Изображения страниц



descended on both sides from ancestors of English stock, who dated their migration from the old country nearly back to the memorable voyage of the Mayflower. They were generally farmers, and, like most farmers of those days, in very moderate circumstances. Eli's father, poor, industrious, and ingenious, had a workshop wherein he devoted the inclement season to the making of wheels and of chairs. Here the son early developed a remarkable ingenuity and mechanical skill; establishing, when only fifteen years age, the manufacture by hand of wrought nails, for which there was, in those later years of our Revolutionary struggle, a demand at high prices. Though he had had no instruction in nail-making, and his few implements were of the rudest description, he pursued the business through two winters with profit to his father, devoting the summers, as before and afterward, to the labors of the farm. After the close of the war, his nails being no longer in demand, he engaged in the manufacture of the pins then in fashion for fastening ladies' bonnets, and nearly monopolized the market through the excellence of his product. Walking-canes also were among his winter manufactures, and were esteemed peculiarly well made and handsome. Meantime, he continued the devotion of his summers to the labors of the farm, attending the common school of his district through its winter session, and being therein noted for devotion to, and eminent skill in, arithmetic. At fourteen, he was looked upon by his neighbors as a very remarkable, energetic, and intelligent youth. At nineteen, he resolved to obtain a liberal education; but it was not until


he had reached the mature age of twenty-three that he was enabled to enter college. By turns laboring with his hands and teaching school, he obtained the means of prosecuting his studies in Yale, which he entered in May, 1789. He borrowed some money to aid him in his progress, giving his note therefor, and paying it so soon as he could. On the decease of his father some years afterward, he took an active part in settling the estate, but relinquished his portion to his co-heirs. It is scarcely probable that the amount he thus sacrificed was large, but the generous spirit he evinced is not thereby obscured.

While in college, his natural superiority in mechanism and proclivity to invention were frequently manifested. On one occasion, a tutor regretted to his pupils that he could not exhibit a desired philosophical experiment, because the apparatus was out of order, and could only be repaired in Europe. Young Whitney thereupon proposed to undertake the repair, and made it to perfect satisfaction. At another time, he asked permission to use at intervals the tools of a carpenter who worked near his boarding-place; but the careful mechanic declined to trust them in the hands of a student, unless the gentleman with whom Mr. W. boarded would become responsible for their safe return. The guarantee was given, and Mr. Whitney took the tools in hand; when the carpenter, surprised at his dexterity, exclaimed: "There was one good mechanic spoiled when you went to college."

Mr. Whitney graduated in the fall of 1792, and directly engaged with a Mr. B., from Georgia, to proceed to

trouble and expense incurred in separating the seed from the fiber. These representations impelled Mrs. Greene to say: "Gentlemen, apply to my young friend, Mr. Whitney-he can make any thing." She thereupon took them into an adjacent room, where she showed them her tambour-frame and several ingenious toys which Mr. W. had made for the gratification of her children. She then introduced them to Whitney himself, extolling his genius and commending him to their confidence and friendship. In the conversation which ensued, he observed that he had never seen cotton nor cotton-seed in his life.

that State and reside in his employer's family as a private teacher. On his way thither, he had as a traveling companion Mrs. Greene, widow of the eminent Revolutionary general, Nathaniel Greene, who was returning with her children to Savannah, after spending the summer at the North. His health being infirm on his arrival at Savannah, Mrs. Greene kindly invited him to the hospitalities of her residence until he should become fully restored. Short of money and in a land of strangers, he was now coolly informed by his employer that his services were not required, he (B.) having employed another teacher in his stead! Mrs. Greene hereupon. urged him to make her house his home so long as that should be desirable, and pursue under her roofing at hand, he went to Savannah the study of the law, which he then contemplated. He gratefully accepted the offer, and commenced the study accordingly.

Mrs. Greene happened to be engaged in embroidering on a peculiar frame known as a tambour. It was badly constructed, so that it injured the fabric while it impeded its production. Mr. Whitney eagerly volunteered to make her a better, and did so on a plan wholly new, to her great delight and that of her children.

A large party of Georgians, from Augusta and the plantations above, soon after paid Mrs. G. a visit, several of them being officers who had served under her husband in the Revolutionary war. Among the topics discussed by them around her fireside was the depressed state of Agriculture, and the impossibility of profitably extending the culture of the green-seed Cotton, because of the

Mr. Whitney promised nothing and gave little encouragement, but went to work. No cotton in the seed be

and searched there among warehouses and boats until he found a small parcel. This he carried home and secluded with himself in a basement room, where he set himself at work to devise and construct the implement required. Tools being few and rude, he was constrained to make better-drawing his own wire, because none could, at that time, be bought in the city of Savannah. Mrs. Greene and her next friend, Mr. Miller, whom she soon after married, were the only persons beside himself who were allowed the entrée of his workshop-in fact, the only ones who clearly knew what he was about. His mysterious hammering and tinkering in that solitary cell were subjects of infinite curiosity, marvel, and ridicule among the younger members of the family. But he did not interfere with their merriment, nor allow them to interfere with his enterprise; and, before the close of the winter, his



machine was so nearly perfected that | him of the just reward of his achieve

its success was no longer doubtful. Mrs. Greene, too eager to realize and enjoy her friend's triumph, in view of the existing stagnation of Georgian industry, invited an assemblage at her house of leading gentlemen from various parts of the State, and, on the first day after their meeting, conducted them to a temporary building, erected for the machine, in which they saw, with astonishment and delight, that one man with Whitney's invention could separate more cotton from the seed in a single day than he could without it by the labor of months.

Mr. Phineas Miller, a native of Connecticut and a graduate of Yale, who had come to Georgia as the teacher of General Greene's children, and who, about this time, became the husband of his widow, now proposed a partnership with Mr. Whitney, by which he engaged to furnish funds to perfect the invention, secure the requisite patents, and manufacture the needed machines; the partners to share equally all profits and emoluments thence resulting. Their contract bears date May 27, 1793; and the firm of Miller & Whitney immediately commenced what they had good reason to expect would prove a most extensive and highly lucrative business. Mr. Whitney thereupon repaired to Connecticut, there to perfect his invention, secure his patent, and manufacture machines for the Southern market.

But his just and sanguine hopes were destined to signal and bitter disappointment. His invention was too valuable to be peacefully enjoyed; or, rather, it was the seeming and urgent interest of too many to rob

ment. He ought not to have expected that those who lived idly and luxuriously by stealing the wife from her husband, and the child from its mother, would hesitate to steal, also, the fruit of his brain-work, in order to render thereby the original theft ten-fold more advantageous than it otherwise could be. Reports of the nature and value of his invention were widely and rapidly circulated, creating intense excitement. Multitudes hastened from all quarters to see his original machine; but, no patent having yet been secured, it was deemed unsafe to gratify their curiosity; so they broke open the building by night, and carried off the wonderful prize. Before he could complete his model and secure his patent, a number of imitations had been made and set to work, deviating in some respects from the original, in the hope of thus evading all penalty. Before Whitney had been three days on his northward trip, a letter from his partner followed on his track, which said:

"It will be necessary to have a considerable number of gins made, to be in readiness to send out as soon as the patent is obtained, in order to satisfy the absolute demands, and make people's heads easy on the subject; for I am informed of two other claimants for the honor of the invention of the cotton

gins, in addition to those we knew before."

Messrs. Miller and Whitney's plan of operations was essentially vicious. They proposed to construct and retain the ownership of all the machines that might be needed, setting one up in each cotton-growing neighborhood, and ginning all the staple for every third pound of the product. Even at this rate, the invention would have been one of

enormous benefit to the planterscotton being then worth from twentyfive to thirty-three cents per pound. But no single manufactory could turn out the gins so fast as wanted, and planters who might readily have consented to the terms of the patentees, had the machines been furnished so fast as required, could hardly be expected to acquiesce so readily in the necessity of doing without machines altogether because the patentees could not, though others could, supply them. And then the manufacture of machines, to be constructed and worked by the patentees alone, involved a very large outlay of money, which must mainly be obtained by borrowing. Miller's means being soon exhausted, their first loan of two thousand dollars was made on the comparatively favorable condition of five per cent. premium, in addition to lawful interest. But they were soon borrowing at twenty per cent. per month. Then there was sickness; Mr. Whitney having a severe and tedious attack in 1794; after which the scarlet fever raged in New Haven, disabling many of his workmen; and soon the lawsuits, into which they were driven in defense of their patent, began to devour all the money they could make or borrow. In 1795, Whitney had another attack of sickness; and, on his return to New Haven, from three weeks of suffering in New York, learned that his manufactory, with all his machines and papers, had just been consumed by fire, whereby he found himself suddenly reduced to utter bankruptcy. Next came a report from England that the British manufacturers condemned and rejected the cotton cleaned by his machines, on the ground that the staple

was greatly injured by the ginning process! And now no one would touch the ginned cotton; and blockheads were found to insist that the roller-gin-a preposterous rival to Whitney's, whereby the seed was crushed in the fibre, instead of being separated from it-was actually a better machine than Whitney's! In the depths of their distress and insolvency, Miller wrote (April 27, 1796) from Georgia to Whitney, urging him to hasten to London, there to counteract the stupid prejudice which had been excited against ginned cotton; adding:

"Our fortune, our fate, depends on it. The process of patent ginning is now quite at a stand. I hear nothing of it except the

condolence of a few real friends, who express their regret that so promising an invention has entirely failed."

Whitney endeavored to obey this injunction, but could nowhere obtain the necessary funds; though he had several times fixed the day of his departure, and on one occasion had actually engaged his passage, and taken leave of some of his friends. October 7, 1797, Mr. Whitney wrote to an intimate friend a letter, wherefrom the following is an extract:

"The extreme embarrassments which have been for a long time accumulating upon me are now become so great that it will be impossible for me to struggle against them many days longer. It has required my utmost exertions to exist, without making the least progress in our business. I have labored hard against the strong current of disappointment, which has been threatening to carry us down the cataract; but I have labored with a shattered oar, and struggled in vain, unless some speedy relief is obtained. I am now quite far enough advanced in life to think seriously of marrying. I have ever looked forward with pleasure to an alliance with an amiable and virtuous companion, as a source from whence I have expected one day to derive the greatest happiness. But the accomplishment of my tour to Europe, and the acquisition of


something which I can call my own, appear to be absolutely necessary, before it will be admissible for me even to think of family engagements. Probably a year and a half, at least, will be required to perform that tour, after it is entered upon. Life is but short, at best, and six or seven years out of the midst of it is, to him who makes it, an immense sacrifice. My most unremitted at

tention has been devoted to our business. I have sacrificed to it other objects, from which, before this time, I might certainly have gained twenty or thirty thousand dollars. My whole prospects have been embarked in it, with the expectation that I should, before this time, have realized something from it."

At length the ridiculous prejudice against cotton cleaned by Whitney's gin gradually and slowly gave way, and the value of the invention began to be perceived and acknowledged. But Miller & Whitney's first suit against infringers now came to trial, before a Georgia jury; and, in spite of the judge's charge directly in the plaintiffs' favor, a verdict was given for the defendant a verdict from which there was no appeal. When the second suit was ready for trial at Savannah, no judge appeared, and, of

course, no court was held. Meantime, the South fairly swarmed with pirates on the invention, of all kinds and degrees. In April, 1799, Miller writes to Whitney as follows:

"The prospect of making anything by ginning in this State is at an end. Surreptitious gins are erected in every part of the country; and the jurymen at Augusta have come to an understanding among themselves that they will never give a cause in our favor, let the merits of the case be as they may."

It would not be surprising if the firm would now have gladly relinquished the working of their machines, and confined themselves to the sale of patent rights. But few would buy what they could safely steal, and those few gave notes which


they generally took care not to pay. If sued, juries would often return a verdict of no consideration, or a trial would be staved off until collection was barred by the statute of limitation, which outlawed a debt that had existed through a period of four


On one occasion, the agent of the patentees, who was dispatched on a collecting tour through the State of Georgia, was unable to obtain money enough to pay his expenses, and was compelled to draw on his employers for nearly the full amount.

Finally, in 1801, this agent wrote to his principals that, though the planters of South Carolina would not pay their notes, many of them suggested a purchase of the right of the patentees for that State by its Legislature; and he urged Mr. Whitney to come to Columbia, and try to make an arrangement on this basis. and testimonials from the new PresiWhitney did so, taking some letters dent, Jefferson, and his Secretary of State, Madison, which were doubtless of service to him in his negotiations. His memorial having been duly submitted to the Legislature, proposing to sell the patent right for South Carolina for one hundred thousand dollars, the Legislature debated it, and finally offered for it fifty thousand twenty thousand down, and ten thousand per annum for three years. Whitney, in a letter written the day after the passage of

the act, says:

"The use of the machine here is amazingly extensive, and the value of it beyond all calculation. It may, without exaggeration, be said to have raised the value of

States from fifty to one hundred per cent. We get but a song for it in comparison with

seven-eighths of all the three Southern

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »