Background In 1794, U. S. born inventor Eli Whitney (1765-1825)

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Eli Whitney, the Cotton Gin, and Inter-changeable Parts


In 1794, U.S.-born inventor Eli Whitney (1765-1825) patented (got official credit for) the cotton gin, a machine that revolutionized the production of cotton by greatly speeding up the process of removing seeds from cotton fiber. By the mid-19th century (1850’s), cotton had become America’s leading export … his invention offered Southern planters a justification (an argument) to maintain and expand slavery even as a growing number of Americans supported its abolition (getting rid of it). Based in part on his reputation for creating the cotton gin, Whitney later secured a major contract to build muskets for the U.S. government. Through this project, he promoted the idea of interchangeable parts–standardized, identical parts that made for faster assembly and easier repair of various devices. For his work, he is credited as a pioneer of American manufacturing.

In many ways, cotton was an ideal crop; it was easily grown, and unlike food crops its fibers could be stored for long periods of time. But cotton plants contained seeds that were difficult to separate from the soft fibers. The vast majority of cotton farmers were forced to grow the more labor-intensive short-staple cotton, which had to be cleaned painstakingly by hand, one plant at a time. The average cotton picker could remove the seeds from only about one pound of short-staple cotton per day.

A More Efficient Way

[Eli Whitney] … built a machine that could effectively and efficiently remove the seeds from cotton plants. The invention, called the cotton gin (“gin” was derived from “engine”), worked something like a strainer or sieve: Cotton was run through a wooden drum embedded with a series of hooks that caught the fibers and dragged them through a mesh. The mesh was too fine to let the seeds through but the hooks pulled the cotton fibers through with ease. Smaller gins could be cranked by hand; larger ones could be powered by a horse and, later, by a steam engine. Whitney’s hand-cranked machine could remove the seeds from 50 pounds of cotton in a single day.

Whitney received a patent for his invention in 1794.

One inadvertent (unintended) result of the cotton gin’s success, however, was that it helped strengthen slavery in the South. Although the cotton gin made cotton processing less labor-intensive, it helped planters earn greater profits, prompting them to grow larger crops, which in turn required more people. Because slavery was the cheapest form of labor, cotton farmers simply acquired (got) more slaves.

Visual: This set of maps shows the immediate growth in the number of slaves and the expansion of slavery to new areas in the years immediately following the creation of the cotton gin.

Whitney Moves On

Patent-law issues prevented Whitney from ever significantly profiting from the cotton gin; however, in 1798, he secured a contract from the U.S. government to produce 10,000 muskets in two years, an amount that had never been manufactured in such a short period. Whitney promoted the idea of interchangeable parts–standardized, identical parts that would make for faster assembly as well as easier repair of various objects and machines. At the time, guns were typically built individually by skilled craftsmen, so that each finished device was unique. Although it ultimately took Whitney some 10 years, instead of two, to fulfill his contract, he was credited with playing a pioneering role in the development of the American system of mass-production.

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