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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: Lock, Stock and Barrel

By Tom Morrow

Eli Whitney was one of America’s most important inventors -= and he did considerably more than invent the cotton gin.

Whitney was born Dec. 8, 1765, in Westborough, Mass., and was best-known for inventing the cotton gin, which strengthen the South cotton industry, but it enhanced slavery. This was one of the key inventions of the Industrial Revolution and shaped the economy of the South. But, Whitney was far more valuable to America as a gun developer and manufacturer.

During the Revolutionary War, Whitney operated a profitable nail manufacturing operation in his father’s workshop. He was just 14. Whitney turned his attention to making muskets for the newly formed U.S. Army. He continued making arms and inventing other tools until his death in 1825.

Whitney solved another big problem. In order to have a firearm, one had to assemble three separate parts: barrels, locks, and stocks. Whitney made the three components interchangeable. Along the way, an old familiar saying, “…it’s all there – lock, stock and barrel was created. But, Whitney didn’t invent the idea, which went back as far as the Punic war.

In the closing years of the 18th century, Whitney visited Georgia where it was a magnet for New Englanders seeking fortunes. There he developed the idea for the cotton gin. Because of the social and economic impact for the South, his cotton gin invention enhanced slavery,

The word “gin” is short for “engine.” The cotton gin was a wooden drum stuck with hooks that pulled the cotton fibers through a mesh. The cotton seeds would not fit through the mesh and fell outside. Whitney got the idea by observing a cat attempting to pull a chicken through a fence, but could only pull through some of the feathers.

Whitney could not build enough gins to meet demand, so gins from other makers were found ready sale. Ultimately, patent infringement lawsuits consumed the profits and his cotton gin company went out of business.

First contract for Whitney as a firearms manufacturer for the U.S. government was in 1798. Whitney has often been incorrectly credited with inventing the idea of interchangeable parts, however, the idea predated Whitney, and his role in it was one of promotion and popularizing, not invention. Successful implementation of the idea eluded Whitney until near the end of his life.

Congress voted for legislation that would use $800,000 in order to pay for small arms and cannons in case war with France erupted. They offered a $5,000 incentive with an additional $5,000 once that money was exhausted for the person that was able to accurately produce arms for the government. Because the cotton gin had not brought Whitney the rewards he believed he would get, he accepted the contract.

Although the contract was for one year, Whitney did not deliver the arms until eight years later in 1809 using multiple excuses for the delay. Recently, historians have found that during 1801–1806, Whitney took the money and headed into South Carolina in order to further profit from the cotton gin.

When the government complained that Whitney’s price per musket compared unfavorably with those produced in government armories, Whitney was able to calculate an actual price per musket by including fixed costs such as labor, insurance and machinery, which the government had not taken into account. He thus made early contributions to both the concept of cost accounting, and the concept of the efficiency of private industry.

Whitney invented important tools such as the first milling machine in 1818. But research by historians have determined no one person can properly be described as the “inventor” of the milling machine.

Whitney died of prostate cancer on Jan. 8, 1825, in New Haven, just a month after his 59th birthday. He left a widow and four children. During the course of his illness, he invented and constructed several devices to mechanically ease his pain. These devices, drawings of which are in his collected papers, were effective but were never manufactured for use of others due to his heirs’ reluctance to profit on “indelicate” items.

The Eli Whitney Students Program and the Yale University’s admissions program for non-traditional students, is named after Whitney.


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