the widow and family of Revolutionary hero, Gen. Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island. Mrs. Greene invited Whitney to visit her Georgia plantation, Mulberry Grove. Her plantation manager and husband-to-be was Phineas Miller, another Connecticut migrant and Yale graduate (Class of 1785), who would become Whitney's business partner.
Whitney is most famous for two innovations which later divided the United States in the mid-19th century: the cotton gin (1793) and his advocacy of interchangeable parts. In the South, the cotton gin revolutionized the way cotton was harvested and reinvigorated slavery. In the North the adoption of interchangeable parts revolutionized the manufacturing industry, and contributed greatly to their victory in the Civil War.