In 1792, Eli Whitney left his home in Massachusetts to take a job as a tutor on a plantation in Georgia. He had graduated from Yale College and had debts to pay. He took any job he could get.
He learned that cotton growers in the South desperately needed a way to pick cotton faster in order to make money. The South could no longer rely on tobacco to make money. The land had been exhausted and tobacco was overabundant at that time. His employer, Catherine Green, encouraged Eli to try to invent a machine which would separate the sticky green seeds from the fluffy cotton balls. The variety which had the sticky seeds was the most common type of cotton which grew in the south. Another grew along the coast. It was easier to pick. Eli knew that if he could invent a machine to accomplish the task, he could apply to the federal government for a patent. This would mean that for 14 years the product was his and no one could copy it.
Eli had planned to study law. However, throughout the winter, Eli tried various methods to create the machine he needed. He used a small workshop Mrs. Greene set up for him. He invented a small hand-held machine or gin. He also created a larger gin which could be pulled by horses. Eli told his father that one man and a horse using a cotton gin could do more than 50 men.
Eli Whitney and his partner, Phineas Miller, thought about how to make the most money from the cotton gin. They decided that they could make the most money by producing many of these gins and spacing them throughout the south. Farmers would bring their cotton to the gins to be separated. The partners would charge a good price for this service. They wanted to be paid, not in cash, but in cotton.
The farmers were unhappy that they had to pay someone else to do the separating. Cotton planters started to make their own version of the gin. They even called them new inventions. Whitney and his partner sued them because of the patent which Whitney had. They couldn't win any suit until 1800 because of strange wording in the Patent Act of 1793. The law changed in 1800, and they won several suits. The costs of the legal fights had hurt them financially, however. The partners finally agreed to license the gins to several states.
Because of Whitney's invention, the amount of cotton produced doubled every ten years after 1800. Machines were created which could spin the raw cotton. Steamboats came along which could more easily transport the cotton. By 1850, the United States was providing over three-fourths of the world's supply of cotton and exporting it to England and New England. The factories in those places made it into cloth. As the production of tobacco and rice fell, cotton continued to thrive.
Eli Whitney died in 1825. He would not know what negative results occurred because of his invention. Slaves were needed to plant and pick the cotton before the gin was used. Cotton became more profitable to grow, so planters bought more land and, therefore, more slaves. The growth of slavery in the south meant that seven-eighths of the immigrants to the United States lived in the North where they could work. Cities and towns didn't grow in the South. Thus, slavery greatly affected life in the South.
Eli Whitney became rich not because of his invention of the cotton gin, but because of his invention of the method of manufacturing called mass production. In 1798, he figured out how to make rifles by machines which were all the same so that the parts could be interchanged. It is said that this technology helped the North win the Civil War.
To link to this Cotton Gin page, copy the following code to your site: