WESTBOROUGH – Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, is perhaps the most famous Westborough resident of all time.
However, his life prior to the creation of the device that sealed his place in American history is much less known.
Whitney’s precocious childhood
Whitney was born on Dec. 8, 1765, the first child of Eli Whitney Sr., a farmer, and his wife Elizabeth Fay. Since his father bore the same name Whitney was technically a junior, but as his fame eclipsed his father, he was simply known as Eli Whitney.
The untimely death of his mother in 1777 when he was 11 no doubt left its mark on the young boy. Two years later his father remarried to Judith Hazeltine, a widow who had 13 children from her previous marriage.
Despite losing his mother so young, Whitney was an industrious boy with a strong mechanical aptitude.
His curiosity is said to have compelled him during his father’s absence one day to take apart his pocket watch to see how it worked. He avoided his father’s wrath by reassembling it correctly and completely with his father being none the wiser upon his return.
At the age of 12, he constructed a violin from scratch using the tools in his father’s workshop, which was said by his sister Elizabeth to produce “tolerably good music.” Elizabeth also told an early biographer of Whitney that the violin her brother made “…was examined by many persons, and all pronounced it to be a remarkable piece of work for such a boy to perform.”
His skills were considered good enough that he was engaged by many members of the community for some time afterward to make repairs to their violins when needed.
War-time demand spawns Whitney’s first significant business
By the age of 14, with the Revolutionary War raging, Whitney started a nail-making business in his father’s workshop, using tools and devices of his own creation.
This was during a time when nails were mostly handmade with little mechanical assistance.
Since the American colonies had imported most of their manufactured goods from England before the war, the manufacturing industry in the colonies was almost nonexistent. The war forced the colonists to rapidly create one, and as numerous buildings were being erected, nails became an item in high demand and commanded a correspondingly high price.
Whitney ran the business successfully by himself over the next two winters, when farm tasks were minimal. Eventually the demand for his nails grew large enough that he hired another worker to assist him.
When the war ended in 1783, Whitney switched production to women’s hat pins. His factory at the time was believed to be one of the only producers of this product in the entire country.
Whitney leaves Westborough
When Whitney expressed his desire to attend Yale College to study law, his father did not approve of his plan because Whitney’s stepmother was opposed to it.
For the next several years Whitney labored as a farm worker and schoolteacher to save money, determined to attend college even without his father’s financial assistance.
At one point he formally petitioned the selectman of Westborough for permission to open a public school with no doubt himself as the teacher.
“Gentlemen,” the petition, written in elaborate cursive script, began, “you are undoubtedly acquainted with my reputation, and as for my penmanship it must speak for itself…”
Whitney attended Leicester Academy – which later became Becker College that closed in 2021 – to prepare himself for the academic rigors of Yale.
Whitney very nearly missed the opportunity to attend Yale when he was stricken with a life-threatening illness of indeterminate origin in the summer of 1788. He underwent surgery, which in itself could cost a person his life given the somewhat primitive practice of medicine in the late 18th century, and he eventually recovered.
He began his studies at Yale in 1789 at 23-years-old, decidedly older than many of his peers and perhaps without the same level of academic preparation some of them had experienced. He graduated three years later, in 1792, as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest honor society in the United States, which typically only accepts the top 10% of a college’s students.
Whitney leaves New England for the south
Running short of money after leaving Yale, Whitney decided against his earlier plan of studying law, and headed for South Carolina, where he had the promise of a job as a private tutor.
On his journey south, he met another New Englander, Catherine Littlefield Greene, the widow of a Revolutionary War veteran, General Nathaniel Greene.
Mrs. Greene had relocated to a plantation outside of Savannah, Georgia, which had been granted to her late husband by the state legislature in appreciation for his service during the war. Whitney accepted her offer to become her long-term guest after he learned his tutor salary was being cut in half and he refused the position.
It was during Whitney’s stay at the plantation that he learned about the business of cotton cultivation and began work on his invention that would transform his life and his nation’s history.