Monday, May 8, 2023

Eli Whitney, but not about a Cotton Gin

by Martha Hutchens
Eli Whitney, image from Deposit Photos
Most school children have heard about Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin. This invention hit some of the highest highs and lowest lows of any invention in history. It made cotton profitable in the south, which fed the textile mills of the industrial revolution. It also made slavery profitable and contributed to its longevity. An updated version is still used today.

However, Eli Whitney developed something else which may well have been even more revolutionary. It’s just a lot harder to distill into a simple name.

Our story starts during the Revolutionary War. Nine-year-old Eli Whitney had an adult friend by the name of Hiram Wedge, who was a peddler. Eli was a tinkerer and could easily get lost in fixing something and forget his assigned chores. This often put him at odds with his father. But Hiram Wedge believed in young Eli.

One day, the peddler came by the Whitney household with news of a war against England. He was signing up, but he had to get his musket fixed. It needed a new hammer. Eli told him that they had a broken gun in their shop, but it had a fine hammer. Why didn’t they just change one hammer for another?

Monument at Bunker Hill, image from Deposit Photos

The adults explained that the parts of one gun didn’t fit another. Hiram’s gun would have to go to a gunsmith. Unfortunately, he was unable to get it fixed before he died at Bunker Hill.

Eli went on to develop a nail-making business that was very profitable during the Revolution when the US could not import British nails. He was fourteen.
Original Cotton Gin, Image from Deposit Photos

Later he went to college, then traveled south for a job tutoring. There he was challenged to invent an “engine” (gin) that would remove the seeds from cotton. Due to issues with his patent, he profited very little from this invention.

At a time when he needed money to continue his legal battles, he remembered the broken hammer on his friend’s gun. Why couldn’t one hammer fit on another gun? Just because it had never been done didn’t mean it couldn’t.

Of course, training men to do work that exactly would be harder than just continuing to make guns the way they had always been done. But what if you could make guides that would allow you to make each part identically? Then any good mechanic could be a gunsmith.

Image from Deposit Photos

He signed a contract to deliver 10,000 muskets in two years. He was told that all the gunsmiths in the country could not make that many guns that quickly. He tried over and over to explain his idea, but no one believed it was possible.

Turns out it wasn’t possible. It took him eight years. At one point, he was called before Congress to account for the delays. He brought boxes of parts to show his idea of assembling a gun with “interchangeable parts.” He assembled the gun, but the idea was so completely foreign to the people watching that they thought he had marked specific parts for the gun. A officer watched the demonstration and asked if would be allowed to try. To the officer’s surprise, he was able to assemble a gun from the disparate parts.

A young man from Virginia followed Eli’s explanation and demonstration closely. When the group seemed ready to ignore Eli’s advances, this man spoke up. He had seen a similar demonstration in France, where a man made a part of a gun that was interchangeable. Now Eli Whitney had thought of the same idea and carried it farther. They should continue to support the project. This man was Thomas Jefferson.

We don’t talk much about Eli Whitney’s second invention. Of course, it is true that he wasn’t the first man to do it. He was only the first to make it popular. But I don’t that is the reason that it isn’t taught. The simple fact is, that in our world interchangeable parts are so fundamental to our understanding we can’t imagine a world without them. But the world wasn’t always that way. It is now, largely thanks to Eli Whitney.

One side note. I haven’t been able to confirm the story about Hiram Wedge outside of a children’s biography of Eli Whitney. However, Eli did have a son named Hiram.

Martha Hutchens is a transplanted southerner who lives in Los Alamos, NM where she is surrounded by history so unbelievable it can only be true. She won the 2019 Golden Heart for Romance with Religious and Spiritual Elements. A former analytical chemist and retired homeschool mom, Martha is frequently found working on her latest knitting project when she isn’t writing.


Martha’s current novella is set in southeast Missouri during World War II. It is free to her newsletter subscribers. You can subscribe to my newsletter at my website,


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  1. Thank you for posting today, and for giving another look into the man who gave us the cotton gin.

  2. It's a shame Martha didn't get to see this particularly interesting story of how Eli Whitney finally saw his dream come true. We miss you, Martha!

  3. Martha (Hutchens) thanks for this interesting post on a lesser-known invention. Creative people are always dreaming up stuff!