By 1790 slavery was on the decline in America. Apart from tobacco, rice, and a special strain of cotton that could be grown only in very few places, the South really had no money crop to export. Tobacco was a land waster, depleting the soil within very few years. Land was so cheap that tobacco planters never bothered to reclaim the soil by crop rotation -- they simply found new land farther west. The other crops -- rice, indigo, corn, and some wheat -- made for no great wealth. Slaves cost something, not only to buy but to maintain, and some Southern planters thought that conditions had reached a point where a slave's labor no longer paid for his care. Eli Whitney came to the south in 1793, conveniently enough, during the time when Southern planters were in their most desperate days. In a little over a week, he started the biggest avalanche of production that any economy had ever experienced. The South would never be the same again.
Eli Whitney was born on December 8, 1765 in Westboro, Massachusetts. The tall, heavy-shouldered boy worked as a blacksmith. He had an almost natural understanding of mechanisms. On a machine made at home, he made nails, and at one time he was the only maker of ladies' hatpins in the country.
In his early twenties, Whitney became determined to attend Yale College. Since Yale was mostly a school for law or theology, his parents objected. How could Yale College help enhance his mechanical talents? Finally, at the age of twenty-three, Whitney became a student at Yale. By this time, he seemed almost middle-aged to his classmates. After he graduated with his degree in 1792, he found that no jobs were available to a man with his talents. He eventually settled for teaching, and accepted a job as a tutor in South Carolina, his salary was promised to be one hundred guineas a year.
He sailed on a small coasting packet with only a few passengers, among whom was the widow of the Revolutionary general, Nathanael Greene. The Greenes had settled in Savannah after the war. When Whitney arrived in South Carolina, he found that the promised salary was going to be halved. He not only refused to take the position, but decided to give up teaching all together. Coming to his aid, Mrs. Greene invited him to her plantation where he could read law, and also help out the plantation manager, Phineas Miller. Miller, a few years older than Whitney, wa...
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...housand dollars in bonds from his friends in New Haven, and he personally borrowed ten thousand dollars from the New Haven bank. The sum involved in this big order, $134,000, was the biggest single transaction in the country at that time. By then end of the first year, Whitney was just getting into production, a big accomplishment for those times, but instead of the four thousand muskets he had promised, there were only five hundred produced. When news of this got to Whitney's financial backers, they became doubtful.
All in all, it took Whitney almost eight years to fill the entire order. There were still many gaps in his system. There were endless bugs to be worked out, however, most of the ten thousand muskets were produced in the last two years. In 1811, Whitney took another order, this time for fifteen thousand. These were all produced in only two years.
Whitney continued on with his development of the factory until his death on January 8, 1825. Unfortunately, Whitney has been all but forgotten. He is mostly remembered as "the cotton man," and nothing else. However, without the ingenuity and dedication of this individual, who knows where the world might be today.
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