Fathers of Invention

You may remember Eli Whitney as the inventor of the cotton gin, but there was so much more to him worth noting. Mr Whitney, born in Massachusetts and a 1792 graduate of Yale, was a father of invention. More common than you would think, fathers of invention are the minds and hands behind many of the changes that have shaped our world over the ages.
My wife and I were chatting about Mr. Whitney last night and I took a few minutes this morning to search the internet for more information about his life and legacy. I came across a children’s museum located on a property in Connecticut that Whitney had purchased centuries earlier. The Eli Whitney Museum’s website described an interesting part of Whitney’s story that I, being infamous for losing at Trivial Pursuit, had never heard before:

On September 17th 1798, Eli Whitney purchased the land around the museum. He sought its water rights. East Rock and Mill Rock form the first practical site north of New Haven to harness waterpower. There had been grain mills here for the first 150 years since New Haven’s founding. Whitney came here to build a factory.

Though just 33 years old Whitney had won fame –though no fortune– as the inventor of the cotton gin. The gin had had ignited a revolution in cotton production that swept past its inexperienced benefactor.
Whitney would begin again. On June 14th,1798, Whitney signed a bold contract with a government headed by still familiar names: Adams was President, Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State. Whitney promised to produce 10,000 muskets in just two years. It was the largest contract with a private armory that our young nation had ever written.

It was a bold contract because no Armory on this continent had ever produced even 1500 muskets in a year. It was a bold contract because Whitney had no factory and no gunsmiths. It was a bold contract because Whitney had never before produced a musket.

Out of necessity, Whitney had a bold plan. New ways of producing things had taken root in Europe. Whitney would install new ways of producing things on this site. These mark the beginnings of the American Industrial Revolution. Whitney’s daring, his willingness to test new ideas, his confidence in his ingenuity and his drive to succeed in the face of setbacks would become the hallmarks of the Inventive Yankee. Whitney invented himself. He established our vision that we can invent change.

You’ve probably heard it said that small business is the backbone of America. The facts back up the claim. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, small firms represent:
  • 99.7 percent of all employer firms
  • Employ half of all private sector employees
  • Pay 45 percent of total U.S. private payroll
  • Have generated 60-80 percent of net new jobs annually over the last decade

Much to my delight, the recent elections have resulted in a Congress that is apparently filled with more small business owners than ever. This bodes well for the American economy. The main issues in this year’s elections – taxes, government spending, job creation and health care reform – must be handled with an uncommon pragmatism.

Small business owners live in a world where resources are finite, where money cannot simply be printed and where borrowing is limited and resources are precious. Small business owners aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves when the going gets tough. Most importantly, small business owners hold fast to the vision that “we can invent change.”

I hope for the sake of our Great Nation that those recently elected bring the small business discipline to the management of the affairs of state.

Don’t you?

8 thoughts on “Fathers of Invention

  1. Marianne Branson

    Great history lesson with an intelligent take on present and future implications for business and politics. Thanks for the refreshing post!

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  2. Kimberly

    I hope the future generations will look on us as we do Eli Whitney and the founding fathers. Their courageous actions, long term vision and commitment to the peace and prosperity of future generations is deeply appreciated. Just bought a book about Mr. Whitney’s life, thanks.

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  3. Doug

    Yes, yes, yes to that!!!!
    Let’s see if our newly elected officials can bring the same fiscal responsibility that small business owners have to adhere to if we want to stay in business.
    When earmarks for “bridges to no where” or bridges that no one uses, are impossible to even suggest; when funding for a commission set up to promote the 1996 Olympics is automatically finished when the games are over but not still being funded in 2010, then we will be able to balance our budget. You would be fired if you did this in a small business.
    Maybe they should watch the movie “Dave” when the accountant looks at the national budget!
    This is not impossible but it is going to take initiative, courage and integrity to change the entrenched way of doing things in government.
    Thanks Gregg great post. The people have spoken will government listen?

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  4. Reina

    Amen Gregg! What a great post. The courageous small business owners who take on the challenge of creation will be a nice addition to the congress, let’s hope that their tenacity leads this country into more productive waters.

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  5. Colin

    I’ll bet he was able to produce those muskets on time. What an amazing story. Whitney saw something that needed doing and figured out a way for it to be done. That is the beauty of entrepreneurship. If there is no need for your service, or you can’t do it efficiently, you’re sunk. But if you have the gumption to handle the risk, there is a lot of innovation that has yet to happen. Great story!

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