Eli Whitney (1765-1825) was an American who invented the cotton gin, a machine to separate the lint from the seeds of the cotton. The gin was a simple machine, but it could clean fifty pounds of lint a day. It consisted of a wooden cylinder covered with rows of slender spikes set about a half-inch apart. These spikes extended through a grid, the bars of which were so fine that the seeds of the raw cotton could not pass through, although the lint could be pulled through by the revolving spikes. A revolving brush cleaned the spikes, causing the seeds to fall into a compartment attached to the machine. The cylinder was turned by hand.
Eli Whitney was born on a farm in Westboro, Massachusetts. As a boy he showed remarkable mechanical ability. He was graduated from Yale College in 1792, and left immediately for Georgia to accept a position as tutor. When he arrived, however, he found that someone else had been given the position. A friend invited him to remain as a guest in her home. While Whitney was there he learned of the need for a machine that would separate the seeds from the cotton lint. Within three weeks he had made a model of the cotton gin and was granted a patent on March 14, 1794.
With Phineas Miller, Whitney formed a partnership to manufacture his new machine in New Haven, Connecticut. Then on May 12, 1796, a patent for a slightly different cotton gin was granted to Hogden Holmes. Whitney took the matter to court, winning the battle in 1807. He was so embittered by the experience he gave up the manufacture of gins and began to manufacture fire arms at Whitneyville, Connecticut. By making guns with replaceable parts, he earned government contracts and became wealthy.
Whitney's most important contribution to manufacturing was the making of parts that could be interchanged, and of having different men make different parts. Thus Whitney pioneered in mass production.