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How the Cotton Gin Works

The cotton gin which was invented by Eli Whitney in 1793 was a revolutionary machine.
The term gin comes from the abbreviation for the word engine. The cotton gin changed the entire cotton growing industry. Prior to the cotton gin’s invention, workers had to pick out seed pods and seeds from the cotton by hand. This method was extremely tedious and unproductive. Each worker was only able to produce one pound of clean cotton a day this way.

Once the cotton gin came into service, production increased dramatically. A cotton gin could produce 55 pounds of clean cotton a day or 55 times that of a human worker. Such a dramatic increase in production had a huge impact on the industry, making cotton much more profitable to grow.

The cotton gin is actually a pretty simple machine. Cotton grows in what are known as bolls. First the cotton bolls are fed into the top of the machine. Inside the cotton gin there is a rotating wooden roller that has small spiky wire teeth hammered into it. The wooden cylinder is rotated by cranking it. When the cylinder rotates, the teeth snare the cotton fibers of the boll and pull the fiber strands through a grate. The slots in this grate are set too close together for cotton seeds to pass through. The fibers are stripped away from the seeds. Basically, the seeds are combed out of the cotton.

Cotton production rose significantly thanks to the cotton gin. In 1792 180,000 pounds of cotton were produced. Just two years later 6 million pounds were produced, thanks to the cotton gin. Eventually there came to be water and horse powered versions of the cotton gin which increased cotton yield even further.

Cotton cloth had been very expensive before the invention of the cotton gin. Afterwards, cotton cloth became the top selling textile in the world. Cotton was affordable and became the number one cash crop in the United States. The cotton gin really helped to change our nation, and the world, as it encouraged more cotton growth down South and factory growth in the Northeast and England.

Unfortunately Eli Whitney was not able to patent his design for several years after his initial invention. Many copied his design, resulting in Whitney not profiting from the cotton gin nearly as much as he could have. Planters bought gins to process cotton grown on the plantation. Factories were created to house gins and process the cotton.

Modern day cotton gins still operate with the same basic concept that Eli Whitney devised. However, additional services have been added to the original cotton gin design. Now gins can dry the cotton, moisturize it, sort it, clean it and bale it into bundles, getting the cotton completely ready for sale.

These steps have expedited the cotton trade for the modern grower. Nowadays the cotton gin is a one stop shop for cotton processing. Thanks to electric power and high velocity air blasting, fully automated modern cotton gins are able to produce 15 tons of cleaned cotton per hour.

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1 Comment

  1. AP Human Geography » Blog Archive » The Cotton Gin · November 24, 2009

    […] design of the cotton gin, a great example of material culture in his time. This prototype gin could separate and clean fifty pounds of cotton per day, aside from previously when laborers could only clean about a pound, […]

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