Cotton Gin: Unintended Consequences

"Eli Whitney," portrait of the inventor, oil on canvas, by the American painter Samuel F. B. Morse. 35 7/8 in. x 27 3/4 in. Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
Eli Whitney, portrait by Samuel F. B. Morse (Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1794, Eli Whitney was granted a patent for his cotton gin.

Here are some things you may not know about Whitney and his invention.

Eli Whitney was born in Massachusetts in 1765. He went into business early in life manufacturing nails in his father’s workshop during the Revolutionary War. He began college at Yale at the age of 23, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1792. After college, he traveled to Georgia, where he met plantation manager Phineas Miller, who became his business partner.

The next year, Whitney invented the cotton gin, which is a machine that separates the seeds from the fibers of cotton. Without a machine to do this, it is an extremely labor-intensive process. The gin, which is short for engine, consisted of a wooden drum with hooks on the outside that pulled cotton through a filter. The fibers fit through the filter, but the seeds did not. The machine revolutionized the business of cotton production, both for   better and for the worse. The year the gin was invented, the United States exported 500,000 pounds of cotton a year. Seventeen years later, the country exported 93 million pounds, becoming the country’s chief export.

Which brings us to the major negative effect of the cotton gin: Slavery.

Before the cotton gin, slave labor was used mostly in growing tobacco, rice and indigo, businesses that weren’t particularly profitable at the time. Cotton wasn’t very profitable either, until the invention of the cotton gin.

The total number of enslaved African-Americans increased almost 400 percent between 1790 and 1850, despite the importation of slaves being made illegal in 1808. Because of this, the cotton gin is sometimes cited as an indirect cause of the American Civil War.

Whitney planned to build cotton gins and then go into business processing cotton for the growers. His price, was 20 percent of the total cotton produced. This high price, combined with the relative simplicity of the invention, meant knockoffs would be inevitable. In fact, Whitney and Miller spent so much money fighting patent infringement that the company went out of business three years after the patent was granted.

Whitney would go on to work on creating guns with interchangeable parts, at the time the holy grail of the arms business. His business ended up achieving interchangeability, but was not the first.

Eli Whitney died of prostate cancer in 1825 at the age of 58.

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