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Eli Whitney, his inventions and human rights

Eli Whitney
Charles Bird King

The name Eli Whitney is inextricably linked to the South. That is largely because of his work in industrializing the cotton industry. However, he was born in Westboro, Massachusetts on December 8, 1817 and raised on a farm. He went on to become an inventor in his youth, concocting a device that made nails. He was also blacksmith. It was after his graduation from Yale that the events that would link him to the antebellum South would take place.

After his graduation, the machinery minded Whitney could not find work as an engineer. So, in 1793, he went to South Carolina in pursuit of a job as a teacher. Fortunately for the Industrial Revolution, this job did not work out and he instead went to live on his friend Katherine Greene's plantation. Shortly after he noticed a problem with producing cash crops in the area, he began work on a machine that would make it possible to harvest green seed cotton without the intense labor it currently took to sort the fiber from the seeds.

Eli Whitney's first attempt at a cotton-sorting machine was something of a failure, but most of the components were there. He made a few adjustments and quite soon had a working cotton gin. He showed the machine around and people were rightfully impressed. It made it so far fewer people were needed for far less time to produce the same amount of viable cotton. Unfortunately, plantation owners still needed plenty of people to pick the cotton and soon the slavery business would reach an unprecedented level.

Before Eli Whitney had a chance to produce and market his gin legally, the design was stolen. He fought hard to get some compensation, but it amounted to very little. He left the south in 1804 with little to show for his work while countless cotton farmers made a mint off his invention. Over the next 50 years, slavers also made a mint off Whitney's invention, as it made it possible to produce cotton inland using slaves as pickers.

Back up north, Whitney married his wife Henrietta in 1817. He continued inventing, coming up with an interchangeable parts scheme for the mass production of muskets. Mass production would also lead to human rights abuses during the Industrial Revolution, but Whitney had no hand in the mistreatment of slaves or factory workers because of his machines. It just worked out that way.