Ken Burns Classroom

Eli Whitney

Ken Burns Film: The Civil War

Collections: Civil War and Reconstruction (1861-1877)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 6-12

Portrait of Eli Whitney by Samuel Morse
“Eli Whitney,” portrait of the inventor by Samuel Morse. Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.


Engineer Eli Whitney died 35 years before the Civil War, but his most famous invention, the cotton gin, set the economic stage for war. Whitney’s gin made cotton production far more efficient, fueling the need for more Southern slaves and enriching powerful planters. Another Whitney invention – muskets with interchangeable components – inaugurated manufacturing systems for producing uniform parts, without which the U.S. economy might never have produced enough weapons to fight such a lengthy war.

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