Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin

Early History of Cotton

Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin
Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1794. Mary Bellis

The many species of the cotton plant are indigenous to Asia, Africa, and the Americas, and the manufacture of the cotton fiber into yarn and cloth developed independently in each of them. Cotton in India fifteen hundred years before Christ.

Vegetable Wool

Alexander the Great introduced vegetable wool (cotton) into Europe. The fable of the "vegetable lamb of Tartary" persisted down to modern times. The Moors cultivated cotton in Spain on an extensive scale.
The East India Company imported cotton fabrics into England early in the seventeenth century, and these fabrics sold in spite of the bitter opposition of the wool manufacturers, which at times was strong enough to have the use of cotton cloth prohibited by law. It was in Manchester that cotton manufacturing finally became accepted in England. The Manchester spinners, however, used linen for their warp threads, for without machinery they could not spin threads sufficiently strong from the short-fibered Indian cotton.

In the New World the Spanish explorers found cotton and cotton fabrics in use everywhere. Columbus, Cortes, Pizarro, Magellan, and others speak of the various uses to which the fiber was put, and admired the striped awnings and the colored mantles made by the natives. It seems probable that cotton was in use in the New World quite as early as in India.

Cotton Comes To America

The first English settlers in America found little or no cotton among the natives.
But they soon began to import the fiber from the West Indies, whence came also the plant itself into the congenial soil and climate of the Southern colonies. During the colonial period, however, cotton never became the leading crop, hardly an important crop. Cotton could be grown profitably only where there was an abundant supply of exceedingly cheap labor, and labor in America, white or black, was never and could never be as cheap as in India.
American slaves could be much more profitably employed in the cultivation of rice and indigo.

Cotton in the South

Three varieties of the cotton plant were grown in the South. Two kinds of the black-seed or long-staple variety thrived in the sea-islands and along the coast from Delaware to Georgia, but only the hardier and more prolific green-seed or short-staple cotton could. be raised inland. The labor of cultivating and harvesting cotton of any kind was very great. The fiber, growing in bolls resembling a walnut in size and shape, had to be taken by hand from every boll, as it has to be today, for no satisfactory cotton harvester has yet been invented. But in the case of the green-seed or upland cotton, the only kind which could ever be cultivated extensively in the South, there was another and more serious obstacle in the way, namely, the difficulty of separating the fiber from the seeds.

Continue > Inventions That Shaped the History of Cotton

No machine yet devised could perform this tedious and unprofitable task. For the black-seed or sea-island cotton, the churka, or roller gin, used in India from time immemorial, drawing the fiber slowly between a pair of rollers to push out the seeds, did the work imperfectly, but this churka was entirely useless for the green-seed variety, the fiber of which clung closely to the seed and would yield only to human hands.

The quickest and most skillful pair of hands could separate only a pound or two of lint from its three pounds of seeds in an ordinary working day. Usually the task was taken up at the end of the day, when the other work was done. The slaves sat round an overseer who shook the dozing and nudged the slow. It was also the regular task for a rainy day. It is not surprising, then, that cotton was scarce, that flax and wool in that day were the usual textiles, that in 1783 wool furnished about seventy-seven per cent, flax about eighteen per cent, and cotton only about five per cent of the clothing of the people of Europe and the United States.

Cotton Inventions

That series of inventions designed for the manufacture of cloth, and destined to transform Great Britain, the whole world, in fact, was already completed in Ben Franklin's time.

Beginning with the flying shuttle of John Kay in 1738, followed by the spinning jenny of James Hargreaves in 1764, the water-frame of Richard Arkwright in 1769, and the mule of Samuel Crompton ten years later, machines were provided which could spin any quantity of fiber likely to be offered.

And when, in 1787, Edmund Cartwright, clergyman and poet, invented the self-acting loom to which power might be applied, the series was complete. These inventions, supplementing the steam engine of James Watt, made the Industrial Revolution. They destroyed the system of cottage manufactures in England and gave birth to the great textile establishments of today.

The mechanism for the production of cloth on a great scale was provided, if only the raw material could be found.

The Birth of Eli Whitney

The romance of cotton begins on a New England farm. It was on a farm in the town (township) of Westboro, in Worcester County, Massachusetts, in the year 1765, that Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, was born. Eli's father was a man of substance and standing in the community, a mechanic as well as a farmer, who occupied his leisure in making articles for his neighbors. We are told that young Eli displayed a passion for tools almost as soon as he could walk, that he made a violin at the age of twelve and about the same time took his father's watch to pieces surreptitiously and succeeded in putting it together again so successfully as to escape detection. He was able to make a table knife to match the others of a broken set. As a boy of fifteen or sixteen, during the War of Independence, he was supplying the neighborhood with hand-made nails and various other articles. Though he had not been a particularly apt pupil in the schools, he conceived the ambition of attending college; and so, after teaching several winters in rural schools, he went to Yale. He appears to have paid his own way through college by the exercise of his mechanical talents. He is said to have mended for the college some imported apparatus which otherwise would have had to go to the old country for repairs. "There was a good mechanic spoiled when you came to college," he was told by a carpenter in the town. There was no "Sheff" at Yale in those days to give young men like Whitney scientific instruction; so, defying the bent of his abilities, Eli Whitney went on with his academic studies, graduated in 1792, at the age of twenty-seven, and decided to be a teacher or perhaps a lawyer.

Continue > Eli Whitney on His Life as an Inventor

Like so many young New Englanders of the time, Eli Whitney sought employment in the South. Having received the promise of a position in South Carolina, he embarked at New York, soon after his graduation, on a sailing vessel bound for Savannah. On board he met the widow of General Nathanael Greene of Revolutionary fame, and this lady invited him to visit her plantation at Mulberry Grove, near Savannah.

What happened then is best told by Eli Whitney himself, in a letter to his father, written at New Haven, after his return from the South some months later, though the spelling master will probably send Whitney to the foot of the class:

Eli Whitney's Letter to His Father

New Haven, Sept. 11th, 1793.

"I went from North York with the family of the late Major General Greene to Georgia. I went immediately with the family to their Plantation about twelve miles from Savannah with an expectation of spending four or five days and then proceed into Carolina to take the school as I have mentioned in former letters. During this time I heard much said of the extreme difficulty of ginning Cotton, that is, seperating it from its seeds. There were a number of very respectable Gentlemen at Mrs. Greene's who all agreed that if a machine could be invented which would clean the cotton with expedition, it would be a great thing both to the Country and to the inventor.

I involuntarily happened to be thinking on the subject and struck out a plan of a Machine in my mind, which I communicated to Miller (who is agent to the Executors of Genl. Greene and resides in the family, a man of respectibility and property), he was pleased with the Plan and said if I would pursue it and try an experiment to see if it would answer, he would be at the whole expense, I should loose nothing but my time, and if I succeeded we would share the profits.

Previous to this I found I was like to be disappointed in my school, that is, instead of a hundred, I found I could get only fifty Guineas a year. I however held the refusal of the school untill I tried some experiments. In about ten Days I made a little model, for which I was offered, if I would give up all right and title to it, a Hundred Guineas. I concluded to relinquish my school and turn my attention to perfecting the Machine. I made one before I came away which required the labor of one man to turn it and with which one man will clean ten times as much cotton as he can in any other way before known and also cleanse it much better than in the usual mode. This machine may be turned by water or with a horse, with the greatest ease, and one man and a horse will do more than fifty men with the old machines. It makes the labor fifty times less, without throwing any class of People out of business."

"I returned to the Northward for the purpose of having a machine made on a large scale and obtaining a Patent for the invintion. I went to Philadelphia (then the national capital)soon after I arrived, made myself acquainted with the steps necessary to obtain a Patent, took several of the steps and the Secretary of State Mr. Jefferson agreed to send the Pattent to me as soon it could be made out--so that I apprehended no difficulty in obtaining the Patent--Since I have been here I have employed several workmen in making machines and as soon as my business is such that I can leave it a few days, I shall come to Westboro.

I think it is probable I shall go to Philadelphia again before I come to Westboro', and when I do come I shall be able to stay but few days. I am certain I can obtain a patent in England...continue"

Continue > The Public Reaction to the Cotton Gin

"...As soon as I have got a Patent in America I shall go with the machine which I am now making, to Georgia, where I shall stay a few weeks to see it at work. From thence I expect to go to England, where I shall probably continue two or three years. How advantageous this business will eventually prove to me, I cannot say. It is generally said by those who know anything about it, that I shall make a Fortune by it.

I have no expectation that I shall make an independent fortune by it, but think I had better pursue it than any other business into which I can enter. Something which cannot be foreseen may frustrate my expectations and defeat my Plan; but I am now so sure of success that ten thousand dollars, if I saw the money counted out to me, would not tempt me to give up my right and relinquish the object. I wish you, sir, not to show this letter nor communicate anything of its contents to any body except My Brothers and Sister, enjoining it on them to keep the whole a profound secret."

The Cotton Gin

The invention, however, could not be kept "a profound secret," for knowledge of it was already out in the cotton country. Eli Whitney's hostess, Mrs. Greene, had shown the wonderful machine to some friends, who soon spread the glad tidings, and planters, near and far, had come to Mulberry Grove to see it.

The machine was of very simple construction; any blacksmith or wheelwright, knowing the principle of the design, could make one. Even before Eli Whitney could obtain his patent, cotton gins based on his were being manufactured and used.

Eli Whitney - Patent and Partner Phineas Miller

Eli Whitney received his patent in March, 1794, and entered on his new work with enthusiasm. His partner, Phineas Miller, was a cultivated New England gentleman, a graduate of Yale College, who, like Eli Whitney, had sought his fortune as a teacher in the South. He had been a tutor in the Greene household and on General Greene's death had taken over the management of his estates. He afterwards married Mrs. Greene. The partners decided to manufacture the machines in New Haven, Whitney to give his time to the production, Miller to furnish the capital and attend to the firm's interests in the South.

Commercializing the Cotton Gin

At the outset the partners blundered seriously in their plan for commercializing the invention. They planned to buy seed cotton and clean it themselves; also to clean cotton for the planters on the familiar toll system, as in grinding grain, taking a toll of one pound of cotton out of every three. "Eli Whitney's plan in Georgia," says a recent writer, "as shown by his letters and other evidence, was to own all the gins and gin all the cotton made in the country. It is but human nature that this sort of monopoly should be odious to any community." Miller appears to have calculated that the planters could afford to pay for the use of the new invention about one-half of all the profits they derived from its use. An equal division, between the owners of the invention on the one hand and the cotton growers on the other, of all the super-added wealth arising from the invention, seemed to him fair. Apparently the full meaning of such an arrangement did not enter his mind. Perhaps Miller and Whitney did not see at first that the new invention would cause a veritable industrial revolution, or that the system they planned, if it could be made effective, would make them absolute masters of the cotton country, with the most stupendous monopoly in the world. Nor do they appear to have realized that, considering the simple construction of their machine and the loose operation of the patent law at that time, the planters of the South would never submit to so great a tribute as they proposed to exact. Their attempt in the first instance to set up an unfair monopoly brought them presently into a sea of troubles, which they never passed out of, even when they afterwards changed their tack and offered to sell the machines with a license, or a license alone, at a reasonable price.

Continue > Eli Whitney's Patent Battle[/link

Misfortune pursued the partners from the beginning. Eli Whitney writes to his father from New Haven in May, 1794, that his machines in Georgia are working well, but that he apprehends great difficulty in manufacturing them as fast as they are needed. In March of the following year he writes again, saying that his factory in New Haven has been destroyed by fire: "When I returned home from N. York I found my property all in ashes!

My shop, all my tools, material and work equal to twenty finished cotton machines all gone. The manner in which it took fire is altogether unaccountable." Besides, the partners found themselves in distress for lack of capital. Then word came from England that the Manchester spinners had found the ginned cotton to contain knots, and this was sufficient to start the rumor throughout the South that Eli Whitney's gin injured the cotton fiber and that cotton cleaned by them was worthless. It was two years before this ghost was laid. Meanwhile Whitney's patent was being infringed on every hand. "They continue to clean great quantities of cotton with Lyon's Gin and sell it advantageously while the Patent ginned cotton is run down as good for nothing," writes Miller to Eli Whitney in September, 1797. Miller and Eli Whitney brought suits against the infringers but they could obtain no redress in the courts.

Eli Whitney Dispairs

Eli Whitney's attitude of mind during these troubles is shown in his letters. He says the statement that his machines injure the cotton is false, that the source of the trouble is bad cotton, which he ventures to think is improved fifty per cent by the use of his gin, and that it is absurd to say that the cotton could be injured in any way in the process of cleaning. "I think," he says, writing to Miller, "you will be able to convince thecandid that this is quite a mistaken notion and them that will n ot believe may be damn'd." Again, writing later to his friend Josiah Stebbins in New England: "I have a set of the most Depraved villains to combat and I might almost as well go tohell in search ofhappiness as apply to a Georgia Court for Justice." And again: "You know I always believed in the 'depravity of humane nature.' I thought I was long ago sufficiently 'grounded and stablished' in this Doctrine. But God Almighty is continually pouring down cataracts of testimony upon me to convince me of this fact. 'Lord I believe, help thou,' not 'mine unbelief,' but me to overcome the rascality of mankind." His partner Miller, on the other hand, is inclined to be more philosophical and suggests to Whitney that "we take the affairs of this world patiently and that the little dust which we may stir up about cotton may after all not make much difference with our successors one hundred, much less one thousand years hence." Miller, however, finally concluded that, "the prospect of making anything by ginning in this State [Georgia] is at an end. Surreptitious gins are being erected in every part of the country; and the jurymen at Augusta have come to an understanding among themselves, that they will never give a verdict in our favor, let the merits of the case be as they may."

Continue > Licensing the Cotton Gin