Eli Whitney, American inventor, early 19th century.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
Engraving of Eli Whitney (1765-1825). Whitney is widely credited with the invention of the cotton gin (patented in 1793; 'gin' is short for engine), which was used for separating cotton fibre from cotton seeds prior to spinning. The machine was widely pirated and establishing the validity of his patent left Whitney penniles. However in 1798 Whitney won a government contract for the manufacture of firearms. Although the machinery he developed in order to fulfil this contract had its limitations (for instance, it didn't achieve interchangeability between the components it produced) Whitney did much to popularise the concept of interchangeable manufacture, which was developed into a new system of mas-production.