Chronicles of America 

Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin

The cotton industry is one of the most ancient. One or more of the many species of the cotton plant is indigenous to four continents, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, and the manufacture of the fiber into yarn and cloth seems to have developed independently in each of them. We find mention of cotton in India fifteen hundred years before Christ. The East Indians, with only the crudest machinery, spun yarn and wove cloth as diaphanous as the best appliances of the present day have been able to produce.

Alexander the Great introduced the "vegetable wool" into Europe. The fable of the "vegetable lamb of Tartary" persisted almost down to modern times. The Moors cultivated cotton in Spain on an extensive scale, but after their expulsion the industry languished. The East India Company imported cotton fabrics into England early in the seventeenth century, and these fabrics made their way in spite of the bitter opposition of the woolen interests, which were at times strong enough to have the use of cotton cloth prohibited by law. But when the Manchester spinners took up the manufacture of cotton, the fight was won. 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.

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.

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. 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.

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 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 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 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.

Like so many young New Englanders of the time, 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:

"New Haven, Sept. 11th, 1793.

". . . I went from N. 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 Philadelphia1 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'2. 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. 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 invention, however, could not be kept "a profound secret," for knowledge of it was already out in the cotton country. 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 Whitney could obtain his patent, cotton gins based on his were being manufactured and used.

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 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.

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. "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."3 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.

Misfortune pursued the partners from the beginning. 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 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 Whitney in September, 1797. Miller and Whitney brought suits against the infringers but they could obtain no redress in the courts.

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 the CANDID that this is quite a mistaken notion and them that WILL NOT 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 to HELL in search of HAPPINESS as apply to a Georgia Court for Justice." And again: "You know I always believed in the 'DEPRAVITY OF HUMAN 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."4

Miller and Whitney were somewhat more fortunate in other States than in Georgia though they nowhere received from the cotton gin enough to compensate them for their time and trouble nor more than a pitiable fraction of the great value of their invention. South Carolina, in 1801, voted them fifty thousand dollars for their patent rights, twenty thousand dollars to be paid down and the remainder in three annual payments of ten thousand dollars each. "We get but a song for it," wrote Whitney, "in comparison with the worth of the thing, but it is securing something." Why the partners were willing to take so small a sum was later explained by Miller. They valued the rights for South Carolina at two hundred thousand dollars, but, since the patent law was being infringed with impunity, they were willing to take half that amount; "and had flattered themselves," wrote Miller, "that a sense of dignity and justice on the part of that honorable body [the Legislature] would not have countenanced an offer of a less sum than one hundred thousand dollars. Finding themselves, however, to be mistaken in this opinion, and entertaining a belief that the failure of such negotiation, after it commenced, would have a tendency to diminish the prospect, already doubtful, of enforcing the Patent Law, it was concluded to be best under existing circumstances to accept the very inadequate sum of fifty thousand dollars offered by the Legislature and thereby relinquish and entirely abandon three-fourths of the actual value of the property."

But even the fifty thousand dollars was not collected without difficulty. South Carolina suspended the contract, after paying twenty thousand dollars, and sued Miller and Whitney for recovery of the sum paid, on the ground that the partners had not complied with the conditions. Whitney succeeded, in 1805, in getting the Legislature to reinstate the contract and pay him the remainder of the money. Miller, discouraged and broken by the long struggle, had died in the meantime.

The following passage from a letter written by Whitney in February, 1805, to Josiah Stebbins, gives Whitney's views as to the treatment he had received at the hands of the authorities. He is writing from the residence of a friend near Orangeburg, South Carolina.

"The principal object of my present excursion to this Country was to get this business set right; which I have so far effected as to induce the Legislature of this State to recind all their former SUSPENDING LAWS and RESOLUTIONS, to agree once more to pay the sum of 30,000 Dollars which was due and make the necessary appropriations for that purpose. I have as yet however obtained but a small part of this payment. The residue is promised me in July next. Thus you see my RECOMPENSE OF REWARD is as the land of Canaan was to the Jews, resting a long while in promise. If the Nations with whom I have to contend are not as numerous as those opposed to the Israelites, they are certainly much greater HEATHENS, having their hearts hardened and their understanding blinded, to make, propagate and believe all manner of lies. Verily, Stebbins, I have had much vexation of spirit in this business. I shall spend forty thousand dollars to obtain thirty, and it will all end in vanity at last. A contract had been made with the State of Tennessee which now hangs SUSPENDED. Two attempts have been made to induce the State of No. Carolina to RECIND their CONTRACT, neither of which have succeeded. Thus you see Brother Steb. Sovreign and Independent States warped by INTEREST will be ROGUES and misled by Demagogues will be FOOLS. They have spent much time, MONEY and CREDIT, to avoid giving me a small compensation, for that which to them is worth millions."

Meanwhile North Carolina had agreed to buy the rights for the State on terms that yielded Whitney about thirty thousand dollars, and it is estimated that he received about ten thousand dollars from Tennessee, making his receipts in all about ninety thousand dollars, before deducting costs of litigation and other losses. The cotton gin was not profitable to its inventor. And yet no invention in history ever so suddenly transformed an industry and created enormous wealth. Eight years before Whitney's invention, eight bales of cotton, landed at Liverpool, were seized on the ground that so large a quantity of cotton could not have been produced in the United States. The year before that invention the United States exported less than one hundred and forty thousand pounds of cotton; the year after it, nearly half a million pounds; the next year over a million and a half; a year later still, over six million; by 1800, nearly eighteen million pounds a year. And by 1845 the United States was producing producing seven-eighths of the world's cotton. Today the United States produces six to eight billion pounds of cotton annually, and ninety-nine per cent of this is the upland or green-seed cotton, which is cleaned on the Whitney type of gin and was first made commercially available by Whitney's invention.5

More than half of this enormous crop is still exported in spite of the great demand at home. Cotton became and has continued to be the greatest single export of the United States. In ordinary years its value is greater than the combined value of the three next largest exports. It is on cotton that the United States has depended for the payment of its trade balance to Europe.

Other momentous results followed on the invention of the cotton gin. In 1793 slavery seemed a dying institution, North and South. Conditions of soil and climate made slavery unprofitable in the North. On many of the indigo, rice, and tobacco plantations in the South there were more slaves than could be profitably employed, and many planters were thinking of emancipating their slaves, when along came this simple but wonderful machine and with it the vision of great riches in cotton; for while slaves could not earn their keep separating the cotton from its seeds by hand, they could earn enormous profits in the fields, once the difficulty of extracting the seeds was solved. Slaves were no longer a liability but an asset. The price of "field hands" rose, and continued to rise. If the worn-out lands of the seaboard no longer afforded opportunity for profitable employment, the rich new lands of the Southwest called for laborers, and yet more laborers. Taking slaves with them, younger sons pushed out into the wilderness, became possessed of great tracts of fertile land, and built up larger plantations than those upon which they had been born. Cotton became King of the South.

The supposed economic necessity of slave labor led great men to defend slavery, and politics in the South became largely the defense of slavery against the aggression, real or fancied, of the free North. The rift between the sections became a chasm. Then came the War of Secession.

Though Miller was dead, Whitney carried on the fight for his rights in Georgia. His difficulties were increased by a patent which the Government at Philadelphia issued in May, 1796, to Hogden Holmes, a mechanic of Augusta, for an improvement in the cotton gin. The Holmes machines were soon in common use, and it was against the users of these that many of the suits for infringement were brought. Suit after suit ran its course in the Georgia courts, without a single decision in the inventor's favor. At length, however, in December, 1806, the validity of Whitney's patent was finally determined by decision of the United States Circuit Court in Georgia. Whitney asked for a perpetual injunction against the Holmes machine, and the court, finding that his invention was basic, granted him all that he asked.

By this time, however, the life of the patent had nearly run its course. Whitney applied to Congress for a renewal, but, in spite of all his arguments and a favorable committee report, the opposition from the cotton States proved too strong, and his application was denied. Whitney now had other interests. He was a great manufacturer of firearms, at New Haven, and as such we shall meet him again in a later chapter.


  1. Then the national capital.
  2. Hammond, "Correspondence of Eli Whitney," American Historical Review, vol. III, p. 99.
  3. Tompkins, "Cotton and Cotton Oil", p. 86.
  4. Cited in Roe, "English and American Tool Builders", p. 153.
  5. Roe, "English and American Tool Builders", pp. 150-51.