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Eli Whitney papers

Call Number: MS 554

Scope and Contents

The Eli Whitney Papers consist of correspondence and business papers relating to Eli Whitney's invention and patenting of the cotton gin and to his subsequent development of a system to produce firearms employing interchangeable parts. The papers include drawings for machinery, land records relating to the acquisition of property for Whitney's factory site, patents and other documents relating to the protection of Whitney's inventions, and account books and other financial and legal records relating to business and investments. The papers also document the continuing manufacture of guns at Whitney's factory after his death in 1825, under the management of his estate and later of his son Eli Whitney. In addition, the papers include personal papers of Eli Whitney and other family members.

The papers also include photocopies of documents relating to Eli Whitney located in other repositories including the Connecticut Historical Society, the Harvard College Library, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the National Archives, the New Haven Colony Historical Society, and the New York Historical Society. Additional photocopies of Whitney material from the Baldwin Family Papers, the Blake Family Papers, the Hillhouse Family Papers, and the Josiah Whitney Papers in the Manuscripts and Archives Department are also included in the papers. This collection of materials was assembled, in part, during the preparation of The World of Eli Whitney by Jeanette Mirsky and Allan Nevins. This volume relied heavily on the Whitney Papers and, as such, it gives a more thorough analysis of the Whitney Papers than can be done here.

While the Eli Whitney Papers span from 1716-1959, the bulk of the material dates from 1785-1881, or from Eli Whitney's student days at Yale through the life of his son Eli Whitney.

Other family members represented in the series by smaller quantities of papers are Whitney's wife Henrietta Edwards Whitney, her father Pierpont Edwards, brother Alfred P. Edwards, and children Francis Whitney Chaplain, Elizabeth Whitney, and Eli Whitney. Student papers from Princeton, a personal letterbook, business diary, and other financial and legal papers, as well as obituary notices comprise the papers of Eli Whitney (1820-1895) in this series.


  • 1716-1959
  • Majority of material found within 1785 - 1881


Conditions Governing Access

The entire collection, with the exception of Accession 2018-M-0059 and Box 15 of copy negatives, is available on microfilm. Patrons must use FILM HM 219 instead of the originals.

Existence and Location of Copies

Entire collection, with the exception of Box 15 of copy negatives, is also available on microfilm (6,857 frames on 7 reels, 35mm.) from Scholarly Resources, Inc., Wilmington, Delaware.

Conditions Governing Use

Unpublished materials authored or otherwise produced by the creator(s) of this collection are in the public domain. There are no restrictions on use. Copyright status for other collection materials is unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Susan B. Whitney, Elizabeth Fay Whitney, Mrs. Leonard G. Sanford, Mrs. Thomas M. Debevoise, and Mrs. Earl M. Knight in 1941 and 1953. Gift of Anne S. Sharpe, 2018.

The Yale University Library acquired the Whitney Papers through gifts in 1941 and 1953 from Eli Whitney's great-granddaughters, Susan Brewster Whitney, Elizabeth Fay Whitney, Henrietta Edwards Whitney Sanford, Anne Farnam Whitney Debevoise, and Frances Pierrepont Whitney Knight.


10 Linear Feet (16 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The papers consist of correspondence and business papers relating to Eli Whitney's interests in developing the cotton gin and the manufacture of firearms employing a system of interchangeable parts. The papers include land records relating to the acquisition of property for the mill site, patents on inventions, account books and other financial records, and contracts and drawings concerning firearms production. Also included in the papers are records of Eli Whitney's estate, papers of Eli Whitney's nephews and son who succeeded him in producing firearms, and personal papers of Whitney and other Whitney family members.

Biographical / Historical

Eli Whitney was born in Westborough, Massachusetts, the son of Eli and Elizabeth (Fay) Whitney. As a boy, Whitney was occupied with all manner of manufacturing schemes, and he persuaded his father to let him continue in mechanical work rather than in preparation for college. He made and repaired violins in the neighborhood, worked in iron, and at the age of fifteen began the manufacture of nails in his father's shop. He continued this enterprise for two winters, even hiring a helper to fill his orders. When the demand for nails declined at the close of the Revolutionary War, he turned to making hatpins and almost monopolized that business in his section of the state. By the time he was eighteen his ideas regarding a college education had changed, but when he broached the subject to his father the latter thought him too old to begin the preparatory studies and, furthermore, was not then in a position to provide the necessary funds.

Whitney's mind was made up, however, and to obtain the funds he taught school in Grafton, Northboro, Westboro, and Paxton, and with the money thus earned attended Leicester Academy, Leicester, Massachusetts, during the summer. He entered Yale College in May 1789, at the age of twenty-three. During his three years there he studied diligently, and to augment the funds sent him by his father repaired apparatus and equipment about the college. After his graduation in the autumn of 1792, having decided to become a lawyer, Whitney went South to accept a position as tutor in a gentleman's family, with the understanding that he could devote a portion of his time to reading law.

On the boat which he took to Savannah he met the widow of General Nathanael Greene, with her family and Phineas Miller, the manager of her plantation. On his arrival at Savannah, Whitney learned that his prospective employer had hired another tutor, and Mrs. Greene invited him to be her guest. He gratefully accepted and began his law studies, grasping every opportunity to show his appreciation for the kindness of his hostess by making and repairing things about the house and plantation.

During the winter a group of gentlemen who had served under General Greene in the Revolution came to visit Mrs. Greene, and one evening were discussing the deplorable state of agriculture in the South. Large areas of land were unsuitable for growing of rice or long-staple cotton, although they yielded large crops of green seed cotton. This was an unprofitable crop, however, because the process of separating the cotton from its seed by hand was so tedious that it took one workman a whole day to obtain a pound of staple. One of the gentlemen remarked that the agricultural troubles of the inland portions of the South would be eliminated if some machine could be devised to facilitate the process of cleaning the green seed cotton. Mrs. Greene, there upon, who had observed Whitney's ingenuity with tools, suggested that he was the person to make such a machine, and forthwith he turned his attention to the problem. Within ten days he had designed a cotton gin and completed an imperfect model in accordance with his plan. He experimented with this model, and by April 1793 had built a larger, improved machine with which one person could produce fifty pounds of cleaned cotton in a day.

Having indicated the means to the end sought by Mrs. Greene's friends, thus fulfilling in part his many obligations to her, Whitney intended to resume his study of the law, but he was persuaded by Phineas Miller to continue work on the cotton gin with a view to patenting the idea and engaging in the manufacture of the new machine. The two men drew up a partnership agreement on May 27, 1793, to engage in the patenting and manufacturing of cotton gins and to conduct a cotton ginning business. Meanwhile the knowledge that Whitney had built a machine to clean cotton spread and multitudes came from all quarters to see the gin. Before Whitney could secure his patent a number of imitations were in successful operation.

Whitney returned to New Haven to perfect, patent, and manufacture his gin as soon as possible. He first made oath to the invention on October 28, 1793, obtained his patent March 14, 1794, and immediately began making cotton gins and shipping them to Miller in Georgia. The partners planned to buy the cotton seed themselves, gin it, and sell the product, because they felt that, protected by a patent, they could maintain a monopoly. This policy proved to be extremely disadvantageous, however, for they could not produce enough machines to gin the rapidly increasing crops and competitors' machines were rapidly being put into operation.

The most formidable rival machine was that of Hodgen Holmes, in which circular saws were used instead of the drum with inserted wires of Whitney's original machine. Whitney later proved that the idea of such teeth had occurred to him, but it was some years before he established his right over the Holmes gin. The partners had difficulty in raising money and had to pay interest rates of from twelve to twenty-five percent. Furthermore, word came from England that manufacturers were condemning the cotton cleaned by Whitney's gins on the ground that the staple was injured. This news brought their business and the thirty gins operating in Georgia to a two year standstill while Miller and Whitney worked to prove this judgement in error.

In 1797 the first infringement suit was tried unsuccessfully, and it was not until 1807 that Whitney obtained a favorable decision. This decision was confirmed by several subsequent decisions, and thenceforth Whitney's patent was not questioned. Meanwhile, however, in 1795 his shops had been destroyed by fire; the legislatures of South Carolina and Tennessee which in 1801 and 1802 respectively had voted to purchase patent rights suddenly annulled the contracts; and in 1803 Miller died, disappointed and broken by the struggle.

Whitney continued alone for nine years more, and in 1812 made application to Congress for the renewal of his patent. In spite of the logical arguments which he advanced in his petition, the request was refused. There is probably no other instance in the history of invention of the letting loose of such tremendous industrial forces so suddenly as occurred with the invention of the cotton gin. In 1792 the United States exported 138,328 pounds of cotton; in 1794, the year Whitney patented his gin, 1,601,000 pounds were exported; the following year, 6,276,000 pounds; and by 1800, the production of cotton in the United States had risen to 35,000,000 pounds of which 17,790,000 were exported. Yet Whitney received practically no return for the invention which was due to him alone.

He was a clear-sighted business man as well as an inventor, however, and was quick to realize the mistake he and Miller had made in attempting to monopolize the ginning business. He was so thoroughly convinced that he would never obtain any money from his invention of the cotton gin that as early as 1798 he made up his mind that he had to turn to something else. He chose the manufacture of firearms, and on January 14, 1798, obtained from the federal government a contract for "ten thousand stand of arms" to be delivered in two years. Whitney was not a gunsmith, but he proposed to manufacture guns by a new method, his aim being "to make the same parts of different guns, as the locks, for example, as much like each other as the successive impressions of a copper-plate engraving." This was perhaps the first, certainly one of the first suggestions of the system of interchangeable parts which has been of tremendous significance in industrial development.

Whitney's mechanical ingenuity and inventive capacity had been so thoroughly demonstrated, and his reputation for character was so high, that he had no difficulty in finding ten individuals in New Haven to go his bond and furnish the initial capital for the new undertaking. Purchasing a mill site just outside of New Haven, now Whitneyville, he built a factory and began the design and construction of the necessary machinery to carry out his schemes. Because of the extremely low state of the mechanic arts, his difficulties were innumerable. There were no similar establishments upon which branches of his own business might lean; there were not experienced workmen to give him any assistance; and he had to make by himself practically every machine and tool required. The expense incurred and time expended in getting the factory into operation greatly exceeded his expectations, but the confidence of his financial backers and the government seems never to have wavered. At the end of the first year after the contract was made, instead of 4,000 muskets, only 500 were delivered, and it was eight years instead of two before the contract was complete. So liberal was the government in making advances to Whitney that the final balance due him amounted to little more than $2,200 out of the original sum of $134,000. Whitney, however, had accomplished that which he had set out to do. Workmen with little or no experience could operate his machinery and with it turn out by the hundreds the various parts of a musket. Whitney had succeeded in reducing an extremely complex process to what amounted to a succession of simple operations. By his tenacity he so perfected the manufacture of arms that with the subsequent adoption of his system in the two federal armories, the government saved $25,000 annually. In 1812 he entered into a second contract with the federal government to manufacture 15,000 firearms, and contracted to make a similar quantity for the state of New York, and thereafter his unique manufactory yielded him a just reward. The business which he started employed some sixty men, and at the time the works were built he erected a row of substantial stone houses for his workmen which are said to have been the first workmen's houses erected by an employer in the United States.

On January 6, 1817, in New Haven, Whitney married Henrietta Frances Edwards, who with three children survived him.

Extracted from: Dictionary of American Biography

Guide to the Eli Whitney Papers
Under Revision
compiled by Diane E. Kaplan
August 1996
Description rules
Finding Aid Created In Accordance With Manuscripts And Archives Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository

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