F EW men have done more for the welfare of mankind than did Eli Whitney. He did not discover a new land, nor did he explore the untrodden wilderness or win a great battle. He invented a machine which revolutionized the cotton industry.
Eli Whitney was a native of Massachusetts. At nineteen he made up his mind to go to college. As his father did not see fit to send him, he earned the necessary money himself. Partly by teaching and partly by odd jobs at carpentry, he gathered enough to pay his way through Yale University. In 1792 he was graduated.
Soon after, Whitney secured a position as tutor in a Georgia family. But when he reached the South, he found the place filled. So he decided to study law. On the trip south he had become acquainted with Mrs. Greene, the widow of General Nathanael Greene, of Revolutionary fame. Hearing of his disappointment, Mrs. Greene now cordially invited him to make her plantation his home while he was studying law.
Whitney did many little things for his hostess to show that he appreciated her kindness. He made toys for the children and an embroidery frame for Mrs. Greene, which was an immense improvement over the awkward old-fashioned one she had been using. In fact, he had what has long been known as "Yankee ingenuity."
One day Mrs. Greene had as guests a number of plantation owners. They were speaking about the raising of cotton, and of how the value of the crop would be vastly increased if only some one could invent a machine that would strip the seeds from the cotton fiber. Mrs. Greene advised the men to lay the problem before her young friend, Eli Whitney. They explained the matter to him; but as he had not even seen the cotton fiber and its seeds, he was afraid he could do nothing. However, he said he would try.
At the time Whitney went to Georgia, cotton seeds were picked from the fiber by hand. It used to take a negro a whole day to clean a single pound of cotton, and it took many slaves several months to clean an entire crop. Because of this vast amount of labor, the planters could not raise cotton at a profit. But if only some one could invent a cotton cleaner, the profits on cotton would be immense. This then was Whitney's problem.
All winter long he tinkered. By the spring of 1793 he had succeeded in contriving a machine with which one man could clean one thousand pounds of cotton in one day.
The machine consisted of two cylinders. On one were rows of teeth, which pulled the cotton through a grating too fine for the seeds to pass through. The other cylinder was covered with little brushes, which, as they met the teeth, brushed the cotton from them into a place prepared to catch it. And all this was done without in any way harming the seeds for the many uses they could be put to.
Whitney called the machine a cotton gin, "gin" being a contraction of the word "engine." He let only Mrs. Greene and a few others see his model. Yet, before long, nearly everyone in the South was talking about his wonderful invention; and, careful as he was, his shop was broken into, and his model was stolen. Before he could make another and get it patented there were several cotton gins in operation. All were copied from his stolen model, and it was years before Whitney received justice in connection with his great invention.
A Section of the Cotton Gin, Showing the Cotton Passing from the Feeder over the Cylinders
Immediately after the invention of the cotton gin the planters began to increase the size of their cotton fields, and every year more and more cotton was raised. In 1784 America exported three thousand pounds. In 1803, ten years after the cotton gin came into use, forty million pounds were exported.
Since Whitney's time, the increase in production has lowered the price of cotton goods from a dollar and fifty cents a yard to as low as five cents a yard, thus enabling the very poorest to buy cotton cloth.
And all this is due to Eli Whitney's cotton gin, and has been brought about in a little over a century. The cotton gin has helped not only the Southern cotton growers, but also the manufacturers of both North and South. It has done much to improve our foreign trade, and so has helped the commerce of the country at large. Improvements have been made upon the original cotton gin, but the Americans of the twentieth century owe as much to Eli Whitney's invention as did those of a hundred years ago.
In colonial days making clothes was no easy matter. There are many, many stitches in even one simple garment. And when you think how many garments are necessary for one child, you can imagine how busy the mother of a large family must have been, when each stitch had to be done by hand.
There were traveling tailors, it is true, who would come and stay with a family and make the coats and trousers, and there were traveling cobblers, who made the shoes. But every family could not afford to pay these helpers, and even those who could, had to make many other things besides coats and trousers and shoes. So, day after day and evening after evening saw the women of the family busily sewing, sewing, sewing, one stitch at a time, and all done by hand.
One mother whose evenings were spent in this way was Mrs. Elias Howe. Her husband was a poor young man. They lived in Boston and Mr. Howe worked in a Boston shop where machines were made for spinning and weaving. The old way of spinning and weaving was very slow, but by the use of these machines much time and labor were saved.
Mr. Howe was not very strong and his day's work tired him out. At night, fairly exhausted, he would lie down and rest. And as he rested, his eyes watched his wife's patient fingers sending her needle in and out, in and out. He knew she was tired, too, for she had three little children to care for all day as well as her house work to do. Still, she could not rest in the evening. She must sew every night to keep the children in clothes and add to her husband's small earnings. It seemed a pity. Wasn't there some easier way to do the same thing?
Several men had tried to make a sewing machine but none had succeeded. Surely, it was possible to make such a machine and Elias Howe decided to try. At the shop he gave every spare minute to his plans. His first machine had a needle pointed at both ends with an eye in the middle. For more than a year he tried to make this succeed. Next, he used two threads, making the stitch by means of a shuttle. This time he used a curved needle. And, this time, he had a machine which would actually sew.
By now Howe had given up his place in the shop and was poorer than ever. Fortunately, he was able to interest a Mr. Fisher in his machine, and Mr. Fisher took Howe and his family to board and furnished him the money to make a better machine than his rough model. In return for all this Mr. Fisher was to be half owner of the patent when it was secured.
By the spring of 1845, the new machine was made and, in 1846, was patented. Can you believe that such an invention was feared rather than received with joy? Tailors admitted that it might be useful, but they would have nothing to do with it. They and others who made their living by sewing thought it would ruin their trade. They talked against it and said it would throw many people out of work.
Mr. Fisher grew discouraged and withdrew from his agreement. Howe took his family to his father's home. And, now, came harder times than ever for the inventor and those dependent on him. He even went to England and tried to make something out of his invention over there. But, when he reached New York again, months later, he had less than a dollar in his pockets.
What was worse, while he was away, others had made copies of his machine and sold them. Sure of his patent, however, Howe began suits against these people and finally, after years of poverty and struggle, his rights were fully established and all manufacturers of the machine were forced to pay him a royalty.
Gradually, the usefulness of the sewing machine overcame the opposition to it, and it became a necessity. In 1863 Elias Howe's royalties were said to be $4,000 a day.
Of course, many improvements on Howe's machine were later made by others. In these he was much interested, and doubtless remembering his own hard times, he gladly helped their makers with advice, or money, or both. In his triumph, he was the soul of generosity to those working to follow where he had led.