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Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin

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The first mechanical cotton gin was patented by Eli Whitney, an American inventor, in 1794. 

Whitney didn’t invent the idea of separating cotton fibers from cotton seed so much as refine an idea that had been around for awhile. People in other parts of the world had used handheld devices for many years. Whitney it was, however, who put together a series of hooks and brushes and a wire screen that made it so much easier and faster to process cotton. And Whitney’s machine made possible the separation of fiber from seed on a large scale, something with which handheld devices couldn’t compete.

It was all about competition in the American South in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Cotton was grown in many parts of the United States, but it was in the South that cotton was a primary crop for most states. “King Cotton” was in demand in the Northern U.S., in Great Britain, and elsewhere in Europe. The giant textile mills of the Industrial Revolution were continually churning away during this time, and the amount of cotton needed to produce those textiles was quite high.

Whitney, a mechanic who as a young boy had built a violin, graduated from Yale College in 1792 and went to the South to look for work. He learned about cotton production while staying on the plantation owned by Catherine Greene, whose husband had died in the Revolutionary War. 

The plantation, named Mulberry Grove, was near Savannah, Ga. Some historians think that the cotton gin was Greene’s idea and that Whitney served as builder and patent applicant (since women at the time were unable in their own right to apply for patents).

Whitney, together with Greene’s plantation manager, Phineas iIller, formed a production company and began building cotton gins. The demand for these machines soon went through the roof.

Cotton is made up of seed pods (“bolls”). In a boll, seeds and fibers are interwined, sometimes tightly so. Separating the fibers from the seeds, in order to use the fibers for things like clothing, was painstaking work, even with a handheld separating device, which would have been only marginally faster than doing the work totally by hand. Whitney’s machine, however, took away the need for human hands, except for those needed to run the machines (including, initially, operating the hand crank) and process the results. 

On a base consisting of a wooden cylinder, small wire hooks complemented a larger wire screen that pulled cotton through the ginning “ribs” of the machine. (“Gin” was the verb used to describe the action of processing the cotton. Some sources say that “gin” was a shortened form of “engine” – so “cotton gin” was a colloquial way of saying “cotton engine.”) The grid-like screen had very little space in between the parts, so seeds couldn’t pass through. At the same time, brushes removed the resulting lint, so the machine wouldn’t jam. 

Whitney’s machine could clean 50 pounds of cotton a day; a machine typically needed, at most, three people to run it. Previously, using human labor to do the separation, the daily potential for one person was one pound. According to one source, the 1830 production level of cotton in the U.S. was 750,000 bales and the production level in 1850, when the cotton gin was much more widespread, was 2.85 million bales. Many historians list cotton at this time as America’s largest crop.

The removal of human labor from the separation of fiber from seeds and the increased production possibility of the machine made possible a greater amount of cotton fiber produced, which, in turn, created a greater possibility to fill an already great demand. As a result, even more human labor was needed to pick the cotton out of the fields in the first place.

A large part of Southern agriculture at this time was plantation-oriented, and a large part of the Southern agricultural labor force at this time was provided by people who were enslaved. And as demand for cotton rose, demand for people to grow and pick cotton and look after the cotton machines rose, and so the number of people enslaved to work on those plantations also rose. One estimate is that in 1790, cotton-producing slaves numbered 700,000 and by 1850 the number had risen to 3.2 million.

As a result, some historians view the popularization of the cotton gin as an indirect cause of the American Civil War.

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