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America First - Lawton Evans

Eli Whitney Invents the Cotton Gin

When we read about the millions of bales of white cotton raised in the South every year, it is hard to believe that cotton itself was considered only a garden plant until after the Revolution. A plantation of thirty acres of cotton near Savannah yielded what was then a very large crop. Just after the war with Great Britain, eight bags of cotton were shipped to England, and were seized by the Custom House officials, on the ground that so much cotton could not be raised in the United States.

The cotton which grows in the uplands of the South is known as short staple cotton, and its lint adheres very closely to the seed. At first this lint had to be picked off by hand, which was a slow process. A man and his family could hardly clean more than eight or ten pounds a day. In case of a large crop, there were not hands enough to separate the lint from the seed. Therefore, cotton was not profitable, and, in consequence, not much of it was raised. In the year 1791, only three hundred and ninety-one bales were exported from the United States.

In 1792, a young man, named Eli Whitney, was living in Georgia, at the home of Mrs. Nathanael Greene, a few miles from Savannah. He was born in Massachusetts, and had just graduated from Yale College. He had come to Savannah to practice law, and to eke out his income by teaching school. Mrs. Greene had invited him to live at her plantation, and to help her with the education of her children.

Whitney had always shown a certain skill in making useful articles, and in mending broken things. Nothing was needed around the Greene house or farm that Whitney could not make; nothing that he could not fix. Mrs. Greene said to him one day, "Mr. Whitney, I believe you can make anything. Sooner or later, you will hit upon a fortune."

One day some visitors expressed their regret that it was such a hard matter to clean the upland cotton; they said it was a pity there was not a machine for that purpose.

Mrs. Greene replied, "There is a young man here who can make anything. His name is Eli Whitney. I believe he could invent a machine for cleaning cotton."

Whitney was sent for, and listened to stories of the trouble the Southern farmers were having with the cotton seed. He had never seen any cotton up to that time, but he cheerfully undertook to work up some scheme. He watched the seed-pickers, and brought some of the ripe cotton-bolls to his room, where he began to pick out the seed himself. He soon thought of a plan for a machine, and set to work building it. It was a hard task, for he had to make his own tools, wire, and nails.

Whitney toiled for several months on his invention, and at last had ready for its trial test his cotton engine, or cotton-gin, as it is called for short. It was a simple device, consisting of a revolving cylinder, covered with short teeth that passed through a stationary comb. The teeth caught the lint, and dragged it through the comb, leaving the seed behind. It was very crude, but even this first gin could do more work than twenty men. All the machines made since that day have adhered to the same idea, though the modern ones are a great improvement on the ones first made.

Mrs. Greene and another friend were the only ones allowed to see Whitney's first gin. They were so delighted when they witnessed how fast this little hand-turning machine could clean the seed, that they could not keep the secret. Others soon heard of it, and one night Whitney's shop was broken open, and his model machine was stolen and carried away.

This was a great blow to Whitney, for, before he could make a new one, and get it patented, other machines, based on his invention, were in operation. In after years, this gave him a great deal of trouble, and, in fact, kept him from making a fortune out of his gin.

A patent was secured for the Whitney cotton-gin in 1794. Soon, others began to claim that they had made gins before Whitney's appeared. Many lawsuits began to dispute Whitney's rights, and the juries did not give the poor inventor much satisfaction. In fact, he spent much money, with little benefit to himself.

At any rate, the world knows that Whitney invented the cotton-gin. As soon as gins could be bought, the farmers began to plant cotton plentifully. By using the gin, they could clean a thousand pounds a day, instead of only eight or ten pounds, as before. Everybody planted cotton, land was cleared for cultivation, slaves were bought to raise the crop, machinery was made to help the farmer, and a great industry was opened to the people of the South, through the genius of this young man. He had studied the needs of the situation, and had applied his good sense to solving the difficulties.