The History Of The Cotton Gin

The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney made it possible to produce this crop at a much more productive rate. A history on its invention and its impact upon industry and society.

In seventeen ninety-three, approximately one hundred and eighty thousand pounds of cotton was harvested in the United States. Two years later, that harvest grew to more than six million pounds; by eighteen ten, an astounding ninety three million pounds was brought to harvest.

The reason for this growth?

The cotton gin, invented in the latter part of seventeen ninety-three by Eli Whitney.


Born in Westborough, Massachusetts, in seventeen sixty-five, Eli Whitney found an early interest in machinery. Working in his father's woodworking shop, Whitney could be found taking apart such items as pocket watches and clocks, studying the intricate mechanisms and then putting their parts together again.

At the relatively early age of fourteen, he had opened his own nail-making business and then a pin-making shop, earning a fairly good wage for his efforts.

After being graduated from Yale University in seventeen ninety-two, Whitney, in need of money to pay off some outstanding debts, accepted a private tutoring position on a plantation in Georgia owned by a Mrs. Catharine Greene. Because of his interest in mechanics, he took to heart the seriousness of doubts and growing difficulties in cotton production that were presented to him by the local planters. With his experience and success in mechanical problems, Whitney took it upon himself to find a feasible answer to the growers' woes.


Not long after listening to the growers speak of their troubles, Whitney began to experiment and arrived at his basic design of the cotton gin. This machine was created to ease the tremendous burdens of those who labored to pick the seeds from the cotton. Many labored under difficult conditions, and even under good conditions, one could manage to clean only one pound of the crop a day.

With his invention, Whitney made it possible to clean fifty pounds per day.

Whitney had arrived at a basic design: a cylinder, through which the cotton was fed, with wire teeth. The raw cotton from the field could be fed through the cylinder and as it spun round, the teeth would pass through small slits in a piece of wood, pulling the fibers of the cotton all the way through but leaving the unwanted seeds behind.

This crudely made box, with a cylinder, a crank, and a row of saw-like teeth had made it possible to clean fifty times more cotton than could be cleaned by hand.

It is said to have begun the Industrial Revolution, and made an immediate impact upon American industry.


Whitney's cotton gin, with the help of a few men, or mules, cleaned more cotton in a matter of minutes than a team of men could do in an entire day. With the adaptation of James Watt's steam engine to drive the gin, the process became entirely mechanized, leading to a whole new industrial frontier in America.

The largest result of this mechanization was the tumultuous increase in cotton production, which helped to revive a badly lagging economy in the Deep South. Once again farmers and growers were finding profits, thanks to this labor and time saving device.

The industry of farming, however, was about to be changed forever.

Before the invention that changed the way cotton was cleaned and readied for processing, there were only two cash crops, or non-food crops, that were grown in America: tobacco and indigo, which was used in the dye-making process. Although it was abundant, cotton did not prove, before the invention of the gin, anywhere close to being a profitable crop. But with the gin, cotton very quickly began to rival in profit the industry of growing tobacco.

With the advent of the cotton gin, the boundaries of agriculture soon became almost limitless. Cotton, requiring very little more than air to flourish, was soon found growing and thriving in places previously unheard of, such as Texas. Acres of land that had been dormant because of poor growing capabilities were found to be filled with cotton; this land that had been barren for so long now held a very profitable crop that could enhance a grower's finances.

The rules of crop rotation, a farming technique used to give rest to much-abused soil, quickly changed with the coming of the cotton gin, too. Suddenly farmers who had been willing to let sit idle certain sections of their land began growing cotton in the acres set aside for a season of rest.


The economy of the southern states was changed with this new type of agriculture. Quickly the food-farmers were pushed aside in the move to create large and expansive co-op farms. Because so many farmers had switched from growing food to growing cotton, the supply of food had greatly decreased.

Another impact upon the economy was realized with a sudden dependence upon cotton production. Entire communities were without much notice forced to depend upon the price and abundance of a single crop. When the cotton industry stumbled, so, too, did the south. On the other hand, when cotton did well, many farmers would rush to make a gain and overproduce the crop. This sometimes resulted in price drops that proved to be catastrophic to a vast majority of growers.

The issue of slavery was also greatly impacted by the invention of the cotton gin. Prior to this invention, slavery had become less favorable with Americans. Because of the huge numbers of new immigrants to the United States, labor had become cheap enough that many farmers found it necessary to pay. Suddenly, as the gin made dramatically improved ways to produce cotton, the need for labor was made more imperative to the livelihood of those who grew the crop.

Larger and larger fields of cotton were needed to keep up with demand; along with the increased production of the crop was the need for laborers to glean it. The influx of immigrants to America had produced many more laborers for such a task, but these peoples were reluctant to undertake such terrible and difficult work; they could find easier and less painful ways to earn a living. Once again, slave labor was sought by land owners.

Although considered to be among the most important inventions in the role of economics in America, and beyond, the cotton gin also played a social role as its appearance is said to have caused the continuance of slavery in America, until its dissolution at the end of the Civil War.

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