Eli Whitney: How One Man’s Invention Changed America

Modified: 14th Dec 2021
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Abstract

In 1794, U.S.-born inventor Eli Whitney designed and invented the cotton gin. The cotton gin was a simple machine that revolutionized the production of cotton by greatly speeding up the process of removing tiny green seeds from soft, white cotton fibers, making cotton more affordable and profitable. By the mid-19th century, cotton had become America’s leading export, and with the help of Whitney’s cotton gin, America was growing and exporting a large majority of the world's supply of cotton. Although successful, the gin was not a lucrative invention for Whitney due to patent-infringement issues and others attempting to create their own variation of Whitney’s machine. Whitney’s gin, inadvertently, led to an increase in the number of slaves and slaveholders in the South. It also gave Southern plantation owners a justification to maintain and expand slavery even as it was becoming less and less popular throughout America.

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How the Cotton Gin Changed America

Eli Whitney, an American inventor, born on December 8, 1765 in Westborough, Massachusetts, unknowingly invented a simple machine that caused a massive expansion of slavery in the U.S that would arguably play a role in what led to the Civil War. In the late 18th century, cash crops and plantations were on the decline due to soil exhaustion from decades of farming and a loss of interest.  As a solution, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. This simple invention rejuvenated plantation owner’s interests and they turned to cotton farming as a quick way to get rich. The cotton gin was a huge success and catapulted America towards an economic boom. Unfortunately, these enormous plantations required more slaves than ever, leading to conflict between the North and South.  Ultimately, the cotton gin increased tensions between the North and South over the wide use of slavery. Americans were becoming more and more uncomfortable with the use of slaves. This played a large role in the War Between the States.

It is a well-known fact that Eli Whitney invented and patented the first cotton gin that would help begin the Industrial Revolution. For many, the story ends there. However, there is a more interesting yet complicated version of the story that many do not know. Whitney was born in a small farming town of Westborough, Massachusetts where his father learned to be a successful farmer. As a child, Eli learned to make musical instruments and bend metal into nails and knife blades. He also learned to work on his father’s farming equipment. At twenty three years old, he attended Yale College, where he would later graduate with honors (Allott 2014). After graduating from Yale College, Whitney accepted a job to work as a private tutor. While on his way to South Carolina for his new tutoring job, he met Catherine Green, a plantation owner in Savanah, Georgia. He accepted an invitation to stay with her and her husband, Phineas Green where he would learn about cotton production. It was there that he learned how particularly difficult it was to make a living farming cotton.

At the time, cotton was thought to be the best harvest grown for the area. It was disease free and could be stored without spoiling like perishable food crops. The main problem with cotton farming was the removal of the sticky, green seeds found throughout the cotton fibers. On average, a cotton picker could remove the seeds from only about one pound of cotton per day. Whitney would soon build a machine that could remove the troublesome seeds from the cotton fibers. The invention, called the cotton gin, used hooks to pull the cotton fibers across a mesh. The mesh effectively let the seeds through, leaving the soft cotton fiber behind. Smaller versions could be cranked by hand, whereas, larger ones were powered by a horse. As technology improved and the need arose, a much larger version would be powered by a steam engine. Whitney’s smaller, hand-cranked machine could remove the seeds from 50 pounds of cotton in a single day, thus, drastically increasing cotton production and catching the appeal of many farmers.  

In 1974, Whitney finally received a patent for his invention of the cotton gin. With his new patent, he planned to build cotton gins and install them on plantations throughout the South. Whitney and his new business partner, Phineas Miller, would produce as many gins as possible, and install them on farms throughout the Southeast. They decided the best way to make a profit, was to charge farmers a fee for doing the ginning for them. Their charge was two-fifths of the profit (Schur n.d.). Farmers were excited about the idea of a machine that would drastically increase cotton production. However, these farmers, not wanting to pay what was thought as a tax, had no intention of sharing any of their profits with Whitney or Miller. Instead, the idea and design for the cotton gin was copied, and plantation owners built their own machines. Frustrated, Miller attempted to bring law suits against the owners of these pirated versions, but because of poor wording of the 1793 patent act, they were unable to win any suits until 1800, when the law was changed (Schur n.d.)

Joan Brodsky Schur, a teacher at Village Community School, in New York, NY said, “However, like many inventors, Whitney (who died in 1825) could not have foreseen the ways in which his invention would change society for the worse. The most significant of these was the growth of slavery. While it was true that the cotton gin reduced the labor of removing seeds, it did not reduce the need for slaves to grow and pick the cotton. In fact, the opposite occurred. Cotton growing became so profitable for the planters that it greatly increased their demand for both land and slave labor. In 1790 there were six slave states; in 1860 there were 15. From 1790 until Congress banned the importation of slaves from Africa in 1808, Southerners imported 80,000 Africans. By 1860, approximately one in three Southerners was a slave.” (n.d.).  As large plantations spread into the Southwest, the price of slaves and land led to the growth of cities and industries. In the 1850s, seven out of eight immigrants moved to the U.S. and settled in the North. It was there that they found 72% of the nation's manufacturing jobs.

Eli Whitney is commonly recognized as the inventor of the cotton gin; however, he is not commonly credited for the conception of interchangeable parts. Interchangeability was not his original goal; however, it made for more rapid production and repairs (The Factory, n.d.). These new manufactured parts were now being machined and had fewer flaws. At the time, guns were built by individuals, so that each finished rifle was unique and often, imperfect. Whitney discovered how to monetize this by machining muskets, making the parts identical and interchangeable. This made rifle making much easier and quicker. It also required less man hours, thus lowering the cost. As a manufacturer, Whitney finally became wealthy, mass producing muskets for the United States government.

It is thought that Whitney’s ingenious invention of the cotton gin and its production led to large plantations and slavery in the South. It also, however, played a pivotal role in helping create the technology that led to the North winning the Civil War. The mass production of the cotton gin led to tremendous amounts of slave manpower to plant and pick cotton to later be ginned by Whitney’s device. This production concept led Whitney to the idea of mass producing the musket. As cotton farming grew in the south and began spreading westward, slave labor increased concurrently. During this time, many Americans were uncomfortable with the practice of slave trading and their use as farm hands on large planation farms. This drove a large wedge between the North and the South. While the South was booming from farming and the cotton industry, the North was experiencing the same boom in the manufacturing and textile industry. When the War Between the States began, all the rifles, munitions, clothing, etc. was mass produced in the North. This made it very difficult for the South to outfit their soldiers with proper clothing and weaponry, thus giving the North an advantage.

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Eli Whitney may have created one of the single greatest inventions of the Industrial Revolution. However, his invention unknowingly had adverse effects. Arguably, Whitney’s cotton gin led to an increase in slave labor and ultimately, the Civil War. He is most widely known as the inventor of the cotton gin but more importantly, Whitney is credited as the father in the development of the American system of mass-production used today.

References

Allott, D. (2014, September 9). Eli Whitney’s Revolution. Retrieved from http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.libraryresources.columbiasouthern.edu/eds/detail/detail?vid=6&sid=c23eb6bb-f399-44f3-9146-32dd886ba439%40sdc-v-sessmgr02&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#AN=98001816&db=bsu

EliWhitney.org. (n.d.). The Factory. Retrieved February 8, 2020, from http://eliwhitney.org/7/museum/about-eli-whitney/factory

Schur, J. B. (n.d.). Eli Whitney’s Patent for the Cotton Gin. Retrieved February 3, 2020, from https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/cotton-gin-patent

 

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