Born on this day in Westborough, Massachusetts, Eli Whitney (1765-1825), attorney and tutor, is best remembered as the inventor of the cotton gin (short for engine) in 1793.
With the cotton gin, Whitney created a simple way to separate cotton lint from seeds, eliminating the need to hand-pick and separate the fiber from the seeds. Farmers profited and the textile industry soared: Whitney's invention created the art of progress, the art of preserving change amid order.
Cotton became King in the U.S. South. With cotton, an inexpensive, washable fabric, the world had cleaner clothes and greater fashion options. Of course, today's cotton is as cool and natural as blue jeans and as trendy as the GAP's clothing line.
From a historical perspective, when Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, Washington was in the White House, Marie Antoinette kept her appointment with the guillotine, and the Louvre was established as Paris' art gallery.
The innovative Mr. Whitney turned from cotton to muskets, mass producing and standardizing the parts, and beginning a rudimentary assembly line. His inventiveness and skill in the art of progress sparked America's blaze of industrialization.
"Progress," observed philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, "has not followed a straight ascending line, but a spiral with rhythms of progress and retrogression, of evolution and dissolution."
The art of progress is a delicate balance of change and order.