| Great Inventors and Their Inventions|
|by Frank P. Bachman|
|Twelve stories of great inventions, grouped under inventions of steam and electric power, inventions of manufacture and production, and in ventions of printing and communication. The final chapter introduces the famous inventors of the early twentieth century. The story of each invention is interwoven with that of the life of its inventor. Through these stories the reader learns how big things are brought about, and on the traits of mind and heart which make for success. Ages 10-14 |
ELI WHITNEY AND THE INVENTION OF THE COTTON GIN
 WITH the inventions of Hargreaves, Arkwright, and Crompton,
any amount of cheap cotton yarn could be spun. Soon,
too, the power loom was invented, which lowered the
cost of weaving. The age of cheap clothing seemed at
hand, when the poor as well as the rich could afford
clothes enough to be well dressed, clean, and warm. One
difficulty stood in the way, the lack of cheap cotton.
The chief sources of cotton at that time were Asia and
the West Indies. Very little cotton was raised in the
United States, because of the great cost of separating
the seeds from the fiber or lint. Ten to fifteen days'
work would produce on one acre from five to eight
hundred pounds of green seed cotton. But it was a long
and tedious day's work to pick the seeds out of four
pounds of seed cotton, so as to prepare a single pound
for the market. The seeds were picked out by hand. This
was usually done in the evening, after the regular work
of the day. Then the slaves, father, mother, and
children, would sit in a circle about a torch and pick.
An American, Eli Whitney, invented a machine to do this
work. By reason of his invention, the United States is
to-day the greatest cotton-producing country in the
world. The cotton crop of 1916 amounted to more than
 sixteen million bales and was worth several hundred
PICKING COTTON SEED BY HAND.
Whitney's cotton gin easily ranks in importance with
the jenny of Hargreaves, the water frame of Arkwright,
and the mule of Crompton. These four inventions are the
foundation of the cotton industry of to-day. To spin
and weave cotton, hamlets have grown into cities, such
as Manchester in England, and Lowell in Massachusetts.
Great territories, such as our Southern States, have
been given over to the cultivation of cotton. Steamship
and railroad lines have been built to carry cotton from
the fields to the mills; and millions of people earn
their daily bread from raising, or spinning, or weaving
cotton, or from selling the finished goods. To have had
a part in the growth of such a great industry is no
BOYISH TRAITS OF WHITNEY
 Eli Whitney was born at Westboro, Massachusetts, in
1765. His parents lived on a farm, and belonged to that
sturdy class who provide well for their children, and
train them to be industrious, saving, honest, and
honorable,—virtues which boys and girls must
have, if they are to lead clean lives, be useful, and
be truly successful.
BIRTHPLACE OF ELI WHITNEY.
As a mere boy, Eli had a passion for pulling things to
pieces, to see how they were made and how they worked.
His sister tells this story: "His father's watch was
the greatest piece of mechanism Eli had as yet seen. He
was very anxious to look inside of it and to examine
the works, but was not permitted to do so. One Sunday
morning, observing that his father was going to
meeting, and was
 leaving at home the wonderful little machine, he
. . . made believe that he was sick, as an
apology for not going to church. As soon as the family
were out of sight, he flew to the room where the watch
hung, and taking it down, he was so delighted with
. . . the movements of the wheels, that he
took it to pieces before he thought what he was doing.
His father was a stern parent, and he . . .
would have been punished for his idle curiosity, had the mischief been found
out. He put the works all so neatly together, however,
that his father never discovered . . . what
he had done, until Eli told him many years afterwards."
WHITNEY AND THE WATCH.
Eli was equally fond of making things. "Our father,"
writes the sister, "had a workshop . . . and
a variety of tools, also a lathe. This gave my brother
an opportunity . . . to learn the use of
tools when very young. . . . He was
always making something in the shop, and seemed not to
like working on the farm. On a time, after the death of
our mother, when our father had been absent from home
two or three days, on his return he inquired of the
housekeeper what the boys had been doing. She told him
what B. and J. had been about. 'But what has Eli been
doing?' said he. She replied, 'He has been
 making fiddles.' 'Ah! I fear Eli will have to take his
portion in fiddles!' "
Eli was not more than fifteen or sixteen years of age
when he began to put his gift for making things to
practical use. It was the time of the Revolutionary
War. Nails, made then by hand, were scarce and brought
a good price. Eli proposed to his father that he give
him the needed tools to make nails. This the father
did, and it was not long before Eli was supplying all
the neighbors for miles around. Besides, he put new
blades in broken knives, and did different kinds of
curious jobs in a way which exceeded the skill of the
country smiths. When the war closed, it was no longer
profitable to make nails, but fashion came to young
Whitney's rescue. The ladies of the time used long pins
to fasten on their bonnets. Whitney made these pins
with such skill and finish that he had a monopoly of
the trade. He also built up a good business in walking
When about nineteen, Whitney began to wish for a better
education than could be obtained in the district
school. By working in his shop, and by teaching school
for two winters, he saved enough money to make a start.
He entered Yale University in the fall of 1789. When a
boy like Whitney enters college, now, he is almost
certain to take a course in mechanical engineering. But
when Whitney went to Yale, there was no such course.
There was only one course, the classical, made up for
the most part of Greek, Latin, and mathematics, with a
little science. Though Whitney had no opportunity at
Yale to prepare himself to become an engineer, he never
lost his interest in making things.
 One day a teacher found a piece of apparatus out of
order, and said in Whitney's presence, "I am sorry, but
it must go abroad for repair, to the shop it came
Whitney replied, "I think I might mend it."
Within a week the machine was as good as new.
VISIT TO THE SOUTH
About the only opening for a college graduate in 1792,
when Whitney finished his studies at Yale, was to
become a minister, a lawyer, or a teacher. Few college
graduates thought then of going into business, and
there was little or no engineering work. Whitney
decided, at least for a time, to take up teaching, so
he secured a place to tutor the children of a wealthy
gentleman at Savannah, Georgia. On the same boat for
Savannah, was Mrs. Nathanael Greene, widow of the
famous General Greene. Mrs. Greene saw that Whitney was
a young man of character, and the two became well
acquainted before they reached Georgia.
When Whitney arrived at Savannah, he found that his
employer, instead of being willing to pay one hundred
dollars a year and board, for the teaching of his
children, as he had promised to do, was now unwilling
to pay more than fifty dollars a year. Whitney refused
to take the position. This left him in a strange city,
without friends and almost without money. Mrs. Greene,
on hearing of his troubles, invited him to her
plantation, some twelve miles from Savannah.
Whitney was not long in winning the hearts of Mrs.
Greene's children. His skillful fingers made for them
 many wonderful toys, and he repaired others that were
broken. Nor did Mrs. Greene's respect for Whitney grow
less as she came to know him better. She soon learned
also that she was entertaining an inventor of the first
rank. One evening, while making a piece of embroidery
on a frame called a tambour, she complained that the
frame tore the delicate silk threads of her work. An
evening or two later, Whitney presented her with a
frame to do the same work, but made in a different way.
The new frame was much better than the old one, and
Mrs. Greene wanted to know where he had obtained it. To
her surprise, he replied, "Oh! I just got it out of my
WHITNEY REPAIRING THE CHILDREN'S TOYS.
Early in January, 1793, three former comrades of
General Greene's visited Mrs. Greene. Being planters,
they talked of farming and about what could and what
could not be raised at a profit. They all agreed that
much of their upland would raise good cotton, but that
 no profit in growing cotton, because it cost so much to
separate the seeds from the lint. They deplored greatly
the lack of a machine to do away with this tedious and
costly work, whereupon Mrs. Greene said, "Gentlemen,
why don't you apply to my young friend Mr. Whitney; he
can make anything."
Whitney was called in, but when he learned what the
planters wanted, he assured them that he did not know
how to make such a machine. Still, to have the need
pointed out to him, and to be asked to make a machine,
aroused all of the inventive genius there was in him.
INVENTING THE COTTON GIN
The very next day saw him on his way to Savannah to get
some cotton in the seed. Returning, he told Mr. Miller,
who was at that time manager of Mrs. Greene's
plantation, and afterwards her husband, what he
intended to do. Mrs. Greene also became a party to the
secret. They were scarcely less enthusiastic than
Whitney himself. A room in the basement of the house
served for a shop. Here they set up a workbench and
assembled a few common tools. This done, Whitney set to
In Asia, the West Indies, and along the coast in the
South, a crude kind of roller gin was in use, made of
two rollers, which revolved very close together. The
seed cotton put in on one side was drawn between the
revolving rollers, as clothes are drawn through a
clothes wringer. The seeds too large to go between the
rollers were broken off, and dropped down on the
opposite side from the cotton. This roller gin answered
fairly well for
 the black seed cotton of Asia and the
West Indies, and
what little was raised along the coast in the South, as
it has a long fiber, and large seeds loosely attached.
With a roller gin one man could clean from fifty to
sixty pounds of black seed cotton in a day.
But the roller gin would not clean the green seed
cotton raised on the uplands of Georgia, which has a
short fiber and small seeds firmly attached. Whitney
however, obtained a valuable suggestion from the roller
gin. He thought it would be a good idea to make a
machine which would shove or thrust the cotton through
slits so narrow that when the cotton was thrust
through, the seeds would be torn off, just as they were
broken off when the cotton was drawn between the
rollers of the roller gin. How could such a machine be
Whitney's first successful gin had a hopper to hold the
cotton. Iron bars placed close together in pairs formed
one side of the hopper, and heavy boards the other.
Reaching well up into the hopper was a wooden cylinder,
armed with rows of wire teeth curved slightly back from
the direction in which the cylinder moved. When the
cylinder turned, the short wire teeth grabbed small
bunches of cotton, and thrust these through the slits
between the iron bars. The pressure of the cotton on
the sides of the slits pulled off the seeds, which
dropped into a trough, while the cotton fiber was drawn
on through the slits. Most of the fiber fell from the
wire teeth. What still held on was pushed off by big
brushes on the left of the machine, which revolved in
an opposite direction and four times as fast as the
Whitney did not make a machine like this at first. The
 hopper of iron gratings and boards was clear in his
mind from the start. The part giving the most trouble
was the teeth of the cylinder. His first idea was to
use teeth like the teeth of a circular saw. But he had
at hand no iron plates thin and strong enough to make
such teeth. Fortunately, there arrived at this time, at
Mrs. Greene's, a coil of heavy iron wire, brought to
make a bird cage for the daughter. The sight of this
wire suggested to Whitney making wire teeth. The wire
was too large and had to be drawn smaller. This was
slow work with Whitney's crude tools. But he was an
expert. Had he not drawn thousands of bonnet pins?
Trial after trial was made with wire teeth of different
lengths and shapes. He finally learned that teeth about
an inch long, and curved slightly back from the
direction in which the cylinder turned, were the best,
and would take out all the seeds and not greatly injure
the fiber. But every little while the teeth would
become clogged, and it was hard work to get the cotton
off. Mrs. Greene one day saw Whitney working away,
cleaning the clogged teeth.
"Why don't you clean the cotton off this way?" and she
began to brush away with a hearth brush.
"Just the thing!" exclaimed Whitney. Forthwith, a
revolving brush was set up just back of the toothed
Towards the end of the winter of 1793, Whitney
completed his first machine. It was hardly finished
before Mrs. Greene invited a number of friends in to
see it work. With Whitney's little gin, scarcely harder
to turn by hand than a grindstone, one man could clean
as much cotton as fifty men cleaned in the old way.
 The planters looked on in amazement, and were quick to
see that, with this machine to take out the seeds, they
could raise cotton at a good profit. They congratulated
Whitney on his ingenuity. They urged him to get a
patent at once, telling him that his invention was sure
to bring him wealth and honor. Whitney was too much of
a Yankee to be averse either to wealth or to honor. He
and Mr. Miller entered into a partnership to take out a
patent, and to make and sell gins. Mr. Miller was to
supply the money.
So enthusiastic were the planters over the outlook for
raising cotton, that it was hard for them to keep such
a secret to themselves. Before long the news was all
over Georgia. Crowds gathered from all parts of the
state. The machine had not yet been patented, and Mr.
Miller would not let them see it. One night, the shed
in which it was kept was broken open and the machine
carried away. It thus came about that gins were made
after Whitney's ideas before he secured his patent.
SEEKING THE REWARD
Miller and Whitney, as the firm was called, made a
mistake often made by young men. They wanted to make a
lot of money, and they wanted to make it quickly.
Instead of asking a modest sum for the use of a gin and
letting anyone make one who wanted to, they proposed to
build and own all the gins that were to be used. For
ginning the cotton, they proposed to take from the
planters each third pound of cotton cleaned. This was
an exorbitant charge. The very best cotton planters
 resented such a price and were angry at what they
called a monopoly.
AN OLD-TIME COTTON GIN.
The gins built for use at this time had a rule eighty
rows of teeth, and were worked by two horses or oxen,
or by water power. With such a gin, one man could clean
five thousand pounds of seed cotton, or prepare from a
thousand to twelve hundred pounds of clean cotton for
the market in a day, which is as much as a thousand men
could clean by hand. Is it any wonder that these two
young men had visions of great and immediate wealth?
From the first, Miller and Whitney found it difficult
to obtain the money they needed to build a factory and
to procure tools and materials. To build gins in large
numbers also proved a bigger undertaking than either of
the partners had supposed, for in the days when the
cotton gin was young, there were few skilled mechanics,
 there were no self-acting lathes, or planes, or drills.
Everything was done by hand.
Then, too, the young men had bad luck. The factory
which they built at New Haven, Connecticut, was hardly
in good working order before it caught fire, and
building, machinery, and finished gins were destroyed.
Though steps were taken at once to build a new factory,
this accident lessened the number of gins they were
able to make. As late as 1796, they had only thirty
gins of their own at work in the whole state of
In the meantime, the production of cotton in the South
increased by leaps and bounds. In 1792, the year before
the invention of the cotton gin, there were raised and
sent out of the United States 138,000 pounds of cotton.
In 1793, about 487,000 pounds were exported; in 1794,
about 1,000,000; and in 1800, about 17,000,000 pounds.
The planters put in cotton, expecting to take the seeds
out of it with one of Whitney's gins. Even if the
planters had been willing to pay one pound out of each
three for ginning,—and there were many who were
not,—Miller and Whitney had not and could not
possibly have built gins enough to clean the entire
cotton crop. What were the planters to do? Were they to
let their cotton stand in the field and spoil, because
there was no gin owned and made by Miller and Whitney
at hand to clean it? Were they to stop raising cotton,
because two young men had a patent on a great
invention, and had a foolish idea about how to make a
fortune out of it? The planters did what it was natural
to expect them to do. They had some near-by carpenter
and blacksmith make them a gin, and with it they
cleaned their cotton.
 Seeing what the planters were doing, Miller and Whitney
gave up the idea of making and owning all the gins
used. They now tried to collect a royalty of two
hundred dollars a year on each gin in operation. A tax
of two hundred dollars a year on a machine which a
local carpenter and blacksmith can make at a cost of
from fifty to one hundred dollars, and which had cost
the inventor but three months of effort, was excessive.
A few planters paid the fee, but most of them refused.
An agent sent out through Georgia to collect these
royalties was not able to get money enough even to pay
Miller and Whitney had other troubles quite as serious
as trying to collect royalties from planters. Hodgen
Homes, of Georgia, patented a gin, called the "saw
gin." It was made like Whitney's, except that dull
teeth like the teeth of a circular saw were used
instead of wire teeth. Homes's "saw gin" took out the
seeds better than Whitney's, and did less injury to the
cotton. Naturally, people preferred it to Whitney's,
and it was on the point of driving his machine from the
Whitney's first idea, you will remember, was to use saw
teeth. But iron plates thin and strong enough to make
saw teeth were not to be had, so he fell back on wire
teeth. Whitney therefore felt that Homes was using his
idea, and he brought suit in court to prevent the
making of "saw gins." Unfortunately for Whitney, in his
application for a patent nothing was said either in
words or in drawings about saw teeth. For this reason,
it was hard for Whitney to prove that the idea of using
saw teeth belonged to him and not to Homes. He finally
succeeded and Homes's patent was taken away.
 Finding it difficult to keep others from making and
selling gins after their model, and being unable to
collect a royalty from the planters, Miller and Whitney
now thought it would be best to sell the right to use
their gin to the states themselves. In this way they
received altogether ninety thousand dollars. Much of
this sum was spent for lawyers' fees and other
expenses. What little remained made up in large part
Whitney's reward for his invention, and for years of
worry and disappointment.
If the cotton gin failed to bring to Whitney the wealth
of which he dreamed, it did bring great wealth to the
South. The invention came at a time when the old
products of the South, such as tobacco and rice, were
cheap, and when it was hard to find profitable use for
her lands and for her slaves. The cotton gin created
for her a new crop, "King Cotton," in which there were
enormous profits. These profits made the South rich,
adding millions of dollars to the value of her
However, Whitney was destined to become rich. He was
too gifted a man to be crushed by disappointment over
his first invention. As soon as he saw that there was
small chance of getting much of anything out of the
cotton gin, he looked about for a field where he could
use the genius he had for mechanics and invention, and
where by industry and economy he might perhaps make the
fortune which he once thought was all but in his hands.
He began to make muskets for the government, and in
1798 he built a factory at New Haven, Connecticut.
 Whitney's genius for invention showed itself no less in
manufacturing muskets than in making the first cotton
gin. Before his day, one man made the lock of a gun,
another carved the stock, another drilled out the
barrel, and so on. Each workman had considerable skill,
did everything by hand, and made one entire piece. But
no two locks, or stocks, or barrels were exactly alike.
If the lock of a musket broke, no other lock would fit;
a new lock had to be made for that particular gun.
Whitney changed all this. He invented power machines to
cut, to file, to drill, and to bore, which did away
with hand machines. He divided the making of a musket
into about a hundred different parts, and divided the
making of each part into a number of single steps, so
that little skill was needed by a workman to do any one
of them. Each part was made after a pattern, so that
all locks, all stocks, and all barrels were exactly
alike. If part of a musket broke, it could be replaced
at slight cost, by a new piece from the factory, which
was sure to fit.
Whitney was the first to manufacture anything in this
new way. His ideas were followed by others, and similar
methods are now used in making all kinds of things. For
this reason, Whitney is often called the "father of
modern factory methods." He will always be honored, of
course, as the inventor of the cotton gin, but his
right to fame rests no less on what he taught the world
about the use of machines in the making of common
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