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Whitney, Eli


Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, was born in Westboro, Mass. on December 8, 1765. Whitney grew up in New England and attended Yale. He came to South Carolina at the request of a friend who managed General Nathanael Greene’s Plantation outside Savannah, Georgia. When the promised job did not materialize in South Carolina, Whitney came to Georgia, possibly because he was infatuated with Greene’s widow, Catharine. At her suggestion, Whitney set to work modifying a gin useful only for Sea Island cotton into one for use on the short-staple cotton grown in the rest of Georgia. Within six months he had completed the modifications, and left Georgia for Philadelphia to get a patent on his invention and to manufacture them where there was more skilled labor available. The patent was issued in March of 1794 and Whitney returned to Georgia with six cotton gins ready for use. Soon thereafter Whitney left Georgia for good, in order to manufacture the gins in New Haven, Conn. Others soon copied his invention, thus he received relatively little financially for his work. Whitney went on to manufacture arms for the government, and was rewarded with a big contract during the War of 1812. In the process of his arms manufacturing, he developed the idea of interchangeable parts, ultimately as important as his development of the cotton gin. Whitney did not marry until the age of fifty-four, after Catharine Greene had died. His health began to decline in 1820, and he developed very painful prostate problems in 1823. Ever the inventor, Whitney developed an instrument that eased his discomfort more than anything done by his doctors. He died in New Haven January 8, 1825.