Cotton Gin 01 Eli Whitney

Dig Deeper: Why did the invention of the cotton gin increase the number of slaves?

Before Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin, picking and cleaning cotton was a slow, labor-intensive job. Workers, usually slaves, had to pick the seeds from the cotton fibers by hand. Some cotton farmers used a type of cotton gin, but it wasn’t very effective and broke often.
Southern planters (cotton grew best in warm climates) were desperate for a more efficient way to take the seeds from cotton fibers, called ginning. Whitney, who worked as a tutor for a plantation owner in Georgia, decided to try and invent such a machine. Within months, and with financial help from his employer, Whitney came up with a workable, efficient cotton gin.
Whitney applied for a patent for his gin with the U.S. government. In his application, he wrote “…if turned with horses or water, two persons will clean as much cotton in one day as a hundred could clean in the same time with the gins now in common use.”
Use of the new gin quickly spread across the South. This invention made it possible to grow large amounts of cotton on big farms and make money. So even though the cotton gin meant less people or slaves had to operate it, it made growing cotton more profitable so that more and more people planted more and more cotton. This meant they needed more slaves.
In 1793, when Whitney patented his gin, there were 188,000 pounds of cotton grown for markets in the U.S. By 1810, there were 93 million pounds of cotton produced. This affected the growth of slavery. In 1790, there were 657,000 slaves in southern states. By 1810, there were almost 1.3 million.
Cotton became the money crop in the South, replacing tobacco. By the mid-1800s, America was producing three-fourths of the world’s supply of cotton. It was shipped to New England or England where mills turned it into cloth.
Ironically, Whitney didn’t make a lot of money from his invention. Planters made their own gins using his designs. And since the law didn’t protect inventers as much as it does today, Whitney was unable to get money from people who stole his invention. But Whitney is also seen as the father of the mass production method. He designed muskets with interchangeable parts so that machines could manufacture the weapons. He did become rich from this.

Picture Credits:
  • A drawing of Eli Whitney.  Courtesy of the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop

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