Cotton gin - History of Business in the U.S.Identification: Machine designed to separate cotton seeds from cotton fibers
Date: Patented on March 14, 1794
Significance: By reducing the time required to process raw cotton into usable stock, the cotton gin revolutionized the economy of the antebellum South, quickly establishing cotton as the dominant American export. The corresponding enormous increase in the demand for cotton helped make the institution of slavery an entrenched part of the southern economy. In addition, the problems the gin’s inventor faced exposed significant loopholes in newly enacted U.S. patent legislation.
After the American Revolution, southern planters faced an economic dilemma: The kind of cotton that could be grown abundantly in the vast inland farms of the Deep South, called short-staple, was prohibitive to grow, as an enormous investment of time was required to separate its sticky seedpods from its short, stubby fibers. Eli Whitney, a Massachusettsborn, Yale-educated aspiring lawyer, in 1793 had reluctantly accepted a tutoring post at a Georgia plantation. He was intrigued by the problem presented by short-staple cotton and, working with crude designs for hand-cranked machines that had already been tried, created a working model for a cotton “gin” (short for “engine”). Whitney’s gin pulled the cotton through a series of screen meshes with holes too small for the seeds to pass through, while continuously rotating brushes pulled the fibers cleanly off. Whitney calculated that the hand-cranked machine could clean close to fifty pounds of cotton daily. Whitney applied for and received a government patent in 1794.
By mechanizing the laborious work of separating cotton seeds and fibers, the gin made an immense and immediate impact in the southern economy, which at the time depended largely on tobacco and rice. Recognizing the potential for major profits, Whitney and his partners attempted to establish throughout the Deep South a string of ginning depots, farming centers to which planters could bring their crops for processing. However, because Whitney charged a hefty fee (roughly twofifths of the crop’s profit), farmers quickly took advantage of loosely written patent laws to make minor alterations to the gin’s design and then set up gins on their own property, asserting that their alterations protected them from claims of patent infringement.
Although Whitney saw little profit from his design, the gin revolutionized the South. In each decade leading up to the U.S. Civil War, raw cotton production doubled—an astounding growth record—and by 1860 America was producing threequarters of the world’s supply, helped by corollary developments in transportation, textile processing, and weaving. Bigger and more efficient gins were designed, powered by horses and then by water.
This early drawing of a cotton gin shows African Americans working while two white businessmen examine the ginned cotton. (Library of Congress)
Because the gin so vastly increased the amount of cotton that could be processed, its adoption into the southern economy increased the need for slaves to work cotton plantations. Historians credit the boom in the cotton industry for expanding the number of slave states from six to fifteen. The gin also greatly increased the hardships under which slaves were compelled to live, as plantation owners sought huge profits from increasingly larger crops. The cash crop potential also retarded the South’s urban growth, as farmland was too valuable to convert into cities. It also slowed the evolution of other industries in the region, making the South virtually dependent on the crop. This dependence led ultimately to the Civil War and the economic collapse of the South in the war’s aftermath.
Green, Constance. Eli Whitney and the Birth of American Technology. London: Longman, 1997.
Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Lakwete, Angela. Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in Antebellum America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
See also: agriculture; Civil War, U.S.; American Industrial Revolution; Inventions; Plantation agriculture; Slave era; Slave trading.