Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin
Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin
Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin

Eli Whitney (1765-1825) invented the cotton gin in 1793. This machine revolutionized the production of cotton by quickly and efficiently separating the usable fibers from the seeds. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin produced ½ a bale of usable cotton a day.

Design
A Drawing of Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin
A Drawing of Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin

Eli Whitney’s cotton gin consisted of a rotating wooden drum covered in “teeth.” That would pull the cotton through a mesh. The spacing of the mesh was small enough that the cotton was able to be pulled through, but prevented the seeds from being pulled through. This design greatly increased the speed at which cotton could be produced.
The mechanical simplicity of the cotton gin, Whitney’s decision to not sell the cotton gins for private use, and weak patent laws ensured wide spread infringement on Whitney’s design. As a result Whitney was unable to receive compensation for his invention until the last two years of the patent. However this piracy allowed for constant improvements to the design. Soon after Whitney invented ½ bale a day gin, improvements led to gins which would produce 6 bales a day. This increased efficiency directly corresponded to an increase in profit margin and the technology quickly spread.


Economic Impactexternal image Cotton_gin_harpers.jpg
The industrialization vaulted the cotton industry to the top of the southern economy. As the process grew continually more efficient, the demand for raw cotton increased. In 1790, cotton production in the United States was only 3,135 bales per year. A mere two years after Whitney’s cotton gin was patented, production jumped to 16,719 bales per year. To produce the raw cotton required, farmers and plantations increased their labor force, mainly through slavers. From the years, 1790 to 1800, the number of slaves in America increased by 200,000. This increase was equal to roughly a third of the slave population prior to 1790.
The South, an agricultural economy, became dependent on the cotton industry, which was equally dependent on a large slave base to grow the cotton. Increasingly, the South needed its slaves to be economically competitive as the north and other nations industrialized. Their reliance on slavery translated into an increased reluctance to emancipate their slaves, and increased distrust of Northern policies aimed at equality.