Why Was Whitney’s Cotton Gin Important?
Whitney’s cotton gin was exceedingly important as it more than trebled the amount of cotton which could be picked free of seeds in a day. This stimulated the extension of the cotton plantations and the growth of Black slavery in the south of the United States.
In the South, almost the whole region was given over to cotton growing, increasing the value of slaves and reinforcing the slave system, which had been declining. 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.
In that way the cotton gin was indirectly responsible for the American Civil War too. Eli Whitney (1765-1825) was born in Westboro, Massachusetts. After graduating from Yale College in 1792, he became aware of the need for a machine which would separate cotton from its seeds.
The Industrial Revolution was in full flood and inventions such as John Kay’s flying shuttle (1733) and James Hargreaves’s spinning jenny (1769) had created a growing demand for raw cotton as the production of finished goods was now so much faster and easier. Whitney produced, in only a few weeks, a hand-operated machine or gin, and by April 1793 had built a machine that could clean 50 pounds of cotton fibres a day.
It consisted of a wooden cylinder encircled by rows of slender spikes, set half an inch apart, which extended between the bars of a grid set so closely together that the seeds could not pass, although the lint was pulled through by the revolving spikes. A revolving brush cleaned the spikes and the seeds fell into another compartment.
The gin was immediately in great demand. Country blacksmiths helped to fulfill the orders when the factory Whitney set up at New Haven, Connecticut, was unable to cope with all the orders. Whitney applied for a patent on October 28, 1793; the patent was granted on March 14, 1794, but was not validated until 1807.
Whitney’s patent was assigned patent number 72X. There is slight controversy over whether the idea of the modern cotton gin and its constituent elements are correctly attributed to Eli Whitney. The popular image of Whitney inventing the cotton gin is attributed to an article on the subject written in the early 1870s and later reprinted in 1910 in The Library of Southern Literature.
In this article, the author claimed Catherine Littlefield Greene suggested to Whitney the use of a brush-like component instrumental in separating out the seeds and cotton. To date, Greene’s role in the invention of the gin has not been verified independently.
Many contemporary inventors attempted to develop a design that would process short staple cotton, and Hodgen Holmes, Robert Watkins, William Longstreet, and John Murray had all been issued patents for improvements to the cotton gin by 1796.
However, the evidence indicates Whitney did invent the saw gin, for which he is famous. Although he spent many years in court attempting to enforce his patent against planters who made unauthorized copies, a change in patent law ultimately made his claim legally enforceable – too late for him to make much money from the device in the single year remaining before the patent expired.