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Eli Whitney was an American inventor who created the cotton gin and pushed the “interchangeable parts” mode of production.
Eli Whitney - Mini Biography (3:36)
Born in 1765 in Westboro, Massachusetts, Eli Whitney studied at Yale before going on to invent the cotton gin, a device that highly streamlined the process of extracting fiber from cottonseeds.
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During his difficulties in receiving compensation for the cotton gin, Whitney’s next big venture would involve the production of arms and champion the interchangeable-parts system. With a potential war with France on the horizon, the government looked to private contractors to supply firearms. Whitney promised to manufacture 10,000 rifles within a two-year period of time, and the government accepted his bid in 1798.
At the time,
muskets were generally assembled in their entirety by individual craftsmen, with each weapon having its own distinct design. Setting up base in Connecticut, Whitney devised milling machines that would allow laborers to slice metal by a pattern and produce one particular, specific part of a weapon. When put together, each part, though made separately, became a working model.
Whitney still faced many challenges with this new system. After the first few years of production, he was able to produce only a fraction of the promised order. It took 10 years for him to complete the manufacture of 10,000 arms. Yet even with the delay, Whitney soon received another order for 15,000 muskets, which he was able to supply in two years.
There is record of other inventors having come up with the idea of interchangeable parts, and there is some skepticism on how truly interchangeable each musket piece was that came from the initial Whitney millers. Nonetheless, Whitney is credited with pushing Congress to support weapons production and helping to propagate a manufacturing system that’s influenced modern assembly lines. His pursuits have often led him to be called “the father of American technology.”
Whitney also constructed a group of worker residences that would come to be known as Whitneyville, Connecticut. He instituted a series of ethical guidelines meant to promote harmonious employee-employer relations, with roots in Puritanical beliefs. The guidelines he presented would later be ignored as industrialization took on a harsher regard for worker well-being.
In 1817, Whitney wed Henrietta Edwards. The couple would have several children, with Eli Whitney Jr. continuing to work in his father’s manufacturing business as an adult. The elder Whitney died on January 8, 1825, in New Haven, Connecticut.
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Everyday life is constantly changing and improving thanks to the ingenious ideas of famous inventors past and present. What once seemed impossible is now possible, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s forward-thinking concepts for flying machines (airplanes), Benjamin Franklin’s useful inventions like bifocals and the lightning rod, and Alexander Graham Bell’s revolutionary “talking machine” (telephone).
The modern era has also produced life-changing advancements whether in science, medicine, the arts, digital media. Music-makers can thank Les Paul for his amazing guitars, while Elon Musk launched the world's first commercial space ship, Steve Jobs' Apple products have made technology beautiful, and Sergey Brin and Larry Page's Google has changed how the world searches for information. These and so many other famous inventors and their creations changed the course of human history. See all inventors.
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