Teacher's Guide Eli Whitney & the Cotton Gin

Click here to see a Quicktime video of a roller gin demonstration from the Smithsonian's Hands-
On-History Room.

Eli Whitney, the
Cotton Gin and Early Cotton Manufacturing : Fact File & Intensive Student Activity  

A Note From Ms Sarah Tanner, a dedicated Educator:
As an avid history enthusiast and the project coordinator for our history club (we're just outside
of Jericho, VT!) I've found it to be very helpful! Right now, our club is learning about Eli Whitney and
the cotton gin.

One of the younger members passed this page along to me -

It's an interesting read and a great addition to our history session...... I was hoping you could include
that page on your website? I wanted to show the History Club that their efforts have reached outside
of our community.

I personally have had a look at the recommended link and do believe it is a valuable resource.  
Thank you Sarah and members of the History Club for taking the time to share this information.

A Cotton Gin (short for cotton engine) is a machine that quickly and easily separates the cotton
fibers from the seedpods and the sometimes sticky seeds, a job previously done by workers.
These seeds are either used again to grow more cotton or, if badly damaged, are disposed of. It
uses a combination of a wire screen and small wire hooks to pull the cotton through the screen,
while brushes continuously remove the loose cotton lint to prevent jams. The term "gin" is an
abbreviation for engine, and means "machine". Eli Whitney also had the idea for interchangeable
parts which was later implemented by weapons manufacturers and industry at large.


According to Joseph Needham, a precursor to the cotton gin known as a charkhi was already
present in India. The charkhi had two elongated worms that turned its rollers in opposite directions.
The Indian churka was effective at separating seeds from the varieties of cotton grown there, and
possibly for some of the long staple, Sea Island cotton (Gossypium barbadense), but was
inadequate for processing the short staple, green seed cotton
(Gossypium hirsutum) cultivated in
upper South Carolina and Georgia.

The modern cotton gin was later created by the American inventor Eli Whitney in 1792 to mechanize
the production of cotton seeds. The invention was granted a patent on March 14, 1794. The gin was
credited for increasing assets in the American jobs.

There is slight controversy over whether the idea of the cotton gin and its constituent elements are
correctly attributed to Eli Whitney. The popular version of Whitney inventing the cotton gin is
attributed to an article on the subject in the early 1870s and later reprinted in 1910 in the The
Library of Southern Literature. In this article Andrews mentioned how Catherine Littlefield Greene
suggested to Whitney the use of a brush-like component instrumental to separate out the seeds
and cotton. Historians later explored this idea, and some consider that Catherine Littlefield Greene,
Whitney's landlady, should be credited with the invention of the cotton gin, or at least with the
original concept. Women were not eligible to receive patents in the early U.S., and Greene may
have asked Whitney to obtain it for her. Patent office records also indicate that the first cotton gin
may have been built by a machinist named Sean Paul two years before Whitney's patent was filed.
Joseph Watkins, who resided near Petersburg, Georgia is credited by many historians as the first
inventor of the cotton gin, and was using it on his plantation when he was visited by the frustrated
Eli Whitney, who on seeing it went back to Savannah and soon developed his model which he
patented.  Watkins was urged to sue Whitney, but had no desire to engage in a controversy and
never asserted his claim.  Watkins was a planter of large means, who pursued the study and
application of mechanics more for amusement than profit. While the Watkins story had some
romantic adherents, and still others have credited Hodgson Holmes, later publication of certain of
Whitney's papers, including letters to his family during the invention process, showed the claims to
be lacking foundation.

Many people attempted to develop a design that would process short staple cotton and Holmes
was indeed issued a patent for an "Improvement in the Cotton Gin". However, the evidence
indicates that Whitney did invent the saw gin, for which he's 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
off of the device in the single year remaining before patent expiration.

About Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney (December 8, 1765 – January 8, 1825) was an American inventor best known as the
inventor of the cotton gin. This was one of the key inventions of the industrial revolution and shaped
the economy of the antebellum South. Whitney's invention made short staple cotton into a profitable
crop, which strengthened the economic foundation of slavery. Despite the social and economic
impact of his invention, Whitney lost his profits in legal battles over patent infringement, closed his
business, and nearly filed bankruptcy.

Afterward Whitney became a firearms manufacturer who supplied muskets to the United States
government. He spent the remainder of his career promoting the idea of interchangeable parts for
the manufacture of firearms. Although he wasn't the first to propose the concept of interchangeable
parts and never developed a working system of interchangeable parts, he popularized the idea as
a useful manufacturing concept. In order to justify the sale price of his contracted firearms to the
government he developed improvements in cost accounting that included fixed costs that had gone
overlooked in federal estimates for price comparison.

Early life

Whitney was born in Westborough, Massachusetts, on December 8, 1765, the eldest child of Eli
Whitney, a prosperous farmer and his mother, Elizabeth Fay of Westborough, who died when he
was 12. Very early in life he demonstrated his mechanical genius and entrepreneurial acumen,
operating a profitable nail manufacturing operation in his father's workshop during the American
Revolution. Because his stepmother opposed his wish to attend college, Whitney worked as a
farm laborer and schoolteacher to save money. He prepared for Yale at Leicester Academy (now
Becker College) and under the tutelage of Rev.Elizur Goodrich of Durham, Connecticut he entered
the Class of 1792.
Career inventions

Cotton gin

Eli Whitney was inspired to build the cotton gin by observing a cat attempting to pull a chicken
through a fence, and could only pull through some of the feathers.
A single cotton gin could generate up to fifty-five pounds of cleaned cotton daily. This contributed to
the economic development of the Southern states of the United States, a prime cotton growing
area; some historians believe that this invention allowed for the African slavery system in the
Southern United States to become more sustainable at a critical point in its development.

Whitney received a patent (later numbered as X72) for his cotton gin on March 14, 1794; however, it
wasn't validated until 1807. Whitney and his partner Miller didn't intend to sell the gins. Rather, like
the proprietors of grist and sawmills, they expected to charge farmers for cleaning their cotton - two-
fifths of the profits, paid in cotton. Resentment at this scheme, the mechanical simplicity of the
device, and the primitive state of patent law, made infringement inevitable. As Whitney and Miller
were unable to produce enough gins to meet demand, imitation gins began to spread. Ultimately,
patent infringement lawsuits consumed the profits and their cotton gin company went out of
business in 1797.

While the cotton gin didn't earn Whitney the fortune he'd hoped for, it did give him fame and the
cotton gin transformed Southern agriculture and the national economy. Southern cotton found
ready markets in Europe and in the burgeoning textile mills of New England. Cotton agriculture
revived the profitability of slavery and the political power of supporters of the South's "peculiar
institution." By the 1820s, the dominant issues in American politics were driven by "King Cotton":
maintaining the political balance between slave and free states and tariff protection for American
industry. The cotton interests led the country into war with Mexico, expecting a vast expansion of
cotton agriculture

References & Credits
Eli Whitney
Cotton Gin
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