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Eli Whitney and the History of the Cotton Gin

In the United States, cotton is more than just a fiber used for clothing, coffee filters, towels, and other things. It has, in fact, played an important part in shaping the course of history. Cotton may have had less of an effect, however, if not for the invention of the cotton gin. The cotton gin was a machine that was used to easily and quickly separate cotton from its seeds. Although there is some debate as to who was actually the first to invent the cotton gin, it is Eli Whitney who is most often credited for its invention. In addition, Whitney holds the first patent for the first cotton gin for short-staple cotton in the U.S. At the time that Whitney developed his cotton gin, he could have no concept of the lasting and immense impact that his creation would have. To understand the impact of cotton in the U.S., it is helpful to understand the cotton gin Whitney created.

Who Was Eli Whitney?

Some have dubbed him the "father of American technology," but Eli Whitney has gone down in history for one very specific creation: the cotton gin. Whitney was born in 1765 on December 8 in Westboro, Massachusetts. The inventor had an affinity for creating things even as a youth. During the Revolutionary War, for example, Whitney created a device for making nails, and he would later make hat pins for women's hats. He received his college education at Yale, where he studied from 1789 to 1792. It was after his graduation that he accepted employment at the estate of a widow named Catherine Greene. At Greene's estate, Whitney would create the cotton gin. His invention did not make him a wealthy man, however, as the simplicity of his patented design made it easy to pirate, or duplicate. The inventor would later go on to make muskets with interchangeable parts. He died in 1825.

History of the Cotton Gin

Greene's plantation was a cotton plantation in the South. During his time with Greene, Whitney discovered how slow the process of separating cotton fibers from the sticky seeds was. He also learned that because of this slow pace, cotton was not as profitable for Southern plantations as it should be, particularly for smaller upland plantations, which grew a type of cotton known as short-staple cotton. In efforts to resolve this problem, Whitney came up with the idea of a cotton gin. The gin that Whitney created used pulling hooks or teeth, a screen, and a brush to separate cotton fiber from the seed. The device was operated by the turning of a crank. When the crank was turned, the hooks or teeth would catch the cotton fibers and would pull them through a fine screen or small slots. The seeds were too large for the mesh or slots, so only the cotton would be pulled through. The brushes then removed the cotton from the teeth before the fibers exited the machine. The machine was much swifter than slaves in removing cotton and could do more per day than the plantation's multiple slaves could accomplish manually. The inventor patented his device in 1794.

The Cotton Gin and Slavery

Prior to the invention of the cotton gin, slavery in the United States was headed for its demise. Crops that were dependent on the labor of slaves, such as tobacco and indigo, were decreasing in profitability. This decrease in profitability also included cotton. After the creation and successful implementation of the cotton gin, the demand for cotton began to increase, requiring more land for cotton crops and more slaves to labor over the growing and harvesting of it. As a result, instead of slavery coming to an end, it became stronger than ever in the United States, particularly in the South. In fact, the number of slave states increased, and eventually, one out of every three people in the South were slaves. The need for more land to support the increasing demand also led to the ousting of Native Americans from their lands. Ultimately, the cotton gin and its impact on the course of slavery would lead to the Civil War.

Why the Cotton Gin is Important for Today's Manufacturing

The cotton gin was an important starting point to the Industrial Revolution. Although Whitney's simple cotton gin is a thing of the past, it made today's manufacturing of cotton possible. In fact, modern cotton gins are still an important part of the cotton industry. In the U.S., as much as 43 million tons of cotton is produced annually in states such as Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, and even California. Modern ginning of cotton not only separates the cotton fibers from seeds but also dries and cleans the fibers, removing foreign materials and sticks, and also bales the cotton.