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Eli Whitney Life and Influence Research Paper

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Updated: Mar 15th, 2020


Eli Whitney is one of those people who represented the Industrial Revolution that took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This paper is aimed at discussing the life and influence of this famous inventor. One can argue that he unintentionally transformed the economic and political landscape of the United States by introducing his cotton gin. In particular, it is possible to say that this device strengthened the slave or plantation economy, established in the South.

Furthermore, he popularized many influential ideas which later had profound implications for many businesses. In this case, one should focus on such concepts and methods as interchangeable parts, the division of labor, and cost-accounting.

The principles that he popularized continue to be of great relevance to such disciplines as business organization and management. On the whole, he demonstrated the importance of the scientific method for the progress of the country. These are the main issues that should be discussed more closely.

The Life of Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney was born to a family of a well-to-do farmer in 1765 (Bagley 8). It should be noted that since the age of fourteen, he was running a blacksmith shop built at the farm of his father (Bagley 8). During his childhood years, he took great interest in the functioning of various machines. Moreover, he tried to improve their work (Bagley 8).

This is one of the details that should be taken into account because this experience affected many of his professional experiences in the following years. Later, he attended Yale College where he studied various subjects, especially natural sciences. Initially, he intended to study law but due to the insufficient funds, he had to choose a different career path. In particular, he decided to become a private teacher (Bagley 13).

While working at the Mulberry Grove plantation, he began to invent various machines which could be used for various agricultural purposes. Much attention should be paid to the invention of cotton gin which was widely adopted by many farmers.

Moreover, Eli Whitney was working on the production of firearms, namely muskets which were purchased by the government at the end of the eighteenth century. These are some of the main milestones in his career as an inventor.

It should be mentioned that Eli Whitney did not derive significant profits from his inventions. Many people made unauthorized copies, especially cotton gin. This is why he had to spend much time and effort on legal disputes which were mostly unsuccessful. Eli Whitney died in 1825 and he continued to invent new mechanisms until his last days (Bagley 15).

To a great extent, this activity was his life-time devotion. Yet, one should not forget, he was also an entrepreneur who strived to find the commercial application to the machines that he developed. He also established a factory that was extended by his son. Thus, he had a diverse range of interests. This is one of the main arguments that can be put forward.

The main contributions and legacies

It is also vital to speak about the long-term effects of Eli Whitney’s activities. Nowadays, he is credited mostly with the invention of the cotton gin. This device was used for the separation of cotton fibers from the seeds (Rodriguez 516). It proved to be more efficient than the manual work of people.

It should be borne in mind that the separation of fibers from the seeds was a very time-consuming process, and a single laborer could approximately one pound of clean cotton per day (Rodriguez 516). Slaveholders relied mostly on this manual form of labor, and this approach to agriculture was inefficient. This is one of the reasons why the slave economy of the South was in decline at the end of the eighteenth century (Rodriguez 516).

Nevertheless, the introduction of cotton gin dramatically changed the situation. This device significantly improved the profitability of many plantations. For instance, at the end of 1860, the total American production of cotton was 4 million bales per year (Rodriguez 516). In contrast, in 1830, it was only about 750,000 bales.

To a great extent, this invention revived the stagnant economy of the South and made many people committed to the preservation of slavery as a social institution. Moreover, the prices and demand for slaves increased significantly. On the whole, these examples indicate that a single invention can change the economic and social life of a country.

One can say that Whitney’s cotton gin contributed to the prolonged the existence of slavery in the South. This is one of the main issues should be taken into account. Yet, this is not the only legacy of this inventor.

It is also vital to discuss other important influences of Eli Whitney. He was one of the first people who advocated the idea of interchangeable parts (Gehani 44). One should remember that in the eighteenth century, a worker could independently create a single product. Provided that this product or machinery was broken, it was not easy to repair it as quickly as possible because there were no spare components that could fit this machinery.

Moreover, it was necessary to spend more time in order to assemble a product. At that time, there were no production norms that workers had to comply with (Gehani 44). This is one of the obstacles that hindered the development of many industries existing at that time.

In contrast, Eli Whitney stressed the necessity to standardize the production of spare parts (Gehani 44). In his opinion, the standardization or uniformity of interchangeable could be critical for the manufacturing of weaponry (Gehani 44). This approach to production could make the production of machinery much more efficient. Admittedly, Eli Whitney was not the only person who advocated the notion of interchangeable parts.

There were many other inventors who advocated the usefulness of this strategy. Yet, Whitney was one of those people, who strived to popularize this method of production. In the long term, this idea revolutionized the work of many businesses that could increase the volume of their output. So, one can say that the ideas of Eli Whitney had profound implications for the economy of many countries, especially the United States.

Yet, one should take into account that the benefits of this strategy became evident only at the second half of the nineteenth century when many manufacturers began to think about the adoption of the assembly line. This is one of the main points that can be made. It is vital for understanding the long-term influence of Eli Whitney and other inventors who represented the Industrial Revolution.

It is important to examine other contributions of Eli Whitney. First of all, he argued that the division of labor was critical for the productivity of any manufacturing facility (Lyons 26). The main advantage of this strategy is that workers could gradually develop skills in some particular area.

Certainly, Whitney was not the person who first introduced this concept. In particular, the idea of labor division is frequently mentioned in the works of Adam Smith as well as other economists. Moreover, this method of labor organization was elaborated by many engineers and managers in the nineteenth century.

Yet, Whitney was among the first pioneers who demonstrated the usefulness of this approach. One can even say that the advocacy of labor division and standardization of production are the most important contributions of this person, even in comparison with the invention of the cotton gin. This is one of the main arguments that can be put forward.

Additionally, Eli Whitney contributed to the early development of cost accounting methods. In particular, he paid close attention to the so-called fixed costs such as the expenses related to insurance and procurement of machinery (Lyons 26). It should be taken into consideration that the fixed costs are not affected by the changes in the level production. Admittedly, modern accounting methods are more efficient than the calculations made by Eli Whitney.

Nevertheless, his role should not be underestimated because he was one of the first entrepreneurs who decided to focus on this technique and use it for practical needs. This approach helped many manufacturers estimate the return on investment. This is one o the details that should not be disregarded.

It should be kept in mind that many inventions or ideas introduced by Eli Whitney were modified and elaborated by other people even during his lifetime. For instance, his cotton gin was modified by many farmers or inventors who strived to improve the work of this machine. Furthermore, the notion of interchangeable parts was elaborated at the end of the nineteenth century.

Thus, one should not assume that he can be the only person who can be credited for the development of new manufacturing techniques. This is one of the main ideas that should not be overlooked because it is critical for understanding the Industrial Revolution. To a great extent, the economic progress achieved during that time was the result of many people’s work. This approach to the study of the Industrial Revolution can be more informative.


On the whole, these examples indicate that Eli Whitney made many contributions to various areas related to the economy. Traditionally, his name is associated with the invention of the cotton gin and the strengthening of the slave economy in the United States. Certainly, this impact cannot be overlooked and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin did influence the agricultural production of the United States.

To some degree, it solidified the foundations of the plantation economy which strongly relied on slavery. Nevertheless, one should not forget that there are many other achievements of this inventor and entrepreneur. For instance, he stressed the importance of uniformity and standardization as those factors which can increase the volume of output.

Moreover, he highlighted the role of cost accounting as a method for assessing the performance of a business. Therefore, his ideas were of great value to many manufacturers. He demonstrated that the scientific approach to management and manufacturing can be critical for the success of a business. Thus, one can say that there are various legacies left by Eli Whitney.

Works Cited

Bagley, Katie. Eli Whitney: American Inventor, New York: Capstone, 2003. Print.

Gehani, Ray. Management of Technology and Operations, Boston: John Wiley & Sons, 1998. Print.

Lyons, Thomas. Social Entrepreneurship: How Businesses Can Transform Society, Boston: ABC-CLIO, 2012. Print.

Rodriguez, Junius. Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, And Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 2, New York: ABC-CLIO, 2007. Print.

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