Special Tercentennial Issue
Distinguished Graduates
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Eli Whitney

B.A. 1792


Entering Yale in 1789 at the age of 23, Eli Whitney must have stood out from his classmatesand not only for his age. This was a young man who had worked since boyhood and continued to do so in order to pay for his education. During the Revolutionary War the 15-year-old had set up a nail factory. When nail imports resumed he made hairpins, and thereafter walking sticks.

Necessity would require considerable invention in the years ahead. After a highly successful Yale career, Whitney turned up unemployed in Georgia, where he was asked to help find a mechanical means of ginning cotton.

He realized little profit from his most famous invention, and in fact, between initial complaints about the product and the constant infringement of his patent, he and his backer were nearly ruined. Just when his fortunes improved, his application to renew the expiring patent was denied. The inventor went back to the drawing board.

In New Haven Whitney set up a small arms manufacturing facility at the foot of East Rock, at the town line on what is now Whitney Avenue. A century before Henry Ford, Whitney’s innovations focused on process as well as product.

He instituted the assembly line and the division of labor, which “reduced a complex business, embracing many ramifications, almost to a mere succession of simple processes.”

Whitney was at last able to marry and raise a family. His business prospered, and late in life he contributed $500 to Yale to provide books on the subject of mechanics.