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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 14: Forging the National Economy, 1790 - 1860


Eli Whitney (1765 - 1825)

Whitney was the American inventor whose two major innovationsthe cotton gin and the system of interchangeable partsrevolutionized the American economy.

He did not care for school, preferring to spend his time making and fixing things in his fathers shop. Whitney once took his fathers watch completely apart and reassembled it without his father discovering the deed. For a time he supported himself by manufacturing nails and hatpins.

He earned money to attend Yale by fixing things around the college. One campus carpenter allegedly said, There was a good mechanic spoiled when you went to college.

He built the first cotton gin in ten days and a larger model in a year. The original machine was stolen, and imitations were produced; it took Whitney many years of legal battles to gain the sole patent for the device.

Quote: There were a number of very respectable Gentlemen at Mrs. Greenes who all agreed that if a machine could be invented which would clean the cotton with expedition, it would be a great thing both to the country and to the inventor.I concluded to relinquish my school and turn my attention to perfecting the Machine. I made one before I came away which required the labor of one man to turn it and with which one man will clean ten times as much cotton as he can in any other way before known. (Letter to his father, 1793)

REFERENCE: Constance M. Green, Eli Whitney and the Birth of American Technology (1956).


Robert Fulton (1765 - 1815)

Fulton is best known in America for his development of the steamboat, but he was also a successful artist and an inventor of the submarine and the torpedo.

As a boy, Fulton became a skilled gunsmith, and in school he made his own pencils. He liked to fish but hated to row boats, so at fourteen he devised a paddle wheel to move the boat by foot.

A talented artist, he studied in London under Benjamin West and was earning a successful living by painting before he turned to mechanics and engineering.

He first worked in Britain on iron aqueducts and bridges, then went to France, where he built a diving boat, the Nautilus, which could stay underwater for four hours. But Napoleon lost interest in the device when it proved unable to sink British shipping.

His first steamboat sank on the Seine, but a second model, built in 1803, was successful. This became the prototype for the Clermont.

Quote: When [the Clermont] came so near that the noise of the machine and paddles were heardsome prostrated themselves and besought Providence to protect them from the approach of the horrible monster which was marching on the wave and lighting its path by spitting fire. (Newspaper account of the Clermonts first voyage, 1807)

REFERENCE: Kirkpatrick Sale, Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream (2001).


Samuel F. B. Morse (1791 - 1872)

Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, was also a superb American painter and was for a time a leader of nativist agitation.

He studied painting in England, with some of his work winning prizes in the Royal Academy competitions. He returned to Boston in 1815 but discovered that he could earn a living only by painting portraits. After Congress rejected his plan to paint the Capitol rotunda, he reluctantly abandoned art and turned to inventing.

From his time in Europe he had developed a strong dislike of Catholicism, and in the 1830s he was a leader of American anti-Catholic agitation.

He developed the first ideas for the telegraph from hearing lectures on electricity. But it took several years of experimentation to perfect the sending and receiving devices and to develop his Morse code for communicating messages by short and long signals. He was in continual poverty and was nearly at the point of abandoning the project when Congress finally authorized funds for the successful Baltimore-to-Washington line.

Quote: If the presence of electricity can be made visible in any part of an electric circuit closed by an electromagnet, I see no reason why intelligence may not be transmitted instantaneously by electricity. (1832)

REFERENCE: Carleton Mabee, American Leonardo: A Life of Samuel F. B. Morse (1943).



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