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The Cotton Gin in American History

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Interior of a Cotton Gin

Interior of a Cotton Gin

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection

Background:

The cotton gin is a machine designed to remove cotton from its seeds. The process uses a small screen and pulling hooks to force the cotton through the screen. It was invented by Eli Whitney on March 14, 1794, one of the many inventions that occurred during the American Industrial Revolution. However, earlier versions of the cotton gin had existed since the first century. It was improved over time from a single roller design to a double roller machine.

Historical Significance of the Cotton Gin:

The cotton gin made the cotton industry of the south explode. Previous to its invention, separating cotton fibers from its seeds was a labor intensive and unprofitable venture. However, after Eli Whitney unveiled the cotton gin, processing cotton became much easier resulting in greater availability and cheaper cloth. However, the invention also had the by-product of increasing the number of slaves needed to pick the cotton thereby strengthening the arguments for continuing slavery. Cotton as a cash crop became so important that it was known as King Cotton and affected politics up until the Civil War.

Interesting Trivia:

 

  • Eli Whitney made very little money off of his invention. Many farmers duplicated his cotton gin without paying royalties.
  • Whitney did not intend to sell the cotton gin. Instead, he planned to make a profit by separating the cotton for farmers.
  • Some believe that the brush part of the cotton gin was suggested by Catherine Greene.

 

Further Information:

About.com's Inventors Guide has a great article on the cotton gin including further information on how it works.

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