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Cotton gin

A Brief History of the Cotton Gin

Cotton gin

Planters and farmers in the late 1700s were struggling with ways to increase cotton production. Picking cotton was extremely labor intensive. Not only was it difficult, back-breaking work for the laborers, but production was slowed by the fact that it took such a long time to separate by hand the seedpods and the seeds from the cotton. One worker could only produce one pound a day of clean, deseeded cotton. This just wasn’t fast enough to keep up with the production needed.

Having heard of the woes the growers faced, a young Eli Whitney who had recently graduated from Yale University and was tutoring on a Georgia plantation decided he would try his hand at improving the cotton picking process. Eli Whitney was born in Westborough, Massachusetts in 1765. Early on in his life he took a keen interest in machinery.

Whitney’s father owned a woodworking shop. Whitney could often be found here taking apart clocks and pocket watches and then putting them back together again. By the age of fourteen, he had started his own nail and pin making business.

With his strong interest in machinery and mechanics, Eli Whitney began to experiment in 1792 to find a solution to help solve the cotton growers’ problems. In 1793 he arrived at the basic design of the cotton gin. The machine he made features a wooden cylinder with spikes that comb debris out from the cotton fibers. Whitney’s machine could clean 50 pounds of cotton a day. The cotton gin hugely impacted the cotton industry.

To give an idea of the significance of the cotton gin’s impact, in 1792 before the cotton gin was invented, 180,000 pounds of cotton were produced. By 1794, just a year after the cotton gin was in use, cotton production increased to 6 million pounds. The cotton gin created quite a dramatic increase.

It no took hundreds of man hours needed to clean newly picked cotton. The cotton cleaning process could now be fully automated thanks to Eli Whitney’s invention which revolutionized the cotton industry. The Southern states where cotton farming was a primary source of revenue found that the cotton gin made cotton production very profitable.

Due to the increased supply of cotton that was produced, the price of cotton cloth dropped substantially, making it much more affordable to the masses. Prior to the invention of the cotton gin, cotton cloth had been very expensive and thus not available to the masses. The cotton gin changed all this. Manufacturing boomed in the Northeastern United States as factories took the Southern grown cotton and converted it to cloth. Many fortunes were made as a result of the invention of the cotton gin.

Unfortunately for Eli Whitney, his luck at profiting from his invention was not as good. Whitney was unable to get an exclusive patent on his cotton gin until 1802, which was several years after his invention came to be used. By this time many imitators had entered into the marketplace and created their own versions of the cotton gin.

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.