March 14: Eli Whitney Patents the Machine He Thought Would Help End Slavery.

 

Today in 1794, Eli Whitney, one of Connecticut’s most influential inventors, received a patent for the Cotton Gin, a machine that revolutionized cotton production by optimizing the laborious task of cleaning seeds from raw cotton bolls.

An engraving of Eli Whitney from a 19th century biography.

Born in Massachusetts in 1765, Eli had exhibited both interest in, and talent at, manufacturing early in life, working as a blacksmith and pin-maker while just a teenager. As a bright and multi-talented young man, but one who had considerable difficulty dedicating himself to any one profession, Whitney decided to enter Yale College at 23. This was an unusual choice for someone his age, as at that time, most college students were teenagers. After graduating in 1792, Whitney headed south to seek employment as a tutor.

While sailing toward South Carolina, he met Catherine Greene, widow of the famous Revolutionary War general Nathanial Greene and close friend of Hartford’s Jeremiah Wadsworth.  Greene invited Whitney to stay at her fiancé’s plantation near Savannah, Georgia. There, Whitney witnessed firsthand the severe economic and agricultural limitations that resulted from the inability to profitably produce a high-demand cash crop. Many farmers, including John Jones, Catherine Greene’s fiancé, attempted to grow short-staple cotton but their efforts to make this crop profitable were frustrated by the difficulty their enslaved laborers experienced when manually separating the sticky cotton seeds from the cotton fibers. Encouraged by Mrs. Greene, Whitney invented a solution to that profit-paralyzing problem in 1793: An engine, or “gin,” that could mechanically pick out seeds from raw cotton by pulling the fibers through a fine metal mesh with a toothed wheel. Each of Whitney’s hand-cranked “cotton gins” could process 50 pounds of cotton per day, many, many times more than could be processed manually. Larger, horse-pulled versions could handle even greater quantities. The new gin instantly transformed southern agriculture. Overnight, it made growing short-staple cotton an incredibly profitable enterprise.

An illustration of  ensalved southern men using a cotton gin, from an 1869 issue of Harper’s Weekly magazine.

An illustration of southern slaves using a cotton gin, from an 1869 issue of Harper’s Weekly magazine.

Whitney received a patent for his revolutionary invention on March 14, 1794. Optimistically, he believed his invention, by reducing the need for enslaved labor, would help hasten the end of southern slavery, while making Whitney himself a wealthy man. He was wrong on both counts.

Owing to the high fees he decided to charge for licensing his new device, his cotton gin design was widely pirated throughout the South, and Whitney spent a decade fruitlessly fighting patent infringements in court — an uphill battle that left him nearly penniless by the time he turned 40.

Whitney returned to Connecticut in 1804, and turned his attention to transforming arms manufacturing. Here, he met with commercial and financial success. He invented a system of making rifles with interchangeable parts at his workshop in Hamden that proved instrumental in the rise of New England as an industrial power.

While Whitney made rifles, cotton cultivation – thanks to the much-pirated cotton gin – continued to spread through the expanding southern states like wildfire. Demand for new lands on which to grow cotton became insatiable, and cotton production doubled every 10 years. With it came a sharp increase in demand for enslaved labor and expansion of the country’s dehumanizing internal slave trade. Tragically, the invention Whitney had thought would end slavery actually triggered the expansion of that “peculiar institution” to such a degree that, within six decades, it would lead to the United States Civil War. One of antebellum America’s greatest ironies was first ginned up, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading:

The Cotton Gin,” Eli Whitney Museum & Workshop

The Cotton Gin & Eli Whitney,” history.com