CHAPTER XV. ELI WHITNEY.
At the close of the Revolution the States of South Carolina and Georgia presented large tracts of land to the gallant General Nathaniel Greene, to whose genius they were indebted for their relief from British tyranny. Soon after this grant was made, General Greene removed his family to Mulberry Grove, a fine plantation on the Georgia side of the Savannah River. Here he died in 1786, from sunstroke, but his family continued to reside on the place. The mansion of Mrs. Greene was noted for its hospitality, and was frequently filled with guests who came to pay their respects to the widow of the most brilliant and best trusted subordinate of the immortal Washington.
To this mansion there came one day, in the year 1792, Eli Whitney, then a young man recently from New England. He was a native of Westborough, Massachusetts, where he was born on the 8th of December, 1765. Of his youth but little is known, save that he was gifted with unusual mechanical genius, the employment of which enabled him to overcome some of the difficulties incident to his poverty, and to acquire the means of obtaining a good common school education. Adding to this the labors of a teacher, he earned a sum sufficient to carry him through Yale College, where he was graduated in the summer of 1702, a few months before his arrival in Georgia. He had come South to accept the offer of a situation as teacher, but the place had been filled before his arrival, and, being without friends in that section, he sought employment from Mrs. Greene. Though pleased with his modesty and intelligence, that lady could not avail herself of his services as a tutor, but invited him to make her house his home as long as he should desire to remain in Georgia. He was sick in body and disheartened by his first failure, and gladly accepted her invitation. While her guest he made her a tambour frame of an improved pattern, and a number of ingenious toys for her children, which so delighted the good lady that she enthusiastically declared him capable of doing any thing.
Not long after Mr. Whitney's arrival at the plantation, Mrs. Greene was entertaining a number of visitors from the surrounding country, several planters of considerable wealth being among the number, when one of the guests turned the conversation upon the subject of cotton-raising, by declaring that he had met with such poor success that he was ready to abandon the undertaking. His trouble was not, he said, that cotton would not grow in his land, for it yielded an abundant return, but that the labor of clearing it from the seed was so enormous that he could not do more than pay expenses after selling it.
His case was simply one among a thousand. The far Southern States were admitted by every one to be admirably adapted to the cultivation of cotton, but, after it was grown and picked, the expense of cleaning it destroyed nearly all the profits of the transaction. The cleaning process was performed by hand, and it was as much as an able-bodied negro could do to clean one pound per day in this manner. Disheartened by this difficulty, which no one had yet been able to remove, the planters of the South were seriously contemplating the entire abandonment of this portion of their industry, since it only involved them in debt. Their lands were heavily mortgaged, and general ruin seemed to threaten them. All felt that the invention of a machine for cleaning or ginning the cotton would not only remove their difficulties, but enable them to plant the green cotton-seed, from the use of which they were then almost entirely debarred, because, although more productive and of a better quality than the black, and adapted by nature to a much greater variety of climate, it was much more difficult to clean, and therefore less profitable to cultivate.
These facts were discussed in the conversation at Mrs. Greene's table, and it was suggested by one of the company that perhaps the very urgency of the case would induce some ingenious man to invent a machine which should solve the problem, and remove all the difficulties in the way.
"Is it a machine you want?" said Mrs. Greene, eagerly. "Then, gentlemen, you should apply to my young friend, Mr. Whitney; he can make any thing."
She at once sent for Whitney, and introduced him to her guests, who repeated to him the substance of their conversation, and urged him to undertake the invention of what was so much needed. The young man protested that he had never seen either a pod of cotton or a cotton-seed in his life, and was utterly incompetent for the task they proposed. In spite of this, however, his new acquaintances urged him to attempt it, and assured him that if successful his invention would make his fortune. Whitney would promise nothing more than to think of the matter, and the planters departed in the belief that nothing would come of their entreaties, and that the culture of cotton would languish until it should finally die out.
Whitney did think of the matter, and the result was that he decided to attempt the production of a machine which should clean cotton both expeditiously and cheaply. It was late in the season, and unginned cotton, or cotton from which the seeds had not been removed, was hard to procure. With considerable difficulty he succeeded in finding a few pounds on the wharf at Savannah, and at once securing his prize, he carried it home in his hands.
Mrs. Greene being confidentially informed of his plans, provided him with a room in the cellar of her house, where he could carry on his work in secret. All that winter he worked at it, with a patience and energy which could not fail of success. Many difficulties confronted him. To carry on his work successfully, he needed tools of a certain description, which were not to be had in Savannah, or even in Charleston, upon any terms. But when was the genius of a Yankee ever baffled by difficulties? Whitney's mechanical skill came to his aid, and he conquered this obstacle by manufacturing all the implements he needed. He wanted wire, but none was to be found, and he was compelled to make all that he used. A score or more of drawbacks presented themselves, and were overcome in this way, and all through the winter the young inventor applied himself with diligence to his task. The children and servants regarded him with the greatest curiosity. They heard him hammering and sawing in his room, the doors of which were always kept locked, and into which they were never allowed to enter. Mrs. Greene was kept fully informed of his progress. When sure of success, Whitney revealed the secret to a Mr. Miller, a gentleman of means, who consented to enter into a copartnership with him for the manufacture of the machines, after the completion of the model should have enabled Whitney to secure a patent for his invention.
Whitney had hoped to keep his work secret from all others, but this proved to be impossible. It became rumored about the country that the young man from New England, who was living at Mrs. Greene's, was engaged in inventing a machine which would clean cotton with the rapidity of thought, and the most intense eagerness was manifested to see the wonderful production, which every one felt would entirely revolutionize cotton culture in the South. Whitney endeavored to guard his invention from the public curiosity, but without success. Before he had completed his model, some scoundrels broke into the place containing it, and carried it off by night. He succeeded in recovering it, but the principle upon which it depended was made public, and before the model was completed and a patent secured, a number of machines based on his invention had been surreptitiously made, and were in operation.
In spite of this discouraging circumstance, Whitney brought his invention to perfection, and in the spring of 1793 set up his first cotton gin, under a shed on Mrs. Greene's plantation, and invited a number of the neighboring planters to witness its operation.
His machine was very simple, but none the less ingenious on that account. The cotton was placed in a trough, the bottom of which consisted of parallel rows of wire, placed like the bars in a grating, but so close together that the seed could not pass through them. Underneath this trough revolved an iron roller, armed with teeth formed of strong wires projecting from the roller, which passed between the wire bars, and, seizing the cotton, drew it through the bars and passed it behind the roller, where it was brushed off the wire teeth by means of a cylindrical brush. The seed, unable to pass through the bars, were left behind, and, completely stripped of the fiber, ran out in a stream through a spout at one end of the trough. It was found that the cotton thus ginned was cleaned thoroughly,[I] and far better than it could be done by hand, and that a single man, by this process, could clean as much as three hundred pounds in a day.
The spectators were delighted with Whitney's machine, and urged him to lose no time in putting it in the market. They predicted an unlimited success for it, and assured the inventor that it would not only make his own fortune, but also render cotton culture the source of wealth to the South. They did not exaggerate. As soon as it was made known to the public, Whitney's machine came into general use. Planters had no longer any thing to fear from the labor and expense of preparing their great staple for market. Whitney's genius had swept away all their difficulties, and they reaped a golden harvest from it. They were enabled to send their cotton promptly and cheaply to market, where it brought good prices. With the money thus obtained they paid their debts, and increased their capacity for cultivation. Every year the area devoted to cotton-growing became more extended, and the prosperity of the South became greater and more durable. In 1793, the total export of cotton from the United States was ten thousand bales; in 1860, it was over four millions of bales. Hundreds of millions of dollars were brought into the South by this invention—so that it is no exaggeration to say that the remarkable prosperity enjoyed by the South at the commencement of our late civil war was due entirely to the genius of Eli Whitney. This opinion is fortified by the following remarks of Judge Johnson, uttered in a charge to the jury in a suit brought by Whitney, in Savannah, in 1807, to sustain the validity of his patent:
"With regard to the utility of this discovery ... the whole interior of the Southern States was languishing, and its inhabitants emigrating for want of some object to engage their attention and employ their industry, when the invention of this machine at once opened views to them which set the whole country in active motion. From childhood to age it has presented to us a lucrative employment. Individuals who were depressed with poverty, and sunk in idleness, have suddenly risen to wealth and respectability. Our debts have been paid off, our capitals have increased, and our lands have trebled themselves in value. We can not express the weight of the obligation which the country owes to this invention. The extent of it can not now be seen."
Surely, the reader will exclaim, if such was the profit of this invention to the country at large, what a vast fortune must it have been to its inventor! Let us see. In May, 1793, Whitney and Miller went to Connecticut and established a factory for the construction of cotton gins. They were in possession of a patent which was supposed to pledge to them the protection of the United States. The demand for the machine was increasing every day, and it seemed that they would reap a golden harvest from it. They were disappointed. The machine was so simple that any competent mechanic could easily manufacture one after examining the model, and this temptation to dishonesty proved too strong for the morality of the cotton-growing community. In a short time there were hundreds of fraudulent machines at work in the South, made and sold in direct and open violation of Whitney's rights. In vain the inventor brought suit against those who infringed his patent. It was rare that a jury in a cotton State gave a verdict in his favor. In Georgia it was boldly asserted that Whitney was not the inventor of the cotton gin, but that some persons in Switzerland had invented something similar to it, and the substitution of teeth, cut in an iron plate, instead of wire, was claimed as superseding his invention. The Legislature of South Carolina granted him the beggarly sum of $50,000 for the use of his invention by the planters of that State; but it was only by going to law, and after several tedious and vexatious suits, that he was able to secure this sum. Tennessee agreed to allow him a percentage for the use of each saw for a certain period, but afterward repudiated her contract. The action of North Carolina forms the only bright page in this history of fraud and wrong. That State allowed him a percentage for the use of each saw for the term of five years, and promptly collected the money and paid it over to the patentee. For fourteen years Whitney continued to manufacture his machines, reaping absolutely no profit from his investments, and earning merely a bare support. During all this time his rights were systematically violated, suits were wrongfully decided against him by various Southern courts, and he was harassed and plundered on every side. America never presented a more shameful spectacle than was exhibited when the courts of the cotton-growing regions united with the piratical infringers of Whitney's rights in robbing their greatest benefactor. In 1807, Whitney's partner died, and his factory was destroyed by fire. In the same year his patent expired, and he sought its renewal from Congress. Here again he was met with the ingratitude of the cotton States. The Southern members, then all powerful in the Government, united in opposing the extension of his patent, and his petition was rejected. At the same time a report was industriously circulated that his machine injured the fiber of the cotton; but it is a significant fact that, although the planters insisted vehemently upon this assertion while Whitney was seeking an extension of his patent, not one of them discontinued the use of his machine, or sought to remedy the alleged defect.
Whitney, thoroughly disheartened, now abandoned the manufacture of cotton gins in disgust, wound up his affairs, and found himself a poor man. In spite of the far-reaching benefits of his invention, he had not realized one dollar above his expenses. He had given millions upon millions of dollars to the cotton-growing States, he had opened the way for the establishment of the vast cotton-spinning interests of his own country and Europe, and yet, after fourteen years of hard labor, he was a poor man, the victim of a wealthy, powerful, and, in his case, a dishonest class, who had robbed him of his rights and of the fortune he had so fairly earned. Truly, "wisdom is better than strength, but the poor man's wisdom is despised."
Whitney, however, was not the man to waste his time in repining. He abandoned his efforts to protect his cotton gin because of his conviction that there was not honesty enough in the country to sustain him in his rights, but he did not abandon with it the idea of winning fortune. He promptly turned his genius in another direction, and this time with success.
The fire-arms then in use were heavy, clumsy weapons, and effective only at very short range. He examined the system closely, and quickly designed several important improvements in them, especially in the old-fashioned musket. Although his improved arms were not to be compared with the terribly effective weapons of to-day, they were admitted to be the best then in use. By examining the Springfield musket, which is due almost entirely to his genius, the reader can form an accurate estimate of the service he rendered in this respect. He has the honor of being the inaugurator of the system of progressive improvement in fire-arms, which has gone on steadily and without flagging for now fully sixty years past.
Some time before abandoning the manufacture of the cotton gin, Mr. Whitney established an arms factory in New Haven, and obtained a contract from the Government for ten thousand stand of arms, to be delivered in two years. At this time he not only had to manufacture the machinery needed by him for this purpose, but had to invent the greater part of it. This delayed the execution of his contract for eight years, but at the expiration of that time he had so far perfected his establishment, which had been removed to Whitneyville, Conn., that he at once entered into contracts for thirty thousand more arms, which he delivered promptly at the appointed time. His factory was the most complete in the country, and was fitted up in a great measure with the machinery which he had invented, and without which the improved weapons could not be fabricated. He introduced a new system into the manufacture of fire-arms, and one which greatly increased the rapidity of construction. "He was the first manufacturer of fire-arms who carried the division of labor to the extent of leaking it the duty of each workman to perform by machinery but one or two operations on a single portion of the gun, and thus rendered all the parts adapted to any one of the thousands of arms in process of manufacture at the same time."
His success was now marked and rapid. His factory was taxed to its fullest capacity to supply the demand for arms. His genius was rewarded at last, and he acquired a fortune which enabled him not only to pass the evening of his days in comfort, but also to leave a handsome estate to his family. He married a daughter of Judge Pierpont Edwards, a lady of fine accomplishments and high character. He died at New Haven on the 8th of January, 1825, in his sixtieth year.