Whitney Invents the Cotton Gin

Eli Whitney invented a machine to separate the useful portion of the cotton plant from its seeds and other extraneous materials. The gin revolutionized methods of agricultural production and increased the demand for slave labor in the American South.

Summary of Event

Eli Whitney was born December 8, 1765, in Westborough, Massachusetts. The eldest of four children in a middle-class farming family, he had exceptional manual dexterity and a very inquisitive mind. The young Whitney particularly enjoyed dismantling mechanical devices and putting them back together. He also liked to build things in his father’s workshop. This early curiosity continued to manifest itself throughout his teenage years and led to a degree from Yale College Yale College in 1792. [kw]Whitney Invents the Cotton Gin (1793)
[kw]Gin, Whitney Invents the Cotton (1793)
[kw]Cotton Gin, Whitney Invents the (1793)
[kw]Invents the Cotton Gin, Whitney (1793)
Cotton gin
[g]United States;1793: Whitney Invents the Cotton Gin[3060]
[c]Inventions;1793: Whitney Invents the Cotton Gin[3060]
[c]Manufacturing;1793: Whitney Invents the Cotton Gin[3060]
[c]Agriculture;1793: Whitney Invents the Cotton Gin[3060]
[c]Science and technology;1793: Whitney Invents the Cotton Gin[3060]
Whitney, Eli
Greene, Catherine
Miller, Phineas
Arkwright, Sir Richard
Cartwright, Edmund
Crompton, Samuel
De Bow, J. D. B.
Hargreaves, James
Ruffin, Edmund
Watt, James

Following his graduation from Yale, Whitney decided to take a position in South Carolina as a tutor. On his journey south, he became acquainted with Catherine Greene, who persuaded him to visit her home near Savannah, Georgia. Whitney decided to stay at the Mulberry Grove plantation. It was there that Greene first suggested to Whitney that he invent a machine to clean the seeds from cotton. According to Whitney’s personal account, he built that first small-scale model of the cotton gin in about ten days. He showed it to Greene and her plantation manager, Phineas Miller, who encouraged Whitney and financed the gin’s development. Whitney made several adaptations to the already existing machines (which he had never seen), and the completed model of the cotton gin took months to finish.

Whitney’s genius did not bring him the financial rewards he expected. The gin was of such great general utility that the South refused to allow anyone a monopoly on production of the machine and, as a result, there was much pirating. Whitney’s problems with the gin and the patent struggles in which he engaged affected his approach to the rest of his industrial career. He was willing to improve the efficiency of his shop only if it did not threaten his security. He designed a musket-barrel-turning machine, for example, but did not build it for fear that competitors would use it to lure away his trained workmen. Whitney’s business abilities were not outstanding. He was primarily interested in the mechanics and efficiency of production, but in those early days an entrepreneur had to be his own chief engineer, foreman, salesperson, and public relations expert. Only in the latter part of the nineteenth century did industrial specialization become common.

Eli Whitney’s cotton gin not only made cotton production more efficient but also, and most significantly, led to increased demand for slaves and slave labor in the American South.

(C.A.Nichols & Company)

The invention of the cotton gin by Whitney was one of several important technological advances during the eighteenth century that revolutionized methods of production and habits of consumption throughout Europe and the United States. Whitney did for the cotton planter what Sir Richard Arkwright, James Hargreaves, Edmund Cartwright, and Samuel Crompton had done for the cotton manufacturer in Great Britain. The cumulative result of the water frame, the spinning jenny, the power loom, and the spinning mule was to increase the demand in England for raw cotton, and the cotton gin made it possible for U.S. planters to meet that demand. The application of steam to these machines greatly increased the output of yarn and cloth, thus serving to intensify the demands made upon cotton plants in the United States.


The growth of the cotton industry in the United States was a major force in the rapid economic development of the nation, and much credit for this fact must go to the invention of the cotton gin. The period of the industry’s greatest growth followed hard upon the end of the War of 1812 War of 1812, in 1815. Cotton production in the United States rose from 364,000 bales in 1815, of which 82 percent was exported, to 4,861,000 bales in 1860, of which 77 percent was exported. By 1860, Great Britain was consuming one quarter of the entire U.S. crop. Cotton was the United States’ leading domestic export. In 1860, the total value of U.S. exports reached $334 million, 57 percent of which was from cotton. If the value of exports of other southern staples, notably tobacco, sugar, and rice, is added to this figure, the contribution of the South to the nation’s export trade approached 65 percent. In spite of these impressive statistics, southerners complained that the fruits of their labor were gathered by other sections of the country.

To a large degree, this charge was accurate. Southern planters sold their crops abroad or to the northeastern states. The market was erratic, varying according to demand and supply; it was sensitive to international incidents and almost impossible to predict. Communications were slow. Planters shipped according to one set of prices, only to find a different set of prices operative when their cargoes arrived in port. Risks at sea were great. The costs of shipment were large and paid in the form of commissions to agents of the planters. These men, called factors, handled every detail of the shipment, in addition to making purchases for, and offering credits to, the planters.

These problems were common to all the participants of the staple trade, but they fell with greater impact, especially after 1830, on the older cotton-producing regions along the South Atlantic coast. There, constant plantings without attention to soil conservation reduced yields per acre while increasing costs of production per unit of crop. South Carolina planters found it extremely difficult to compete with planters on Mississippi’s lush and virgin lands. Economic stagnation and nullification inevitably followed. Another result was an effort on the part of some farsighted southerners to stimulate economic diversification in the region. J. D. B. De Bow of New Orleans and Edmund Ruffin of Virginia were among those who preached the virtues of scientific agriculture, industrialization, and transportation improvements.

The dramatic growth of the cotton plantation was more than a matter of production statistics and marketing problems. It was the story of great movements of population into the lush lands of the lower Mississippi River Valley. It was also the story of the master and the slave. To some historians, particularly those from the South, it was the story of the evolution of a culture distinct from that of other regions. Most historians, including those who deny the concept of cultural distinctiveness, agree that by the 1850’s—according to most economic indices—the South was in a manifestly inferior position, perhaps in a colonial position, relative to the North. Most also would agree that the institution of slavery was a major cause of this inferiority.

The North was not an industrial area in 1860, although strong beginnings had been made in some parts. The North was basically agrarian African slaves
Slavery;cotton gin but was more industrialized than the South. This meant that the North offered more nonagricultural opportunities for economic advancement. The agricultural sector in the North was based on the small farm. In the South, by contrast, small farmers found it increasingly difficult to compete with the plantation.

The size of individual landholdings increased markedly in the South after 1840, while farms became smaller in the North. The population of the North was compact; the plantation system dispersed population in the South, retarding southern town and city development. Fewer urban areas meant there were fewer commercial and banking facilities in the South, which, in turn, meant a slow rate of capital formation and presented difficulties to those wishing to diversify or undertake transportation improvement. Fewer inducements were available to attract skilled labor, and the fear of competing with slaves was also an obstacle. At the same time, the need for unskilled labor—specifically African American slave labor—was increasing as the South struggled to meet the growing demand for cotton made possible by the new technology. Southern states (United States)

The effect of all these factors was to make the South economically weaker than the North, although the South was integrated in the budding national economy. The South was neither distinct nor unique, but as pressures on, and criticism (particularly abolitionist criticism) of, the South accumulated, southerners created the myth of their cultural uniqueness. Whitney’s invention had done much to make this myth—and a growing North-South schism—possible.

Further Reading

  • Aitken, Hugh G. J., ed. Did Slavery Pay? Readings in the Economics of Black Slavery in the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971. Essays consider the effects of slavery on the southern economy. Provides examples of the traditional perspective on the economic dimensions of slavery.
  • Andrews, Mildred Gwin. The Men and the Mills: A History of the Southern Textile Industry. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1987. Chronicles the development of the southern textile industry from the 1800’s to the later 1980’s. Glossary of terms, illustrations, photographs, and comprehensive bibliography.
  • Batchelder, Samuel. Introduction and Early Progress of the Cotton Manufacture in the United States. Boston: Little, Brown, 1863. Reprint. Clifton, N.J.: August M. Kelley, 1972. This study is considered to be an economic classic.
  • Britton, Karen Gerhardt. Bale O’Cotton: The Mechanical Art of Cotton Ginning. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1992. Chronicles the history of the American cotton ginning industry from its origins in 1793 to the late twentieth century. Examines the folklore associated with the industry.
  • Fogel, Robert William. Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989. A thorough interpretation of the institution of slavery in the United States. Fogel supports his analyses with almost one hundred pages of notes and references.
  • Fogel, Robert William, and Stanley L. Egnerman. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974. A controversial but important revisionist look at the economic and social foundations of slavery in the U.S. South, using quantitative methods and previously neglected sources of information.
  • Green, Constance McLaughlin. “The Invention of the Cotton Gin.” In Eli Whitney and the Birth of American Technology. Boston: Little, Brown, 1956. One of the best accounts of the events leading up to and surrounding Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin.
  • Lakwete, Angela. Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in Antebellum America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Places the invention of the cotton gin within a historical and global context. Lakwete describes early gins invented in Africa and Asia, the earliest gins used in the United States, and the innovations of Whitney and other inventors. She refutes the argument that the slavery-based antebellum southern states had a primitive economy, maintaining that the use of the cotton gin provides proof of innovation, industrialization, and modernization.
  • Stapleton, Darwin H. “Eli Whitney and the American System of Manufacturing.” In Technology in America: A History of Individuals and Ideas, edited by Carroll W. Pursell. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990. Summarizes Whitney’s contributions to U.S. technology.

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