Great Engineers & Scientists Blog

Great Engineers & Scientists

In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants." In this blog, we take Newton's words to heart, and recognize the many great engineers and scientists upon whose shoulders we stand.

So who do you think of when you hear "Great Engineer"? Let us know! Submit a few paragraphs about that person and we'll add him or her to the pantheon. Please provide a citation for the material that you submit so that we can verify it. Please note - it has to be original material. We cannot publish copywritten material or bulk text taken from books or other sites (including Wikipedia).

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Eli Whitney

Posted June 05, 2006 1:30 PM by Steve Melito
Pathfinder Tags: December 8 January 8

Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin and designed the American system of manufacturing.

Whitney was born on December 8, 1765 in Westborough, Massachusetts. The son of a farmer and furniture maker, he enjoyed tinkering in his father's workshop and learning about tools. During the American Revolution, Whitney invented a nail-making machine and started a business that sold fasteners. After the Revolutionary War, he expanded his enterprise to manufacture women's hatpins and men's walking sticks. At the age of 19, Whitney took the entrance exam for Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut. Although he passed the test, his parents objected to his enrollment at a school that mainly provided instruction in theology and law. Finally, at the age of 23, Whitney convinced his father to help fund his education. Four years later, he graduated from Yale and accepted a position as a tutor in South Carolina.

To reach his destination, Whitney sailed on a ship that carried the widow of Nathaniel Greene, a Rhode Island-born general who helped lead the Continental Army to victory during the Revolutionary War. The passengers developed a friendship that would help change the course of American history. Upon arriving in South Carolina, Whitney learned that his promised salary had been cut in half. Disgusted, he abandoned teaching and secured an invitation to Mrs. Greene's plantation, where he planned to study law and assist Phineas Miller, a Yale alumnus who managed cotton production. After listening to the woes of local farmers, Whitney designed a cotton-cleaning device that, in just one hour, could match the full day's work of several slaves. As harvest time approached, Whitney established a business partnership with Miller and sent the plantation manager north to New Haven to secure a patent and build machines.

The popularity of the cotton gin came at a high price. Before Miller could set sail, competitors broke into Whitney's workshop and copied his invention. An unpopular business plan that substituted cotton royalties for equipment sales angered farmers who refused to forfeit a third of their crop to the Yale graduates. Deeply in debt, Whitney and Miller sought recourse first in state courts and then from the United States Congress. In the meantime, the cotton gin restored profitability to a plantation system that was based on slave labor. In 1803, a group of Southern states sued Whitney for millions of dollars in taxes. Congressional intervention spared Whitney from bankruptcy, but did not protect his invention from competition. Soon after, he left both the cotton gin and the American South behind.

Whitney's return to New Haven marked the beginning of a more profitable chapter in his life. With the financial backing of friends, he secured a government contract for 10,000 muskets and developed the American system of manufacturing, a production method in which semi-skilled workers used machine tools and jigs to mass-produce standard-sized, interchangeable parts. For example, to replace hand tools such as the chisel, he invented the milling machine. Although Whitney failed to deliver all of the muskets on schedule, his workers delivered a subsequent order for 15,000 guns in only two years. By the time of his death on January 8, 1825, Eli Whitney had transformed life on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

Resources: otton_gin.htm


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