Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Story of Eli Whitney

I had no idea Eli Whitney was such a fascinating man!!  We just finished reading The Story of Eli Whitney by Jean Lee Latham.  The book tells of Eli's life from childhood through adulthood.

After a late start to college by 1700's standards, Eli graduated from Yale.  After college, he traveled to Georgia, where he met Catherine Greene, Revolutionary Hero Gen. Nathanael Greene's widow.  Ms. Greene and her plantation manager, Phineas Miller, persuaded Eli to manufacture a cotton engine (gin).  With the delay of the cotton gin's patent due to the Yellow Fever epidemic that hit Philadelphia, our nation's capital at that time, folks were pirating Eli's invention.   Once the patent finally came, Eli fought and lost over sixty infringement battles before finally securing the rights only a short time before the patent expired.

In the interim, he obtained a government contract to mass produce interchangeable parts for muskets. Though there was a delay in the completion of the order, Eli was able to eventually successfully meet the contract.  According to the story, Whitney's interest in muskets stemmed from a childhood friendship with a man killed in the Revolutionary War because of a broken musket hammer.  I'm thinking that part of the story may be fictional, but I couldn't confirm it one way or another.  

Due to his dedication to engineering, Eli married late in life.   The Story of Eli Whitney ends after Eli's marriage and the birth of his first child.  I was so enthralled by Latham's book that I did a little further research only to find that Eli died at age 59 of prostate cancer, leaving his widow with four young children. 

Throughout his life, Whitney rubbed elbows with a number of prominent people, including Thomas Jefferson.  Latham describes one scene in the book where Whitney is in the Executive Building in Washington.  He has conversation with Meriweather Lewis, Jefferson's secretary.  Both Jefferson and Lewis reference the Louisiana Purchase.  However, Whitney doesn't put two and two together until a time later.   

The Story of Eli Whitney helped me make many historical connections.  Latham portrayed Whitney as a kind, generous, hardworking genius.   It appears he is also a great role model.  I highly recommend this book!

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