Eli Whitney (1765–1825), an American pioneer, mechanical engineer, and manufacturer, is famous for his invention of the cotton gin (1794), a machine for separating cotton fibers from the seeds. His invention had immense economic and social effects, particularly in the South, but the unwillingness of the planters to pay for its use and the ease with which the gin could be pirated put Whitney's company out of business by 1797. In 1798, he built a firearms factory near New Haven for the manufacturing of muskets. The methods used by his workmen were comparable to those of modern mass industrial production and were the first to have standardized interchangeable parts.
Whitney 's gin has an interesting relationship with slavery in the South. First, many scholars have questioned whether or not workers--including slaves--assisted him in perfecting the gin. Second, the gin's ability to remove the seed more easily from the cotton floss permanently altered agriculture in the Southern U.S. Environmental historians have demonstrated that the device made it possible for planters to utilize new types of cotton seed that had been impracticle prior to the use of the gin. These new, hardier crops could be grown much more widely in the American South. Therefore, Whitney's gin had a rather horrific unintended consequence: the expansion and furtherance of slavery in the American South.
Undoubtedly, though, Whitney's genius as expressed in tools, machines, and technological ideas made the southern United States dominant in cotton production and the northern states a bastion of industry.
Eli Whitney, Inventor of the Cotton Gin (The Whitney Research Group)
Eli Whitney (National Inventors Hall of Fame) Cowdrey, Albert. This Land, This South: An Environmental History. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1995. Silver, Timothy. A New Face on the Countryside: Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 1500-1800. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1990.