As a result, Whitney spent many years and significant sums in dozens of lawsuits over infringement of his patented device, without ever realizing any significant recovery of lost profits (Lakwete 2004).
The Larger Impact of a Simple Technological Invention:
Whitney's cotton gin resulted in an economic boon unparalleled previously in the southern states at a time when cotton could otherwise have been phased out as a profitable crop except in coastal areas. Instead, plantations expanded in size and many shifted their efforts almost exclusively to cotton. The impact was so significant that it shaped many elements of international trade in cotton fiber, establishing America as a producer of textile products and virtually eliminating any need to import fabric from abroad (Nevins & Commager 1992).
Even more importantly, the increased cotton production created an intense need for fieldworkers, precisely at a time when many historians (Mills 1953) believe that the institution of slavery might have fizzled out naturally, but for reasons of economic practicalities rather than moral philosophy about human rights. Instead, the slave trade exploded, becoming essential to the economic boon in southern states, eventually contributing very heavily to the antagonism between the North and South that led to the American Civil War half a century later. By that time, the effects of the industrial revolution had begun the shift, especially in the northern industrial states, of women working outside to the paradigm that persisted into modern times, whereby women primarily remained at home while men entered the labor force to provide for their families. The cotton gin fundamentally changed the economic relationship between this country and Europe, establishing America as a crucial global supplier of textile fabric. Tragically, the cotton gin also accounted for the explosion of the morally reprehensible international slave trade from Africa and the West Indies that ultimately lay at the root of the interstate conflicts that were only resolved by a lengthy and extremely costly civil war.
Weapons Manufacturing and Other Important Contributions of Eli Whitney:
In between the failure of Whitney's cotton gin to provide a financial profit for its inventor and the Civil War, Whitney seized another opportunity to earn a living from his inventiveness and mechanical skills. Specifically, as the nation prepared for the anticipated war with France, the government commissioned at least one dozen different arms manufacturers to increase the production of muskets and other firearms necessary for battle operations (Nevins & Commager 1992).
Gunsmiths of that era labored intensively over each weapon, crafting them by hand. More importantly, the manufacturing technology of the time was incapable of producing the individual component pieces of firearms that enabled them to be interchanged with other units. Whitney is credited with introducing manufacturing procedures capable of producing weapons whose component parts met much higher mechanical deviation tolerances conducive to the interchangeability of their many working parts (Evans 2004).
In truth, while Whitney certainly inspired the incorporation of component part interchangeability in manufacturing (in weapons as well as in general), his ideas were preceded by at least two Frenchmen (Hounshell 1984), who had already begun manufacturing firearms with interchangeable component parts. Nevertheless, Whitney is remembered for the dramatic way that he demonstrated the concept to the War Department. Ironically, later historians subsequently deduced that Whitney's dramatic demonstration of component part interchangeability was actually a sham that he perpetrated using surreptitious markings on rifle parts that enabled him to identify matched components while pretending to select them completely at random (Evans 2004).
Whitney did eventually succeed in developing the interchangeable capability in his weapons that he demonstrated for the War Department beforehand. His deception was mainly necessitated by the overwhelming demands of the agreement he had signed to provide more than 10,000 pieces eight months earlier. After excusing his production delays on unreliable workers and other factors out of his control, Whitney had simply run out of viable explanations for the delay. In order to satisfy the War Department that he would be able to provide the promised arms, he devised the dramatic (if premature) demonstration out of perceived necessity rather than preconceived deception (Evans 2004).
Conclusion - Later Life and Legacy:
Many believe that Whitney suffered from unrequited romantic love for his employer, Catherine Green, and that her eventual marriage to Phineas Miller precipitated his decline into ill health in his later years. Before he died in 1825, Whitney applied his unique talents into devising a catheter in connection with treating his own symptoms of prostate surgery, also taking up the study of human anatomy shortly before his death (EWM 2008).
Whereas Whitney is remembered primarily for his cotton gin, later historians (Mills 1953) credit him with other significant contributions in labor and operations management. Several innovations that may have contributed to the reshaping of American industry in the century following his death include the introduction of hydraulic power in the conversion of the natural force of running of water to mechanical energy to run power tools (EWM 2008).
Likewise, Whitney devised precision gauges that allowed much more accurate measurement of small component pieces in conjunction with the development of improved jigs and mechanical fixtures. These features dramatically increased the mechanical tolerances of all milled tools and machinery, enabling the production component parts of sufficient dimensional uniformity to substantially reduce the cost of their production and replacement (Woodbury 1960). Whitney also contributed significantly to the development of the factory system of mass production that revolutionized industry in virtually every field, from agricultural cultivation and textile design to industrial hardware manufacturing used extensively in the northern industrialized cities. Ultimately, Whitney may have even contributed in no small way to the establishment of the United States industrial capacity that proved instrumental in achieving victory in the First World War, fought almost a century after his death (Mills 1953).
In the field of personnel management and business operational procedures, Whitney introduced concepts such as industrial apprenticeships and graphic representations of the myriad different responsibilities and tasks of employees and management to facilitate improved performance and supervision. Whitney devised more comprehensive methods of calculating the costs of materials and production, fixed overhead, and even several of the component pieces of specialization that may have inspired later business operations developments such as those introduced in the early 20th century by pioneers like Frenchman Henri Fayol, and the famed American, Frederick Taylor.
Evans, H. (2004) They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine - Two Centuries of Innovators. New York: Little Brown & Co.
Friedman, L.M. (2005) a History of American Law. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Gray, I. (1987) General and Industrial Management. (Revised from Fayol's Original) Belmont: David S. Lake Publishers. Hounshell, D. (1984) From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Lakwete, a. (2004). Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in Antebellum America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University.
Mills, C.W. (1953) White Collar: The American Middle Class. New York: Oxford University Press.