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Monday, August 12, 2019

Of Cotton Gins & Colts

Did you know that, without Eli Whitney, extraordinary mechanical engineer and inventor of the cotton gin, there would be no Colt “Walker” revolvers. In fact, there’d probably be no Colt firearms at all.

From a young age, Whitney showed an amazing aptitude for all things mechanical. That’s how he paid for his Yale education--by fixing machines. After graduation, he planned to teach in order to pay for law school. Instead, he ended up working for the widow of Revolutionary War general Nathanael Green, fixing things on her Georgia plantation and creating a mechanized way to remove the seeds from cotton--the cotton gin for which he is so famous.

Because of widespread pirating of his design and the costly court battles to protect his patent, Whitney never profited from his invention. Discouraged, Whitney turned his amazing mind to the manufacture of firearms, specifically muskets. Up until Whitney, muskets were hand-crafted, made one at a time, each weapon totally unique. That meant if something broke in a gun, the replacement parts had to be handmade to fit that gun. Whitney invented the method by which gun parts were so precisely made that they were interchangeable–and could be mass-produced.

In a demonstration to prove the interchangeability of the gun parts he manufactured, Whitney is said to have put the parts needed to build ten muskets into a pile. When government officials were successful, Whitney, and arms manufacturing, would never be the same. Whitney is credited with pioneering the assembly production line.

In 1841, Whitney Arms Company was placed under the control of Eli Whitney, Jr. Arms making was a competitive business in the United States in the 1840s and success required both technological efficiency and strong entrepreneurial instincts. With the rapid westward movement of the population in the 1830s, the market for firearms grew, a demand which couldn’t be supplied by gun-smiths—craftsmen--who operated on a small scale. In addition, the rise of the urban middle classes in the great eastern cities meant a market was developing for sporting arms, guns used for target-shooting and hunting.

In the 1830s, Samuel Colt had tried his hand at manufacturing, producing around 3000 of his new revolver-style handgun before creditors shut down the Patent Arms Company. Though he lost his factory, Colt still controlled his patents and, in 1846, succeeded in selling a contract for 1,000 revolvers to Captain Samuel H. Walker of the Texas Rangers. Having only six months to deliver on the contract and no factory in which to build them, Colt turned to Eli Whitney, Jr. On July 7, 1843, Colt and Whitney concluded a contract for the production of the Whitneyville Colt—a weapon that would revolutionize the handgun and become famous as the Colt “Walker.”


  1. Fascinating! I'd never connected guns and cotton mills in any way.

  2. Eli Whitney and Sam Colt were revolutionary geniuses. Interesting background in your article. Thank you.

  3. I am absolutely astonished! I knew Eli Whitney invented the Cotton Gin, but not that he revolutionized manufacturing of forearms and was responsible for helping Samuel Colt manufacture his guns to meet the deadline to sell them to the military. Ever wonder how famous guys seem to meet with other famous guys? Just saying...
    What a shame Eli made no real profits from his cotton gin. I hope patents are more respected today.
    Very informative blog, Tracy!