Houghton Mifflin Social Studies

Mississippi Studies

History Makers

Eli Whitney 1765–1825


As a boy in New England, Eli Whitney was fascinated by machines. He attended Yale University where he tinkered with gadgets and explored new technologies. After college Whitney traveled to the South to be a tutor. When the job didn’t work out, he went to study law on the plantation of his friend Katherine Greene. While living on Greene’s plantation, Whitney heard neighbors complaining that the green cotton they planted was too difficult to harvest. It took too long to separate the seeds from the cotton lint. Whitney decided to build a machine that could do the work faster than people could. He watched how enslaved African Americans pulled out the lint. Then he built a machine that copied their hand movements.

Whitney’s machine, the cotton gin, was an instant success. So many planters sowed cotton that Whitney could not make enough machines to meet the demand. Eventually people copied his machine without his permission. Cotton, which had not been a very big crop in the South, suddenly became the most valuable crop in the region. Planters made more money than ever before.

Although the cotton gin brought new wealth to the South, it also brought troubled times. As their fields overflowed with cotton, planters demanded more slave labor. Thousands of Africans were kidnapped from Africa and forced to work in the fields. The growth of slavery in the South eventually led to the Civil War.

Whitney received little money for his invention. He tried to sue planters and southern states in court, but he had little success. Still, Whitney’s disappointments didn’t hurt his creativity. He opened a rifle factory in New Haven, Connecticut.

Whitney applied his experiences building cotton gins to designing a system for manufacturing rifles. At the heart of his system was the idea of standardized interchangeable parts. Whitney designed different machines to make each part of a rifle. The parts produced by each machine were exactly the same and could be used on any rifle the factory made. The machines could also make the rifle parts very quickly. With the interchangeable parts, rifles could be assembled quickly, too. Whitney’s success in mass–producing rifles brought him more money than his invention of the cotton gin. Today factories all over the world use his manufacturing system.

Critical Thinking

  1. How did Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin have long-lasting effects on the South?
  2. Explain the importance of Whitney’s manufacturing system.